Earth’s Adolescent Phase

Remember that scene in Back to the Future where Marty McFly goes back in time, dons a radiation suit, visits his future father, George, in the middle of the night, and identifies himself as Darth Vader from the Planet Vulcan

As the scene begins, the camera pans across a couple of magazines at George’s bedside—the sci-fi classics Amazing Stories and Fantastic Story, the latter with an image of an alien invader on the cover. George is convinced he’s come face-to-face with an extraterrestrial being.

Adam Frank | 13.8 Blog Contributor for ORBITER mag

Adam Frank

Adam Frank laughs when he’s reminded of the scene, because George McFly’s nighttime reading reminds him very much of his own father, who subscribed to those magazines when Adam was a boy—“you know,” says Frank, “those pulp science fiction stories.

“I have a very clear memory of being about five years old and going into his library and staring at the covers of those magazines. They had, like, dudes in Michelin Tire astronaut suits bouncing around on jagged cliffs on the moon or tethered to spaceships, and it blew me away. From that point onward, I just wanted to learn more about space and astronomy – I’ve never wanted to do anything else. I caught the passion early, and I never got rid of it.”

Which is good news for everyone else. We’ve benefitted from Frank’s research, writing, speaking, and general spreader of the good news of science for years, including through his recently released book, Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth.

Frank, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester, is co-founder of the late 13.7: Cosmos and Culture blog at NPR, now hosted at ORBITER as 13.8.

We recently chatted with him about his new book, his belief that other alien civilizations likely have existed, how we should process climate change, and how his dad stirred his passion for science.

ORBITER: Besides his cool magazines, how else did your dad influence your love of science?

Adam Frank: He put books in my hand throughout my life—like when I was probably 12, he gave me Dune and The Foundation Series. So, much of my passion for science is also a passion for science fiction. Another time, I was about 7 or 8, I was on the porch during a thunderstorm, and I was terrified of the thunder. Dad said, “Oh, you don’t need to be afraid. It’s just . . .” And he just laid out the story of electrons flowing from the clouds to the earth and the expansion of the air because of the super-heating. I remember being like, “Oh, okay. There’s no point in being afraid,” because he had given me this beautiful physical explanation.

Were you considered a science nerd in school?

Yeah, particularly in junior high school, I was a super nerd, because I loved comic books too. I was also the only Jew in a tough north Jersey neighborhood of mostly Irish and Italian working-class people, so I got my butt kicked a lot, literally. By the time I got into high school, I’d become kind of the class clown, because I learned if I just got into trouble a lot for being an idiot that I could raise my own social status. I got sent to the principal a lot. I got suspended so many times from 10th grade to 12th grade, I lost track. But when they’d pull me out of physics class for some stupid thing I’d done, I’d be like, “You can’t pull me out of physics class! Do you know how important that is to me?”

You refer to yourself as an “evangelist of science” on your website. Tell me about that.

I’m just in love with science and with what science does. To me, science is more than just a practice. There’s a philosophy—dare I say a spiritual quality—to doing science. It opens your eyes to what’s going on right in front of you, where you normally would not even pay attention, whether it’s the starry night or an anthill.

This is what my first book was about, science and sacredness. When I was a young man, one of my great influences was Carl Sagan. He was so erudite, with great descriptions. He would tell you something about 15th century Venice as a way of telling you about relativity or something. I learned so much history and philosophy and so many ideas from his writing that that’s what I wanted to do as well. I wanted to show people how science is a gateway to the profound beauty of being alive. Science is this incredibly powerful means not only of making our lives better materially, but also it’s a way of having your eyes opened so that the life you live is richer.

That pretty much defies the stereotype of a scientist being a nerdy dude in a lab coat, hunkered down at his microscope with zero social skills.

Well, anybody who’s a scientist definitely has some—maybe it’s the wrong way of saying it—level of OCD, right? To be a scientist, there’s got to be a certain level of detail fixation. But I think people have these ideas about scientists even though they’ve never met any, you know? Most of the scientists I know, we’re all kind of nerdy, but most of them are actually pretty outgoing, and they’ve got really interesting lives.

Let’s talk about your new book, Light of the Stars: Aliens Worlds and the Fate of the Earth. What’s the elevator pitch?

The elevator pitch is basically that it’s climate change for aliens. In my work, I deal with a lot of people who are in climate change denial. I’ve seen that accelerate over the years to the remarkably terrible position we’re in now.

