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The Great Diversifier

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 with love and respect. As Dyson says: “the love of Gaia carries with it a love of trees.” He believes that the greenhouse effect, caused by carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere, will eventually be held in check by a large-scale international program of reforestation, and that influential people will find this agreeable because “the love of trees is rooted deep in our value system, planted in us during the hundreds of thousands of years we spent hunting and gathering on a largely forested planet.” I certainly hope that he may be right. Also in another of his chapters (a reprinted account of his 1990 Radcliffe lecture, delivered at Green College, Oxford) he makes a powerful case for reforestation in relation to the greenhouse effect, and he gives reasons why the carbon dioxide levels have not, as yet, reached quite the levels that some had feared.

Dyson points out the fortunate metaphor that these two Greek gods provide him with for his collection: “Eros is the god of youthful passion, Gaia the goddess of motherhood and of caring for all life’s creatures.” But there is much else that the collection expresses of Dyson’s particular combination of qualities. His broad-ranging technical expertise enables him to write with authority on many issues of importance to science, technology, and international affairs, but he is also profoundly interested in people, and many of the essays in this collection are concerned with individuals, their characters as much as their achievements, and the issue of how one may have a bearing on the other. Often his writings have little specifically to do with scientific matters, but deal directly with the interplay between personalities.

The shift in emphasis from his interest in technical matters to particular personalities appears to have occurred late in his life; and although he says he was a writer long before he was a scientist, his writing as such, rather than as an expositor of scientific ideas, came to fruition only later. Accordingly, he remarks: “My mother used to say that life begins at forty. That was her age when she had her first baby. I say, on the contrary, that life begins at fifty-five, the age at which I published my first book.” He continues: “Whatever it is that you produce—a baby, a book, or a theory—it is a piece of the magic of creation.”

He is good at drawing significant analogies between situations in quite different contexts. Like his forebear, the brilliant biologist and scientific writer J.B.S. Haldane, whom he quotes with approval, Dyson stresses the importance, to an organization, of “being the right size.” Haldane wrote, in 1927, “You can drop a mouse down a thousand-yard mine shaft; and, on arriving at the bottom, it gets a slight shock and walks away. A rat is killed, a man is broken, a horse splashes.” Haldane continued, in reference to social issues and to socialism:

To the biologist the problem of socialism appears largely as a problem of size. The extreme socialists desire to run every nation as a single business concern. I do not suppose Henry Ford would find much difficulty in running Andorra or Luxembourg on a socialist basis. He has already more men on his pay-roll than their population…. But while nationalization of certain industries is an obvious possibility in the largest of states, I find it no easier to picture a completely socialized British Empire or United States than an elephant turning somersaults or a hippopotamus jumping a hedge.

Dyson follows Haldane’s lead in a different setting, comparing the merits of small-scale concerns with large-scale organization. He cites a Peace Corps experience of his daughter Mia, in a village in Central Africa where the villagers—mostly members of the proud Boulou tribe—considered two alternative proposals for obtaining a water supply for the village. Plan A was a small-scale good-quality professional operation that involved hiring a local well-digger. Unfortunately, the well-digger was a member of the rough-hewn Fulani tribe (considered inferior by the Boulous). Plan B was a large-scale “prestige” operation that involved making a formal proposal to the central government, but which had little hope of success. The villagers unanimously plumped for Plan B, because it was viewed as enhancing the village’s status, but nothing had come of the proposal by the time that Mia finally left the village. Dyson makes a number of striking analogies with various scientific proposals in which a “Plan B” has been opted for, for prestige reasons, often with disastrous results.

