Disturbing the Universe
A recent cartoon shows two aged scientists sharing a pipe in the smug satisfaction of a life well lived. “One thing I’ll say for us,” exclaims the first, “we never stooped to popularizing science.” I don’t deny that I have known such men, but their number is far smaller than is commonly thought. Most scientists do wish to transmit their information and their excitement to nonprofessionals. If few actually write or speak for the public, their reticence arises more from shyness and inexperience than from lack of concern.
The great works of popular science are lucid expositions of difficult subjects in nontechnical language—Bertrand Russell’s The ABC of Relativity, or George Gamow’s series about the adventures of Mr. Tomkins in a world where the physics of relativity and quanta rule over objects at human scale. These works clarify the content of science, but they do not make the process of scientific knowledge any less mysterious. Science might, after all, produce clear messages by using arcane procedures accessible only to an initiated priesthood. To break down this final barrier between science and its public, scientists must present themselves as well as their work. And here, at the threshold of autobiography, most scientists balk. They may produce in camera works full of unconscious distortion (as Darwin did in writing, for his children, an autobiographical note never intended for popular consumption). Or they may discourse in wooden, unrevealing words about their fascinating lives (L.S.B. Leakey’s By the Evidence, for example), or write only to vindicate their positions in a lifetime of petty squabbles. Usually, of course, they write nothing, repeating the mute response of Jesus to Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” rather than Pilate’s statement upon displaying Jesus after torture—ecce homo, behold the man. Yet science, as an activity, will remain inaccessible as long as scientists refuse to speak honestly about their own lives and dreams.
Freeman Dyson has broken a path by showing that writing a candid autobiography can be fun, or at least cathartic. Disturbing the Universe provides a fine beginning to an admirable series planned by Harper & Row and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. At least nine scientists (P.B. Medawar is next, I am happy to report) will write eclectic documents mixing autobiography with a free-wheeling discussion of ideas. “The objective of this program,” the prospectus states, “is to convey to the educated lay reader a sense of the meaning of science and other forms of rational endeavor in the human and cultural contexts of which they are a part.”
Dyson, distinguished physicist and professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, has carried out in his life the motto he has chosen for our potential salvation—diversity. He has divided his scientific time between theoretical physics and practical (or impractical) applications. He has tried to design safe nuclear reactors, championed an indefensible scheme to propel spacecraft with atomic explosions (literally bombs with all their attendant fallout). He played a dubious part as something of a military…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.