Back Talk: Adam Frank

Back Talk: Adam Frank

A conversation with astrophysicist Adam Frank about science, religion and manifestations of the sacred in the physical world.


Adam Frank is an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester. In The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate (California; $24.95), he attempts to move past the antagonisms between religious fundamentalists and the New Atheists. Instead of debating the Bible or arguing about the existence of evil, he turns to thinkers like William James, Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade for ideas about experience, the sacred, the sublime and hierophanies, manifestations of the sacred in the physical world.    –Christine Smallwood

You use the word "sacred" instead of the word "religion" or "spirituality." What do you mean by that?

If you trace the etymology of "sacred," you’ll see it’s related to the architecture of Roman temples. The sacer was the domain inside the temple, where you met the gods. So the sacred was the inside, and the profane was the outside of the temple, where you sold your walnuts or whatever. It’s this sense that we have, that we sometimes encounter–or the sacred erupts into our lives–this sense of the world being wholly other than our profane and everyday experience. You just suddenly notice how weird everything is, or how beautiful.

Can you talk more about what you mean by experience?

As human beings we’ve always, since the dawn of self-consciousness, had this experience of the world where the sacred appears to us. And earlier civilizations were very close to that experience. Because they felt it as a power in the world, they would create mythic narratives that set themselves into a context in the universe. There would be the myth of the hunt and the rituals of the hunt, and part of those rituals was a kind of science. In hunter-gatherer societies, after the hunt people would take the animal apart and try to put it back together. The cultures that were building the Neolithic astronomical monuments would have very carefully constructed astronomical alignments. But it wasn’t just a calendar; it was part of an emotive response to the night sky. So those narratives they told did both.

So narrative is a kind of hierophany?

Yes. In hunter-gatherer societies or any society that was prescientific, myths weren’t told all the time. There were special times of year when people would gather and the shaman or priest would recite the origin myth around the fire. And hearing the myths told and the rituals enacted, you were brought back to that time. The individual was meant to participate in the sacred through experience. When I teach Astronomy 101, I always show a movie, a standard program about the birth of the universe. It has cool animation and the music soars, and afterward I ask my students about the music, which is designed to make them respond emotionally.

What of those who might say that emotions are the problem?

That’s crazy! That’s like saying love is really a problem, so why don’t we just have mating behavior. Many of the founders of science were deeply religious. They saw their interest in scientific inquiry as a way of honoring this sense of something more, this unseen order, as William James called it. We should emphasize that aspect. We should show people that science is a hierophany. It’s part of a long human tradition of encountering the world through awe and wonder.

But your experience of wonder is built on a lifetime of knowledge, and mine is in large part built on ignorance. Do nonscientists need to learn more about science in order to have a fuller experience of what is sacred or sublime?

Why would you say that? When you walk into a museum–pick a painting you saw that you were really moved by, before you knew any art history, like a Jackson Pollock. If you don’t know anything about it, maybe you won’t like it, but some people will just be caught up in the movement of the lines. And then you take a class, and your appreciation of it grows. With the Hubble Telescope images–just the colors and the structure–all you know is that this is something that’s really big and has been around for a really long time, and in some sense that’s all you need to know. It’s no different from looking at a sunset and thinking it’s beautiful.

What are the most awesome things happening in astrophysics these days?

For me, it is our understanding of planets. The question of whether or not there are planets orbiting other stars is 2,000 years old. And it’s been only about a decade since we’ve answered it. How often do you have a two-millenniums-old question that gets answered? We’re learning about additional solar systems and that they’re completely different from ours. The ultimate question of whether or not there’s life on any of these, we’ve taken a step toward that. Also, in the past thirty years we’ve figured out that much of the universe is dark matter [nonluminous mass, the presence of which is inferred from the motion of astronomical objects], and we’ve also discovered that most of the energy of the universe is in some unseen form called dark energy. If you were to do a census of the universe, you’d find that our kind of stuff, the kind of matter we’re made out of and which we can identify, makes up around 3 or 4 percent of the universe. The discovery of the dark universe really raises the issue of our significance. We thought we were the center of the universe, and then we learned we were a planet going around the sun, and then there were lots of suns, and then lots of galaxies. But now, not only is the universe really big and you’re really small; you’re not even part of the universe. Ninety-seven percent of the universe is this other stuff that has nothing to do with you. Just by calling it dark, really what we’re saying is we don’t have a clue. And that may mean that fundamentally we’re on the edge of something, we’re about to reach a breakthrough that may lead to some leap.

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