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Disturbing the Universe

by Freeman Dyson
Harper & Row, 283 pp., $12.95

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 hard liner (now reconstructed) during the cold war. He has ranged in his public positions from being a stalwart defender of open-air atomic testing to being the favorite physicist of visionaries who would colonize the solar system (if not the universe), using what Dyson calls “green” rather than “gray” technology.

Dyson, son of a composer and a lawyer, attended the prestigious public school of Winchester. (He writes as if such an advantage were a natural concomitant of growing up.) He was too young, and in the wrong place, to join his colleagues in building nuclear bombs—and thus “knowing sin,” as Oppenheimer put it—and he spent the war working with statistics of death and destruction for the British Bomber Command. But he came to America after the war, and got to know Oppenheimer, Teller, Bethe, and Feynman not at the moment of their legitimate triumphs, but in their most trying and often, alas, their worst hours, during the cold war. This perspective, of someone who came just after, someone who never quite hit the stratosphere, seems to me the most interesting feature of Dyson’s book. The heroes have more choices. At the lower level of the young and the struggling, science as an institution is more clearly revealed.

By combining the perspective from below with unflinching honesty in recollection, Dyson’s book serves as a chilling testimony to the forces that lead so many decent men to compromise and slip deeper and deeper after a poorly rationalized first plunge. Dyson, though a pacifist by belief at the beginning of World War II, joined the Bomber Command as a young man who, but for the grace of God and class, might have been inside the planes rather than calculating their chances of returning from the Battle of Berlin. He quickly recognized three sobering facts: that the missions were ineffective, that experience brought no higher rate of survival per mission (and that chance of death was therefore a grim and inexorable function of missions flown), and that such simple changes as reducing the crews and dismantling some heavy equipment would save many lives.

He made some mildly protesting noises about these facts to his boss, but retreated to frustrated obedience when military bureaucracy stifled any chance of reform. But a colleague who recognized that lives might be saved simply by enlarging the bombers’ escape hatches fought for two years and prevailed even though the war had nearly ended. In a passage that struck me as a powerful, personal epitome of the central dilemma faced by good intention in a world where brutality abounds and self-sacrifice (even in small things) is unfortunately as rare as rationalization is easy, Dyson writes:

I began to look backward and to ask myself how it happened that I let myself become involved in this crazy game of murder. Since the beginning of the war I had been retreating step by step from one moral position to another, until at the end I had no moral position at all. At the beginning of the war I…was morally opposed to all violence. After a year of war I retreated and said, Unfortunately nonviolent resistance against Hitler is impracticable, but I am still morally opposed to bombing. A few years later I said, Unfortunately it seems that bombing is necessary in order to win the war, and so I am willing to go to work for Bomber Command, but I am still morally opposed to bombing cities indiscriminately. After I arrived at Bomber Command I said, Unfortunately it turns out that we are after all bombing cities indiscriminately, but this is morally justified as it is helping to win the war. A year later I said, Unfortunately it seems that our bombing is not really helping to win the war, but at least I am morally justified in working to save the lives of the bomber crews. In the last spring of the war I could no longer find any excuses.

The theme of apology continues as Dyson mounts the ladder of fame and influence. He undertook a public campaign against a nuclear test ban treaty—a position he now regards as “wrong technically, wrong militarily, wrong politically, and wrong morally”—both as an act of personal loyalty toward his friend Edward Teller and as a last-ditch effort to save from extinction his pet project for space travel by bomb propulsion. As for Teller, Dyson excuses his decision to testify against Oppenheimer: “A careful reading of his testimony at the trial shows that he intended no personal betrayal. He wanted only to destroy Oppenheimer’s political power, not to damage Oppenheimer personally.” Dyson was, apparently, angry with Teller for a time, but forgave him (if we are to believe the account) when he heard Teller playing the Bach Prelude in E-flat minor that Dyson had loved so much as a child. If only aesthetic and moral sensitivity went hand in hand, I would be able to make much more sense out of this crazy world. As it is, Dyson’s attempts to justify both Teller and himself are baffling, but it is hard for someone who did not live through those times to judge them. I was a boy then, and Yogi Berra was my hero. And besides, no one has ever asked a paleontologist to construct instruments of terror. Different people acted differently, however, and reading the testimony of other physicists about Oppenheimer, I know that I feel more warmly disposed toward many of them. I also know what I hope I would have done: I cannot be sure what I would actually have done.

In the last quarter of his book, Dyson presents a series of essays on possible improvements for now and hopes for the future. As an unabashed dreamer, he envisions a possible colonization of the asteroids, the preservation of earth as a quaint, ecological abode, and a rapid expansion of colonies throughout the galaxy, if not beyond—and all with a fastidiousness about ecological consequences that would raise no eyebrows on any of the editors of the Whole Earth Catalog. I can’t follow him all the way, or even much beyond the gravitational pull of terra firma, but I appreciate both the vision and the biological style of thinking that accompanies it.

In the parochial world of academe, characteristic attitudes often define professions (though the professions might argue that they convey truth, rather than partial visions shaped by their material). Evolutionary biologists, like myself, tend to equate goodness with what we see as the producer and the result of evolutionary change: the correlation between unconstrained smallness and innovation (for new species almost always arise in tiny populations separated from larger parental groups), and the sheer exuberant diversity of life. If an evolutionist believes in any summum bonum, it is diversity itself (not the attainment of “higher” states, since “progress” of this sort plays no part in modern evolutionary theory). How could I think otherwise as I sit here, with millions of E. coli metabolizing in my gut, billions of neurons cogitating in my brain, a cockroach and a centipede on the floor, and a skunk in the garbage outside (yes, even in Cambridge, Mass.). In our tribalism, we often think that physicists, or some of them, make different equations between the world as they see it and the true and the beautiful—perhaps because they are more interested in overarching, simplified, and unifying law than in all the messy diversity of a world that partly depends on chance interventions in the development of small and large populations.

