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Freeman Dyson: Science's Great Dream Spinner


Science & Technology: IDEAS

FREEMAN DYSON: SCIENCE'S GREAT DREAM-SPINNER

Picture a time, in the next 50 years, when photovoltaic collectors in small villages around the globe quietly capture the sun's energy. Trees are genetically engineered to yield new liquid fuels. Villages from Mexico to Egypt are hooked up to the Internet. Technology brings business and new wealth to villagers, relieving rural poverty, and city dwellers are drawn back to the countryside, easing stresses on urban areas.

And suppose that in the second half of the 21st century, a science called radioneurology emerges that translates information about neural processes into electromagnetic signals. This opens a whole new mode of communication called radiotelepathy--and necessitates on-off switches for transmitters and receivers, to forestall unwarranted spying. Perchance, telescopes spot a comet headed for a collision with earth in about 100 years. A magnetic accelerator is launched to rendezvous with the comet, deflecting its course and saving a billion lives.

Unrealizable utopia? A troubling future? A wild-eyed scheme? Perhaps. But these visions of the future typify how Freeman J. Dyson--a 73-year-old physicist widely recognized as a writer, humanist, and dream-spinner extraordinaire--thinks about science, the world, and the universe.

"PUCKISH." Perhaps more than any other living scientist, Freeman Dyson has the stature and the skills to argue in favor of technology that is anti-elitist and to broadcast his ideas to a global audience of scientists and laypeople. A renowned theoretical physicist who once dreamed of designing nuclear-powered spaceships to visit Jupiter, Dyson has also been a reasoned and dispassionate critic of strategic nuclear war. He has long railed against "big science" projects like the supercollider, arguing that they are designed to look for what scientists "expect to find," while cheaper alternatives permit serendipitous discovery. Equally at ease citing poet William Blake and Robert M. Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, he has over 20 years of popular writing acquired a loyal readership for his books and articles.

In his book Imagined Worlds, published earlier this year, Dyson wrestles with whether science can be ethical. Next month, in a lecture for New York's Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, he'll deliver his latest thoughts on how humankind can reconcile technology and social justice. Technology, he will argue, should be clever, useful, cheap, and available to all. Its dangers should be safeguarded against, while its power to save lives should be harnessed. Above all, technology should help spread knowledge, well-being, and wealth around the world, so that one day, Dyson says, "every Egyptian village can be as wealthy as Princeton, N.J."

Today, fellow scientists regard Dyson as an inventive and provocative thinker with a staggering diversity of interests and ideas, ranging from space travel to the origins of life on earth. "He's not interdisciplinary, which suggests that you believe the validity of individual disciplines," says Lynn Margulis, biologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "He's transdisciplinary, metadisciplinary.... He's one of the liveliest intellects in the U.S."

Colleagues at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where Dyson is a professor emeritus, frequently ascribe the adjective "dysonian" to ideas that crackle with originality the way Dyson's own ideas do, says Chiara Nappi, a physicist at the institute. Even scientists who disagree with some of Dyson's views praise him. "Dyson's arguments against the supercollider were puckish," says theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg at the University of Texas at Austin. But, he adds, Dyson often takes positions that are "unexpectedly idiosyncratic," and that makes his work interesting.

Dyson's message about technology is clear: Mankind must develop "joyful and useful" technologies that benefit all of humanity, much as did the scientific advances of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Indeed, Dyson argues, the electric light, telephone, refrigerator, radio, TV, antibiotics, and vaccines were social equalizers that tended to narrow the gap between rich and poor. The budding technologies of the late 20th century should not be any different.

These days, Dyson says, "pure" scientists focus on esoteric fields--low-temperature physics, for instance--which neither harm nor benefit rich or poor. Applied science, meanwhile, is yielding "toys for the rich"--such as turbocharged laptops and cellular telephones. While it's true that the price of such goods keeps falling, newer and better features keep pushing costs upward, ensuring that the market for high technology remains a relatively elite one. Diseases of the rich, meanwhile, get more research dollars than diseases of the poor.

