From Eros to Gaia
by Freeman Dyson
Pantheon/A Cornelia and Michael Bessie Book, 371 pp., $25.00
Distinguished physicist, astronomer, pure mathematician, arms control expert, government adviser, futurologist, environmentalist, humanitarian, and author—Freeman Dyson is a polymath well worthy of that description. It is not merely the scope and the depth of his knowledge, understanding, and technical expertise that set him apart, nor is it just his literacy and exquisite writing style. More importantly, it is the originality and the deeply personal quality of his views; for he is a man who thinks and feels for himself. Though his opinions are frequently influenced and stimulated by others, often writers from the past as well as from the present, or by his own particular experiences and acquired technical know-how, the views that he ultimately expresses so elegantly are the results of his own thoughtfulness, whatever these external influences may have been. His opinions cannot be pigeon-holed as, say, “left” or “right” or “green” or “technological” or “dovish” or “hawkish.” Each issue is approached afresh and is thought through on its merits. It is our good fortune that he writes so well, unusual for a mathematical scientist, and that he is not afraid to put forward his views in a bold and forthright matter.
His latest book, From Eros to Gaia, provides the reader with a broad sweep across a spectrum of his interests and opinions. It is a collection of his writings, drawn from a period of fifty-seven years. Dyson remarks that he was a writer long before he became a scientist—a reference to the first of the articles in this collection, an incomplete story that he wrote at the age of nine, built around the possibility that the asteroid Eros might collide with the moon. Although, as he himself admits, it is not a novel, to be compared at the human level with Daisy Ashford’s The Young Visiters, written at a similar age, Dyson’s own “Sir Phillip Roberts’s Erolunar Collision” is an intriguing tale that gives us some good insights into Dyson himself. In some important respects, he has not changed at all since writing this piece. There is still the fascination with astronomy—particularly planetary astronomy—and especially with space travel, and with the fact that political and financial factors can influence the progress of science as much as the issues of pure scientific exploration. As one might expect from such a precocious youngster, it is written with a peculiar enthusiasm and naive optimism—that I am glad is still manifest in some of his later writings.
The final article in this collection, “The Face of Gaia,” written in 1989 by Dyson in his mid-sixties, shows an opposite side to Dyson’s personality. Here he is mature and thoughtful, and in places his writing is deeply moving; yet the optimism is still there, and some might claim that the naiveté remains also.
The title refers to a viewpoint, put forward by James Lovelock in the 1970s, that the Earth itself should be regarded as a living being—a being to be treated …