Perhaps we are wrong about physicists in general, but at least I welcome Dyson into our tribe. He not only believes in smallness and diversity for its own sake, but he has defined his scientific ethic by it in fighting bureaucracy and institutionalized “big” science as the agents of stultified mediocrity, Dyson is not being facetious when he argues that we have no safe nuclear reactor today because “nobody any longer has any fun building reactors.” He worked with a small group of unconstrained enthusiasts for nuclear power in the early days. But the technocrats took over, plans rigidified, economics intervened, and “innovation” now centers upon minor modifications of a set design.

Yet just as a whale bears vestiges of leg bones, I detect a residual attitude that trips Dyson at the threshold of grasping a biological way of thought. Dyson is filled with a vision of the “rightness” of things. The universe must be ordered. All must exist for a reason and purpose. Everything fits with everything else. But why should it? Does a land snail that is blown by a hurricane to the next island, fertilizes itself, and becomes the progenitor of a new species fit in some predictable way into an over-arching order of things? I don’t know what one can say about such an event except that it just happened. Nature produces some order by rejecting the ill-adapted, but one can hardly hope to specify an optimal arrangement of adapted species. At this level life is intrinsically unpredictable; this is what the theme of diversity is all about.

The whale’s leg bones testify to its terrestrial past, but do not hamper it in any serious way. Dyson’s vision of rightness may reflect his background in physics, but it does seriously compromise his view of biology in two important senses. First, in his Panglossian world everything exists because it is for the best. In a curious reversal of causality, he argues that we have linguistic variety in order to separate human groups and preserve the ideal of diversity:

It is not just an inconvenient historical accident that we have a variety of languages. It was nature’s way to make it possible for us to evolve rapidly…. To keep a small community genetically isolated and to enable it to evolve new social institutions, it was vitally important that the members of the community should be quickly separated from their neighbors by barriers of language.

Yet unless biologists are totally cockeyed, the reverse must be true. Human groups became separated and, in their isolation, diverged in their speech. That divergence may indeed keep groups separate if they later come into contact, but it cannot be the cause of separation, itself, only its result. The current utility of a structure or institution need not have anything to do with the reason for its origin. Brains did not evolve to allow Bach to write the Prelude in E-flat minor, but Dyson isn’t the only one who rejoices in the fact that brains can sometimes produce such a masterpiece.

This reversal of causality in Dyson’s thinking is a common fallacy of the vision of “rightness” that Voltaire satirized so unmercifully in Candide (subtitled Optimism). As the foolish Dr. Pangloss says: “Things cannot be other than they are…. Everything is made for the best purpose. Our noses were made to carry spectacles, so we have spectacles. Legs were clearly intended for breeches, and we wear them.”

Secondly, Dyson applies his reinstituted doctrine of final causes to an argument for the prevalence of mind in the universe. He argues that mind necessarily enters “into our awareness of nature” at the “highest” level of human consciousness and at the “lowest” level of single atoms and electrons where, by quantum theory, we cannot formulate a description independent of our observation. If mind must be considered at the extremes, then why not in the middle, and everywhere. And, if everywhere, then is not the “rightness” of things a reflection of its omnipresence? And is not this “rightness” reflected primarily in how well we fit into a universe that was here before us? “The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known that we were coming.”

Dyson then goes on to show how we could not have fit into a different world. If the strengths of physical forces were ordered differently, stars would not burn and life dependent upon them would not exist. Were there no “exclusion principle,” and if two electrons could occupy the same state, then “none of our essential chemistry would survive,” and life as we know it would fail. But again, our modern Dr. Pangloss has his causality reversed. The universe was here for whatever reason (if any) and we fit into it. It seems the height of antiquated hubris to claim that it went on as it did for billions of years in order to form a comfortable abode for us.

Chance and historical contingency give the world of life most of its glory and fascination. I sit here happy to be alive and sure that there must be some reason “why me?” I could invent an explanation, and I’m sure Dyson could dream up many more. But each ejaculation produces millions of sperm and, but for the accident of a lucky night in early 1941, my nonexistent sister might be sitting here inventing excellent reasons for “why me?” Or the earth might have been totally covered with water, and an octopus might now be telling its children why the eight-legged God of all things had made such a perfect world for cephalopods. Sure we fit. We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t. But the world wasn’t made for us and it will endure without us.

All dreamers must fail; but without the dreamers, I suspect that our earth would not be reverberating with the question “why,” simply because its brainiest mammal would be sitting in a tropical tree asking more limited questions about adequate food and shelter for apes. In the Essay on Man, not exactly a document for dreamers, Pope writes:

Oh sons of earth! attempt ye still to rise,
By mountains piled on mountains to the skies?
Heaven still with laughter the vain toil surveys,
And buries madmen in the heaps they raise.

But Pope’s madmen are also guardians of the dream. Perhaps the asteroids Dyson hopes to colonize are miserable, useless hunks of rock. Perhaps we will exterminate ourselves before we ever get there. But Lord help us if we lose interest.

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