Dyson’s evident sympathies are generally for small-scale Plan A-type solutions, and he takes delight in those situations where the cheap individual small-scale operations (often the brain-child of some “Fulani”) can outdo huge expensive government prestige projects. But, as I have remarked above, he is no dogmatist, and he sees the merits on either side when they are due. The general theme of a Plan A/Plan B polarity (or of a “Fulani”/”Boulou” polarity) permeates much of the book, and although Dyson seems to wish to see himself on the former side rather than the latter, the actualities are never as clear-cut as this. Perhaps there is some element of internal conflict within Dyson himself. While his own education in England was certainly what would be called “privileged” (including Winchester and Trinity College, Cambridge) it was not an education in which science featured early, and he had to be a rebel in his own way in order to give himself the early scientific educational start that he needed. Moreover, although having settled in the United States since 1951, he must feel in some ways an outsider, being still a very “English gentleman,” but in many other ways he is an insider; and despite being a professor of physics at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, he remains, by choice, outside the mainstream of its research in theoretical physics. As an establishment rebel—a Boulou and a Fulani, simultaneously within the same personality—he is well placed to see both sides of any issue.

Perhaps these two sides of the Plan-A/Plan-B, or big-science/little-science, polarity are represented, respectively, in the first (concerning Eros) and last (concerning Gaia) writings in this collection. The nine-year-old Dyson reveals himself as a Plan-B supporter in the huge project that Sir Phillip Roberts would have had in mind in sending fifteen men to the moon in order to witness its collision by the asteroid Eros; yet the tree-planting proposals for rescuing Gaia from carbondioxide suffocation have a distinct Plan-A flavor.

In his mature writings concerning space travel, there is a similar ambivalence. He confesses to a sadness that a proposal made in 1952 by America’s German rocket scientist (and V-2 designer) Wernher von Braun was never taken up seriously. Von Braun’s proposal was to build an enormous seventy-man expedition to the planet Mars (fifty of them landing on the surface), using only the technology that was available at the time. Dyson was also a great supporter of Project Orion, according to which a space vehicle was proposed, in 1958, that would travel through space by means of the effects of a series of impulses upon it from repeated nuclear explosions triggered off at a distance behind it. Dyson argued strongly for the technical feasibility of this project, but says that for “the first time in modern history…a major expansion of human technology has been suppressed for political reasons.” He expresses a hope, nevertheless, in “the dream that the bombs which killed and maimed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki may one day open the skies to mankind.”

These would have been very much Plan-B proposals. On the other hand, his present hopes for space travel are for very small unmanned spacecraft that might be constructed by genetic engineering—so the spacecraft would actually be a man-made living thing! His favorite is Astrochicken, a proposed seemingly intelligent butterfly-like entity with “wide and thin solar sails instead of wings” and “about as big as a chicken and about as smart.” He considers that Astrochicken could be made comparatively cheaply in large numbers—a Plan A—and, if his fantasy holds good, could be flying through space in multitudes by the year 2018. Too miraculous for belief!—the reader might say. Dyson’s response is that an actual chicken “is no less a miracle than an Astrochicken.” Perhaps so, but Nature took many millions of years to produce a chicken. Could an Astrochicken be built (or grown) within a mere twenty-five?

He is not enthusiastic about the Superconducting Supercollider (or SSC)—a stupendous particle-physics proposal that was formally approved by President Reagan in 1987—but regards some Plan-B projects with favor, most particularly the “Very Large Array” radio telescope constructed in the New Mexico desert, which owed its success to having been proposed by a committee whose chairman was a wise and sensitive “Fulani” (Jesse Greenstein). Another Fulani who is greatly admired by Dyson was Bernhardt Schmidt, the one-handed lens grinder, without academic qualification, who worked unpaid at the Hamburg Observatory in the 1920s, and invented the wonderful (Plan A) Schmidt telescope, two examples of which were to be used to great effect on Mount Palomar. This telescope was described by the great Swiss astronomer Fritz Zwicky as perhaps providing “the highest efficiency, as measured in results achieved per dollar invested, of any telescope…ever built, with the exception of Galilei’s little refractor,” Zwicky himself was a fascinating man, vividly described also by Dyson—and evidently also a Fulani.

Dyson describes many scientists and other notable people in his accounts, always with insight and interest. There are several descriptions of the historian and diplomat George Kennan, and Dyson refers, in 1982, to his foresight with regard to the USSR, quoting him as saying, “It is odd that I have been worrying for fifty years, for all of my professional life, about the strength of Soviet society. And now I am worrying about its weakness. I begin to worry now that the whole thing may disintegrate.” Dyson refers also to Kennan’s farsightedness in 1950, when he argued that the reliance of the American government upon the first use of nuclear weapons as a defense against nonnuclear attack was a fundamental mistake.