CONFIRMED OPTIMIST. This situation, Dyson says, cannot be allowed to continue. Technology is driving a wedge between haves and have-nots, he says. In the U.S., the immediate causes of social disintegration may be moral and economic rather than technological, but "science must bear a larger share of responsibility for these evils than the majority of scientists are willing to admit," he writes in Imagined Worlds. "When we look at historical processes on a time-scale of 50 or 100 years, science is the most powerful driving force of change."

At a time when specialization and narrow focus are the norm in the sciences, Dyson is an anomaly--a genuine polymath. Trained in Britain as a mathematician, he came to America in 1947 to study physics with Hans Bethe at Cornell University. His greatest work was in the field of quantum electrodynamics, in which he made understandable the intuitive formulations of Richard Feynman and the elaborate calculations of Julian Schwinger--work for which Bethe and others believe he should have been awarded the Nobel prize, as Feynman and Schwinger were. Dyson went on to study and teach astrophysics, an outgrowth of an early and abiding interest in space travel. In 1956, he helped develop TRIGA, a small reactor that produces short-lived isotopes for diagnostic purposes at hospitals and medical centers and is still in production. And he has served as a consultant to numerous government agencies over the past three decades.

To nonscientists struggling to understand an increasingly complex world, Freeman Dyson's writing both explains and reassures. His outlook, indeed, is remarkably positive. Born in Britain in 1923, Dyson was a young man doing research for the Royal Air Force during Hitler's bombing. "We all expected to die of the plague, some kind of biological warfare," says Dyson. "For anybody who grew up then, it's absurd to feel gloomy about anything that's going on now. The human race has a good way of muddling through."

Now long retired from teaching, Dyson still leads an active life--lecturing, writing, traveling around the world, and interacting with colleagues at the Institute for Advanced Study, with which he has been affiliated since 1953, joining at the invitation of then-director Robert Oppenheimer, who ran the Los Alamos project during World War II. He spends most days thinking and writing at the institute, where he likes to lunch with fellow physicists. And he is a frequent lecturer--by his count, giving nearly 100 speeches in the past year, most in academic settings.

In recent years, he has discovered the joys of E-mailing colleagues, friends, and family members--including his oldest daughter, Esther, a trenchant observer of technology in her own right whose first book, Release 2.0, is coming out this month (page 92). Indeed, he quips that he "can't condemn the computer altogether--Esther would never have made the career she has without it." His other frequent E-mail correspondent is his son, George, a kayak-builder and naturalist who recently penned a highly original book, Darwin Among the Machines, which describes, through a historical narrative, the biological properties of computer hardware and software.

Supercomputer pioneer Danny Hillis, now vice-president of research and development at Walt Disney Imagineering in Glendale, Calif., knows all three and says they "live by their own rules and have created totally original lives." Esther is outgoing and renowned as a networker in the computer industry, while her father, observes Hillis, is shy and unassuming in public. Hillis once took Freeman to visit the Biosphere in Arizona, where Dyson was greeted, says Hillis, somewhat improbably like a rock star. Some years back, Dyson had mused about building biospheres in space, and the scientists at this earth-based Biosphere were fervent Freeman Dyson fans.

Dyson, who once wrote that he is "obsessed with the future," is comfortable with the prospect that biotechnology and neurotechnology will be the new frontiers of science in the 21st century, and he says they will be "as much a part of nature as we are." Still, Dyson wonders how they will develop. What, he asks, will scientists, entrepreneurs, and citizens of the world do with the new technologies they bring? While never blind to the harm science and technology can do, deliberate or inadvertent, he chooses to dwell on the positive. And he's likely to keep banging the drum for responsible science, even as he keeps spinning engaging visions of the future. New technologies "are like knives--they can be used for good or bad," observes George Dyson. "All anyone can do is draw one's own personal line in the sand in favor of good things and against bad things. My father is good at helping people see where that line is."By Karen Pennar in Princeton, N.J.Return to top


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