One of the things I’ve realized is that the way we talk about climate change is wrong, and the right story can only be told by taking what I call the 10,000-light-year view. Understanding climate change requires a radical transformation in understanding ourselves and this project of civilization that we’ve been building for the last 10,000 years. And what you see from that view is that climate change, in some sense, was inevitable. If you build a world-girdling, high-tech civilization, of course you’re going to trigger climate change; there’s no way to avoid it.

And you understand this even better when you consider that we are most likely not the first civilization in cosmic history. We’ve published papers on the [unlikely] probability that we’re the only time there’s ever been a civilization. There have been other civilizations over cosmic space and time, and the argument is that they almost all trigger some version of climate change. So what we’re going through now is not so much a problem to be done away with, but a difficult and dangerous transition that must be navigated. What I mean by that is, we’re going through adolescence. Nobody looks at an adolescent and says, “Oh, my God! We’ve got to stop your adolescence!” Right? It’s like, “What we have to do is help you get through your adolescence, so that you can be wise and compassionate and responsible.”

Assuming there have been other civilizations that have gone through climate change, how does that help us? I mean, we can’t observe what happened. We can only guess.

Actually, we don’t have to guess. Once we understand that we’re not the first to go through this, we can take all the physics and chemistry we understand about climate and apply it. When it comes to thinking about planets and climate evolution, you don’t just have Earth’s history to look at. We have Mars, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and Titan [Saturn’s largest moon], and all of these worlds we have studied in detail. That means we now know how to think like a planet.

We’ve unpacked Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history to the point where we can see that Earth has had many worlds. Earth was a water world before there were continents, and a snowball world that went through extreme states of glaciation. All of these different worlds were driven by transformations of life. We can use all that information to do science about what happens when a civilization evolves on a planet with its biosphere.

So, what use is this knowledge? We all want to create a sustainable version of human civilization, but how do we know the universe does that, that long-term, sustainable civilizations are part of the universe? Because if it turns out they’re not, then we’re hosed, right?

One way to begin to understand the answer to that problem is by taking everything we know about planets and how they respond to having a huge amount of energy dumped into them—which is what a civilization is—and we can start to run models of that process. We recently published a paper where we ran models and found three very broad classes of trajectories for civilizations and planets evolving together. And luckily, one of them was sustainability—the planet and the civilization coming into a long-term, steady state together. The planet is changed, but not so much that the civilization can’t exist anymore. So that’s good news.

But now the bad news. One of our models showed collapse, where the population just overshot the carrying capacity of the planet. By changing the planet, the planet went off into a runaway, and the civilization died. Another trajectory showed a drop-off of maybe 70 percent of the population before the planet returned to sustainability.

Now, you can say, “That’s just simulations,” but that’s the beginning. That’s where we start.

You mentioned a planet’s biosphere. What is that, and what role does it play for Earth?

Vladimir Vernadsky, the great Russian geophysicist, came up with the idea. The biosphere is the sum total of all life on the planet, working together and driving effects on the rest of the planet. People like James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis came up with their Gaia hypothesis in the 1970s—this idea that the biosphere is the dominant player on the planet. The biosphere long ago hijacked the planet and its other spheres—the hydrosphere, the cryosphere, the atmosphere, and the lithosphere. The Earth is all these different interacting systems, and life is really the one that has really driven the evolution of the planet.

So when I say we have to think like a planet, we have to understand how life can come to dominate the chemical evolution of, say, the atmosphere—which is what’s happening with climate change. That’s very important. And that’s why this view I’m advocating really changes how we think about our place in nature: From the biosphere’s perspective, a city is no different from a forest. It’s just the result of the biosphere’s endless evolutionary innovation. Instead of thinking, “Humans! We’re a plague on the planet! We suck!”—well, that thinking is completely wrong and unhelpful. Because we are just what the biosphere is doing now. And the climate change we’re driving, the biosphere will pick up on and create new evolutionary innovations out of that in the long term.

But if we’re not careful, we humans aren’t going to be part of the biosphere anymore. We will have kicked the planet into states that civilization can’t function anymore. So really what’s going on here is that we are part of yet another round of evolutionary innovation by the biosphere, and our job now—if we want to still be around in another thousand years—is to figure out how to come into a cooperative relationship with the biosphere. What do we have to do in order to create a planet where we can be a long-term civilization.

Well, what do we have to do?

The most fundamental thing is infrastructure. Our fossil fuel energy infrastructure has got to go; that’s the single most important thing. And we can do it, because we have changed infrastructures many times before.

