Mighty Manchester

Infinite in All Directions

by Freeman J. Dyson
Harper and Row, 321 pp., $19.95

Modern Manchester is scarcely the stuff of dreams and inspiration. It has stagnated with the rest of northern England during Margaret Thatcher’s cruelly mistitled “miracle”; its factories are empty, and its great newspaper fled to London years ago. But Manchester, whatever its current fortunes, remains a symbol of the pivotal movement that made modern history; for Manchester was once England’s second city, and the Western world’s first metropolis of the Industrial Revolution.

Freeman Dyson, theoretical physicist and premier scientific humanist, was born in England, but has worked at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton since the early 1950s. Infinite in All Directions, a reworked and expanded version of his Gifford Lectures given at Aberdeen in 1985, takes Manchester in its halcyon days as a symbol for an attitude toward science that must appear highly peculiar and idiosyncratic to his brother physicists, while placing him into the heart of a very different scientific culture—my own world of evolutionary biology.

Manchester, to Dyson, is the embodiment of a theme that encapsulates the very best in natural beauty, universal ethics, and human effectiveness—diversity. In “Manchester and Athens,” the finest essay that he has ever written, Dyson compares the Athenian search for timeless, general, universal laws of nature at the highest level of abstraction with the gutsy, hands-on practicality of those who made the Industrial Revolution, and their supporting scientists and engineers who rolled up their sleeves and worried how this would work in that situation before they tried to comprehend the universe. Dyson then extends this contrast to two basic styles of science—theorists and quantifiers who continue the search for unity and simplification under fully general “laws of nature” (the Athenians) versus the putterers and historians charged with explaining the inordinately complex particulars that never occur twice in nature’s intricacy (the Manchesterians, or Mancunians as they call themselves). And, in an apostasy most welcomed by this Mancunian reviewer, Dyson, though trained in the central corridor of Athens (theoretical physics), casts his lot with the honest toil of northern England.

C.P. Snow’s distinction between the “two cultures” of humanities and sciences is so overquoted in knee-jerk fashion that it has lost all punch and meaning. Other divisions, equally cogent and important, can be made within Snow’s categories, and some of these subdivisions reach across Snow’s major boundary to unite with communities on the other shore (evolutionists with historians in joint commitment to the methods for narrative, for example). Taxonomies of biological species try to order the objective units produced by nature’s process of diversification; taxonomies for human concepts have no clear boundaries and can only be constructed for enlightenment or utility.

I agree with Dyson that a major division of style and culture occurs within science, contrasting those who strive for abstract and unifying laws with those who focus on nature’s complex particulars—Athens and Manchester in Dyson’s words:

There are the two styles of science typified by Athens and Manchester, Einstein and Rutherford, abstract and concrete, unifying and diversifying. The two…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Subscribe for $1 an Issue

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.