Dyson was a member of Pugwash conferences on Science and World Affairs, and he describes his experiences at the ninth meeting, held in 1962 at Caius College, Cambridge, where he gained much from his encounters with Russian counterparts: “One overwhelming impression remains. I lived for four days mentally in a disarmed world, with all its difficulties, and the longer I was there the better I liked it.” The Hungarian-American physicist Leo Szilard was also at the meeting. (It was Szilard who drafted the famous letter from Einstein to President Truman informing him of the possibility that an atomic bomb could be constructed.) Each of the six parts of the book starts with a quotation from Szilard’s “Ten Commandments,” originally written in German in 1940.

Dyson is less enthusiastic about the tenth Pugwash meeting, held in London, also in 1962. That was a much larger affair, serving more a publicity role than being a working conference. The smaller, more intimate earlier working meeting at Caius College was more to his liking. Generally, Dyson believes that human beings function best in small groups—which may well be largely true. But he is also appreciative of the necessity for “Plan-B” type activities.

He expresses some views, in relation to size, that I find somewhat disturbing, however. He proposes—I am not sure how seriously—a recipe for creating a new society of the caliber of Athens, Florence, or Jerusalem in their heydays:

Take a hundred city-states, each with a population between ten thousand and a hundred thousand; let each one hate its neighbors sufficiently to prevent substantial interbreeding; encourage priestly and aristocratic caste systems to reduce still further the size of breeding units; introduce an occasional major war or plague to keep the populations small; let the mixture simmer for a thousand years; and one of your hundred cities will be the new Florence, the new Athens, or the new Jerusalem.

Nor am I really happy with his view of science in terms of “a hexagonal mountain with six faces, with three beautiful faces in addition to the three ugly faces. The three beautiful faces of science are science as subversion of authority, science as an art form, and science as an international club,” whereas the ugly faces are science “as a rigid and authoritarian discipline,” tied to “mercenary and utilitarian ends,” and “tainted by its association with weapons of mass murder.” While the sentiments that Dyson expresses have their undoubted importance, they do not address what is, to me, most fundamental in science. Where, in this, is science as a search for truth and for understanding? Where is its undoubted value in improving the quality of life (such as in the curing of disease)? Moreover, the subversion of authority cuts both ways. Sometimes it is a good thing—especially when the authority is profoundly mistaken—but sometimes that authority is based on centuries of increasing learning and understanding, and although one should not accept it without question, one should try to respect the reasons for its existence. It seems to me that the key issues are truth and understanding, and it surprises me that Dyson makes no mention of either.

Among the scientists that Dyson describes with admiration are the exceptional Richard P. Feynman and J. Robert Oppenheimer. His appreciation of Oppenheimer springs partly from the latter’s prose style, in addition to his erudition. Dyson also quotes a marvelous account of a meeting between Oppenheimer and Lansing Hammond, from a letter that Hammond wrote to Dyson in 1979. Hammond, whose field was eighteenth-century English literature, had consulted Oppenheimer about a matter concerning mathematical physics candidates for a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship, but had come away utterly astonished that Oppenheimer seemed also to know all about what was going on in Hammond’s own field.

As for Feynman, Dyson had first encountered him in 1947, at Cornell University, where Dyson was a graduate student, and Feynman a thirty-year-old professor. In March 1948 Dyson wrote home to his parents in England: “Feynman is the young American professor, half genius and half buffoon, who keeps all physicists and their children amused with his effervescent vitality.” Later, Dyson revised his opinion, judging Feynman to be all genius and all buffoon. Dyson is careful to rely on his letters of the time and not his memories since “forty-year-old memories are hopelessly unreliable…. If I tried to describe the young Feynman from memory, the portrait would be a fake. Old memories are buried and overlaid with forty years of varnish.”