There’s a place here in Rochester where I can stand on the Erie Canal. A train line which was built in 1890 runs over the Erie Canal. And then a couple of hundred meters away is a highway. And overhead, planes are flying and landing at the airport. That’s four different infrastructures that we put in, in less than 200 years. Each of those infrastructures cost unbelievable amounts of money and toil to make the changes. So to say that switching fossil fuels to a renewable energy is somehow impossible, or that we can’t do it, well, that’s just crazy.

To say we can’t, is almost like saying the canal industry kept the train from ever being built—like they convinced the public that trains were terrible, and you shouldn’t ride in trains, and they stopped the train industry from ever going. That’s exactly what’s happening now with denial.

Why do you think there’s so much denial?

Part of it is economic, because it is costly to change. But that doesn’t answer all of it. I think it’s a lot about tribalism. For most climate denialists, it’s like, “Oh, I’m not a liberal, and only liberals believe in climate change,” and I’m like, “The Gulf Stream doesn’t care who you voted for, you know?” It’s mind-blowing.

People will say incredibly dumb things like, “Hey, the climate’s always changing.” And I’m like, “Are you kidding? My freshmen know that’s BS.” It’s a statement of such utter and profound ignorance of the most basic aspects of geoscience, but for most climate denialists, it has nothing to do with the science. They don’t understand the science, and they don’t even really care.

Getting back to my new book, that’s why I really believe this perspective can flip the script on climate change. Here’s the most radical thing I can say to the denialists: “Climate change is not our fault. What I mean by that is that we didn’t do it on purpose. We were harvesting energy to do the work of civilization. We’ve been doing that for 10,000 years. This time, 150 years ago, we discovered this goo which was awesome for building civilization.

Oil and coal are great for this. So we used it, and we did great things with it. It wasn’t like we were twirling our dark mustaches and saying, “Bwahaha, I will destroy the world!” It was an unintended consequence of civilization building. So we can stop with this human hating.

Climate change is not our fault. But now that we know about it, if we don’t do anything, that is our fault and our folly. It’ll be the reason why we’re going to end up in the scrap heap of civilizations. When you accept that there’s another exo-civilization, like ours, then you realize some of them made it through, some of them didn’t. Just like adolescents, right? Some teenagers make it through; some don’t. The climate deniers will be the reason we don’t make it through—if we can’t marshal the evolutionary changes we need to make to deal with climate change.

So, that’s the better story? To lighten up on guilt-tripping humans about climate change, and to basically just say it’s a phase we’re going through, like adolescence?

That’s one of the most important aspects of the new story. Because the new story is fundamentally hopeful. The new story is like, “Wow! Look! You changed the climate! You changed the chemistry of an entire atmosphere! Not bad for a bunch of hairless monkeys.”

There’s a certain way in which climate change shows how far we’ve come. Now we can go farther, right? What happens when you make it through adolescence? You end up with all this great stuff you can do as an adult. That’s what it is for humanity, and that’s part of the story flipping. Enough with the human hating.

But the other part of the story is recognizing that our future is going to come from a compassionate re-imagining of our place in the biosphere. Because we’re not going to make it to the next step just by switching infrastructures. Every infrastructure is going to have impact. There’s no such thing as a free lunch when it comes to building a civilization. So we’re going to have to be very creative in thinking about our identity with the rest of the biosphere. We’ve got to come into some kind of cooperative relationship with it.

So, to me, there’s a deep philosophical re-imagining of what we are. Human beings, we’re not a one-off. Across the universe, we are part of this process by which planets develop life. Sometimes that life goes on to intelligence. When intelligence happens, the planets wake up, and in order to be long-term sustainable, the intelligent life has to work with the rest of the biosphere. You don’t just mash it down and make it do whatever you want it to do. You’ve got to become part of the biosphere’s thought.

Even if we learn how to do that, should we assume that we won’t be here forever, that some day, human civilization will be extinct—when the sun explodes or we’re hit by an asteroid? Someday, something will doom humanity, right?

Right. Every civilization has a finite lifetime. Or we evolve into something entirely different, you know? Imagine a million years of evolution ahead of us. Who knows? Maybe this is the fate of all long-term civilizations, that you become as the gods, you know? You become the powers that maybe climb into the laws of physics. Who knows? Come on, just give us that opportunity, you know?

Managing Editor, ORBITER magazine