KRWG

Adam Frank

We live in a unique moment of human history where the tools our parents used are not the ones we take in hand.

The pace of technological (and hence societal) change is so fast now, compared with a few centuries ago, that we've developed an entire branch of storytelling dedicated to imagining where those changes are headed. It's called science fiction and — whether you like its forms or not — it has already changed your life.

Just before Thanksgiving, the Internet lit up with the remarkable video of Boston Dynamics' robot Atlas doing a backflip.

In the Spring of 2009, the H1N1/09 virus — dubbed "swine flu" — made the jump from pigs to people and began claiming its first victims.

Fearing the beginning of a global swine flu pandemic, terrified health officials began planning for the worst. Shutting down the world's major airports became the nuclear option of their arsenal — the last hope for halting the virus from reaching unstoppable thresholds of contagion.

There are some authors you go to for good stories — and others you go to for good ideas.

Then there are those who do both, giving readers complex characters, richly imagined stories and, finally, ideas that reach beyond the narrative to change how you see the world.

Every day, we are inching closer to some kind of artificial intelligence.

At this point, it isn't so important whether we're talking about truly self-conscious machines or not. Advances in big data, machine learning and robotics are all poised to give us a world in which computers are effectively intelligent in terms of how we deal with them.

Should you be scared by this proposition? Based on a lecture I just attended, my answer is: "absolutely, but not in the usual 'robot overlords' kind of way."

Gentrification of neighborhoods can wreak havoc for those most vulnerable to change.

Sure, access to services and amenities rise in a gentrifying neighborhood. That is a good thing. But those amenities won't do you much good if you're forced to move because of skyrocketing housing costs.

That is why neighborhood and housing advocacy groups have spent decades searching for ways to protect longtime residents from the negative effects of gentrification.

The growth of income disparity across the world has now become so well-documented that even some rich people see it as a danger to society.

But the scale of the problem makes it seem like there's not much ordinary, not-so-rich folks can do about it in their ordinary, not-so-rich lives.

There is a certain kind of look I get when I tell people how much I love video games.

It lies somewhere between "You're not serious" and "Oh my God, you are serious." And by "people" giving me these looks, I mean adults of a certain age and outlook. Of course, given that I'm a 54-year-old tenured professor, these "people" are pretty much everyone I know (including my now adult children).

So today, I want to speak to all of you "look-givers" and attempt to explain why you, too, should become a gamer.

Basically, it comes down to robot dinosaurs.

Now that we're well past the start of spring, you're probably inured already to all the green.

I mean, after those long months of winter, everyone's pumped about the first buds and shoots — so bright green and promising. But then, it's all ho-hum, leaves everywhere — whatever.

Well, not me, pal.

See, this spring I've been digging in on photosynthesis for some research I'm doing and, I gotta tell you, it's blowing my mind.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We usually turn to NPR blogger Adam Frank to explore ideas about outer space. Today, he has this commentary on the messy business of politics and how it's affecting the climate.

In 1889, Bethlehem Steel brought engineer Frederick Taylor on board in an attempt to streamline its vast operation.

Taylor had recently invented a theory of "time management" in which the same principles used to optimize machines was applied to people. Taylor stalked the floors of the Bethlehem plant armed with a stopwatch and a clipboard noting the time it took for workers to complete tasks, like loading iron bars onto waiting railcars. Taylor's eventual recommendation to the company's executives were simple: The workers should be made to do more in less time.

So, it's Election Day here in the United States.

Every presidential election seems important, but I am sure that I am not alone in thinking this one is different, maybe more important than most.

So, please, go vote.

When you're done, I give you (once again) Carl Sagan's beautiful "Pale Blue Dot" speech to put it all in perspective.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Marvel's latest superhero movie, "Doctor Strange," worked its magic on audiences over the weekend and led the box office.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOCTOR STRANGE")

Revolutionary discoveries don't always breakthrough the hustle of daily life.

After all, when the Wright Brothers lifted their rickety plane off the sands of Kitty Hawk, the rest of the world was just out buying their eggs, milk and toilet paper. On that day who knew — or could imagine — that decades into the future millions of people would be sitting in giant jet-planes watching Direct TV and soaring five miles above the planet's surface.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Does the size of space — those zillions of stars and zillions of miles of nothing between them — freak you out?

Well, if it does, guess what?

You're not alone.

I give a lot of public talks about the universe. Really. It's in my job description:

  • Astronomer. Check.
  • Study stuff in space. Check.
  • Give talks about universe. Check.

Back in the day, astronomers studied galaxies one at a time.

Data about each metropolis of stars had to be pieced together slowly. These individual studies were then combined so that a broader understanding of galaxies and their histories as a whole could slowly emerge.

You don't need me to tell you how unusual this primary season has been. Every day, more news sites offer more commentary seeking to explain how American politics reached its current, seemly surreal state.

But here at 13.7, our goal is to offer commentary on places where science and culture intersect. From that perspective, one key aspect of this season's political upheaval can be traced back a decade or more. That aspect is "reality," or at least the part we're all supposed to agree on.

The combustion engine is dominant. In the United States, according to the latest estimates from the Census, more than 76 percent of us get to work alone in a car. The numbers are not quite as lopsided in some big cities, where public transit and other options are more widely available.

As I write this, California remains deep in its fourth year of drought.

One hundred percent of the state of Nevada is in drought — with 40 percent in the extreme drought category. Over to the southeast, 93 percent of Arizona's territory is in some form of drought. Even Washington state, far to the north, finds all of its territory in drought and 32 percent of its land in extreme doubt.

When Robots Run

Jun 2, 2015

They are coming. It's just a matter of time — and the time is likely shorter than most of us imagine.

I'm talking about robots.

Why Video Games Matter

Apr 28, 2015

Human beings are storytellers. This basic, constant instinct is evident throughout history — from creation narratives told around the night's fire to Greek playwrights to the first novels to the flickering images of early motion pictures.

Imagine, for a moment, that every Web search gave only accurate, verified information. Imagine that questions concerning real facts about the real world returned lists of websites ordered by how well those site's facts matched the real world.

Search for "Barack Obama's nationality," and websites claiming "Kenya" would be banished to the 32nd page of the list. Search for "measles and autism" and you'd have to scroll down for 10 minutes before you found a page claiming they were linked.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

If you love movies, give yourself the next five minutes to watch this video.

Every Frame a Painting is a series of explorations on films and film technique by Tony Zhou, a San Francisco based filmmaker and editor. In each "video essay," Zhou unpacks the cinematic craft with humor and insight.

Jon Morse, former astrophysics division director at NASA, can remember the exact moment he knew things had to change.