Dyson’s encounters with Feynman had a profound influence on the development of physics. Though the two had totally different characters, they became good friends; but they must have made an odd couple, with Feynman’s wild brilliance and Dyson’s Victorian reserve. Dyson is overmodest, however, in his descriptions of his own contributions: “I walked by accident into the delivery room where Feynman’s new way of doing particle physics was born.” Dyson may have been a midwife, but he performed his duty with his own brand of technical brilliance. He showed how two disparate approaches to the emerging subject of quantum electrodynamics—that due to Julian Schwinger and one due to Feynman—were actually the equivalent to each other. In this way he played a role similar to that of the outstanding theoretician Paul A.M. Dirac, who, in the late 1920s, showed the equivalence of the two forms of quantum mechanics, one due to Heisenberg and the other to Schrödinger.

There is also a remarkable chapter on Dirac himself, where Dyson expresses a deep puzzlement about how science is done according to a method which Dirac particularly exemplifies. I suspect that Dyson finds Dirac’s expressed sentiments concerning his particular approach—namely that he is guided almost entirely by his sense of mathematial beauty—deeply troubling. “Why should Nature care about our feelings of beauty? Why should the electron prefer a beautiful equation to an ugly one? Why should the universe dance to Dirac’s tune?” But he is compelled to admit that, in Dirac’s case at least, the method seems to work. Dyson refers to the distinctions between what he refers to as the “Baconian” (or “bottom-up”) approach to science as opposed to the “Cartesian” (or “top-down”) approach. Dirac was a master of the latter procedure—as was Einstein, in his different way (physical insights rather than mathematical). Dyson’s sympathies appear to be more with the Baconian method, whereby one keeps close to what is required experimentally, and moves with caution and justification from each step to the next. There seems to be an affinity between the small-scale step-by-step procedures of the Baconian method and Dyson’s Plans A, and also between the Dirac-type broad-ranging instinctive leaps of the Cartesian approach and Dyson’s Plans B. This affinity is not intended to be an equality, but there is indeed an association of this kind in Dyson’s mind.

The affinity can be extended to another polarity of views that holds a fascination for Dyson: diversity as opposed to unity. There are the great theories of science, which have the nature of unifications between many seemingly disparate phenomena. These theories are Plan-B schemes, admittedly superb examples, but Plan B, nevertheless. The Newtons, Einsteins, and Diracs of this world—yes, and the Feynmans too—are all great Cartesians; and they are the unifiers of theoretical physics (despite the fact that such people are sometimes Fulanis!). But for every great theory there are a thousand little ones, and often those have the distinct flavor of the kind of Plan B of which Dyson is so rightly scornful. It is at this level that the Baconian method asserts its superiority; and it is essential to science.

What about diversity? Dyson has emphasized the important fact that unification is not all there is in science, and has argued that there is more to be learned from the beautiful diverse valleys of science, with its plants and its butterflies, than from its bleak unified mountain peaks. Indeed, he writes, “The history of science [is] a dialogue between unifiers and diversifiers. Unifiers are following the tradition of Descartes, diversifiers are following the tradition of Bacon…. Unifiers are in love with ideas and equations; diversifiers are in love with birds and butterflies.” He compares his own reaction, when, looking up at the stars as a boy of six, he merely asked what their names were, whereas his friend, the Nobel Prize–winning physicist and unifier Chen Ning Yang, asked for the laws that make them move across the sky. “Yang was interested in stars in general; I was interested in stars as individuals.”

His expressed lack of total sympathy with the present-day Cartesian unifiers plays some role in his lukewarm response to a feverish activity within his own institute in Princeton, where the theory of superstrings reigns supreme: “We must admire the courage and skill of the superstring fraternity, even if we do not share their faith. Perhaps Nature will in the end smile upon their efforts, as she smiled upon Dirac’s electron.” But I imagine that it is Dyson’s belief that Nature will hold back her smile for some while yet.

Despite Dyson’s evident sympathy for the diversifiers, as opposed to unifiers, and his belief that he himself is a diversifier, I sense a hidden irony in the views that he so eloquently expresses. For in pointing out that such universal themes cut across so many disparate fields, he has himself introduced yet another strong element of unification. His very diverse interests, combined with his mathematical physicist’s mind, compel him to find unified concepts throughout ever more diverse contexts. This, indeed, is the way that science often progresses. Dyson himself is a profound unifier—but he should in no way be ashamed of this role.

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