Freeman Dyson is an institution. One of the most prolific science writers of all time, he has published several books on the future of mankind and written articles for Time Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly and The New England Journal of Medicine. He studied under U.S. Nuclear Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and has spent 48 years at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies. He has 17 honorary degrees from Oxford, Princeton, Dartmouth and Yeshiva, among others. Dyson is also the recipient of the American Institute of Physics’ Heineman Prize and the Royal Society’s Hughes Medal. He has helped to design fail-safes for nuclear reactors and propulsion systems for spacecrafts. He has worked for the U.S. Disarmament Agency and done consulting for NASA and the Department of Defense. He also served as chair of the Federation of American Scientists, where he helped to advise the U.S. Senate. He has been described by Wired Magazine as “the deepest futurist alive.” Dyson will be speaking in Isla Vista Theater today at 3 p.m.
You’ve gotten a real insider’s look at the history of scientific development. You’ve gotten to know a lot of the people who are in the history books. How does this make your outlook unique?
I don’t claim to be unique at all, but it’s true I’ve been knocking around for a long time and most of the interesting people I’ve met by accident. Perhaps my advantage is not being too specialized. I’ve always had much broader interests than just the things I was doing myself. In fact, some of the most exciting contacts I made were through politics.
I got to be chairman of the Federation of American Scientists, which astonished me. There I was, standing up testifying before the Senate on behalf of the American scientific community, which I found amazing. I am very critical about the United States in many ways, but the one thing that it has, which no other country has, is the ability to accept aliens so easily. The fact that I was a new citizen didn’t matter – I was just as good as anybody else to represent the community. That was wonderful.
Being chairman of the federation, I got to know the general counsel, who was a lawyer, Dan Singer. His wife is a very famous biologist, Maxine Singer. Maxine became a close friend. That kind of contact happens if you have your eyes open and don’t mind spending time on things aside from your job.
I stayed friends with Maxine and she kept me in touch with biology. She was the leader of the movement to establish rules for gene splicing, when it was discovered about 20 years ago. The biological community all over the world stopped doing experiments for 10 months so they would have time to think about the consequences, which was quite unique.
Those rules have been maintained for the last 20 years without any problems. That’s a great triumph for ethical behavior on the part of scientists. I wish the physicists had behaved as well when they had similar problems.
Tell us a bit about your lecture.
The question is, can you use technology to help the poor? That’s essentially the point. Lots of projects have been started with those intentions. Some of them worked and some didn’t. The question is, how do you tell? Roughly speaking, the conclusion is that those that start from the bottom up tend to work well. Those that start from the top down tend to work badly. It’s not a universal rule, but it seems to be pretty good. So if you want to do real good for the poor, you’d better talk to them and understand their problems and preferably make the project belong to them, rather than imposing it from above.
You’ve said reductionism has given people a very negative view of science. I’m interested to know how your point of view has remained so incredibly optimistic.
I grew up in the 1930s in England where there were very strong negative feelings about science, mostly produced by World War I. It was a chemist’s war with tremendous use of poison gases. There were millions of people whose lives were ruined by poison gases. So the public had a very dismal view of science at that time. It had the same effect on England as the Vietnam War did on America, only even more so because more people were involved. So all my life I’ve been aware of the fact that science is unpopular and for very good reasons. There’s nothing new about that.
The scientist as the demon who produces all kinds of monsters is a very old story. And it’s true. We do produce monsters. It’s not a negative worldview. On the contrary, it was from a realistic awareness of what was going on.
In the 1930s we had a hell of a lot of problems much worse than the problems we have now – especially Hitler, the worst of them all. We also expected biological weapons to be used in World War II. We all knew about Anthrax at that time and Britain, the U.S. and Germany all had biological weapons. We all expected they would be used in World War II. In fact, we expected to die of plague rather than just ordinary old-fashioned bullets. That was a very real danger and we survived.
That was the amazing thing. We had all these terrible problems. We had pollution much worse than it is today. The depression of 1930s was far worse than the economic problems of today. Almost everything then was worse than it is now. Still we survived that, so why shouldn’t we survive this? The fact is that humans are very good at surviving. All these problems that we are dealing with now are just challenges rather than disasters.
All right, last question. What excites you the most about the future?
It’s difficult to answer in a couple sentences. I still find the most exciting prospect is the spreading of life all over the universe, which I see as just an unending adventure and I think it will be. It’s in the nature of life to spread out and diversify the way it’s done on this planet and to occupy every ecological niche until you have millions of different species. Life has this amazing richness and as soon as it gets out from this planet and spreads over the universe, then it’s going to be just enormously exciting.
I won’t be alive to see it. This is something for the 22nd century, rather than the 21st. Still, it’s going to happen. Biological engineering is part of that. We shall be the midwives to produce creatures that can live in space. Once we’ve done that then they’ll be on their own and they’ll evolve independently of us. That’s number one on my list of exciting things because it’s too far away for me to be involved myself.
In the meantime there are smaller things. I’m excited to see what happens when we explore Europa, the moon of Jupiter that has an ocean under the ice. Exploring space is, for me, still the great adventure and it is going ahead very nicely. In spite of the stupid things that the government does, one thing it does well is to support space science. There’s very good space science being done in many countries. That’s exciting.
And biotechnologies. There are tremendous mysteries there. I wrote a little book about the origin of life. Since nobody understands it, we’re all equally ignorant, so I could write a book about it. That’s another very exciting problem, which probably won’t be solved in my lifetime. Still, it’s exciting to think about.