Discover more from Abbott's Almanac
Cosmic Rain - Book Review
The life and times of Prof. L. Frank
“So there are really two stories in this book. One is about the discovery of a new population of objects in the solar system. The other concerns how science works today, and in particular how controversial ideas are handled by the scientific community.”
There are three stories in Cosmic Rain. The third story is a very short autobiography of Louis A. Frank. This is the story Frank did not want to tell. Frank didn’t live an unexamined life, but you can tell he was uncomfortable examining it. He has been called ‘a very private man’ by those who knew him. Indeed, privacy can be a refuge to a gladiator like Lou Frank, who says, “Science is my Life.”
He repeatedly calls, science “the game” “the savage little game” “…a game of hardball science… fairness has nothing to do with it, because losing meant losing big.” Frank reveled in the game. For him, it might as well have been mortal combat. Frank was good at the game too, the very best. Reading Cosmic Rain leaves no reader doubting Frank’s small comets are infalling, all ten million of them annually. It’s an extraordinary discovery – and that is why it is controversial.
Frank’s book is a history of how the evidence for the small comets just keeps accumulating through the adversarial process of “published papers.” It’s all fought out in the literature and the peer-review process. It’s not quite a thriller, but there is a fair amount of drama and the book is borderline riveting at times. Frank knows exactly what must be done. He relishes in the adversarial struggle between minds wrestling with the data. The opinion forms that Frank almost lived to crush lesser minds at the game – admittedly that is a dark spin on, “science is my life.” Frank combines his intense competitiveness with compulsive integrity. Lou Frank is no Mike Tyson. He would never bite your ear off. He never swerves or accelerates when leaving roadkill – its all strictly by the book. But if you wander into his headlights, you are his lawful prey. Seriously, to the discerning reader, that’s the way he tells his story.
I wonder what Frank thought of the mathematician, Pierre-Simon Laplace’s maxim: “The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.”
Frank knows what he has discovered. He knows the small comets are devilishly tricky to see. He presents his accumulating evidence in brilliant papers, uses the questions and the peer-review process to buttress his data. He never stops fighting, and he never loses – and yet… as one of his adversaries, George Parks from the University of Washington blurts out when: ”…he was told all these things, but his reply was just ‘I don’t believe it.’ What Parks is forgetting is that we are not starting a new religion. Belief has nothing to do with scientific investigation.” Strictly speaking, Frank is correct; scientific investigation has nothing to do with belief. Extraordinarily strange claims do. Frank, naively, never seems to realize his game, ‘science’ is about how we know things are true. Truth is indivisible from belief. He is playing by the game’s rules. He is winning every inning. Out-boxing his opponents every round. At the end of the book Lou Frank attributes his defeat to plowing through too many well-tended gardens with a bulldozer. According to Frank, his discovery is the mother of all astronomy turf wars. There is much truth to that – but in other ways it seems one-dimensional, like Frank himself.
The University of Iowa, space physics department, seems to be a great backdrop for Lou Frank’s bete noire tragedy. In 1991 a graduate student shot the department chair and his assistant, two other department professors and a rival doctoral student before turning the gun on himself. The gunman was upset his rival’s dissertation got the major award instead of his dissertation. Competitive place, that University of Iowa. Perhaps the most active and prestigious astronomy/space physics program in the nation, the University of Iowa’s astronomy department had attracted both great minds and big dollars. The combination feeds big egos. Toxic egghead masculinity. Frank goes into considerable detail about his defense at a university trial where his name and reputation are needlessly dragged through the mud. His colleagues are out to get rid of him. It’s not paranoia, they are out to ruin him. The collegial spirit was somewhat lacking at the University of Iowa Space Physics Department in those days. Frank fit right in.
The reader might wonder if things would have turned out different for Frank if he had been a nice guy, a collegial sort of fellow. Concerning small comets? I doubt it. He might have been happier in love and in life. He certainly would have been more fun to work with. His discovery of the small comets is a scientific triumph that he could not enjoy. The day is coming when everyone will remember what he accomplished. That is the story that mattered to the experimental physicist, Louis A. Frank.