Technophiles and humanitarians found a rare common ground Friday in Isla Vista Theater in the lecture of renowned physicist and science writer Freeman Dyson, who spoke on technology and social justice as part of the “Science, Religion and the Human Experience” series.
Nobel Laureate Walter Kohn introduced Dyson and gave a brief overview of his impact on the field of physics. Dyson’s greatest achievement was mathematically uniting the opposing theories of Richard Feynman and Julian Schwinger in the field of Quantum Electrodynamics in the 1960s. Kohn described Dyson as a “scientific marriage counselor” in his role of uniting the two theories. Since that time he has made continued contributions to the field and become known as a great popularizer of science.
Dyson’s lecture focused on the ways in which technology can be used to improve the condition of the poor.
“If the miseries of the poor in Africa and elsewhere are to be alleviated, tools derived from science and ethical principles derived from religion are both essential,” he said. “That’s an area where science and religion can fruitfully work together.
“I hold it to be ethically unacceptable to tolerate the gross inequalities that prevail in the world today,” he said. “I hold it to be intellectually unacceptable to abandon the pursuit of scientific knowledge and the technological power that scientific knowledge inevitably brings with it.”
However, Dyson said that in order to make progress on either front, people must ask two questions.
“First,” he said, “can we pursue high-tech science and technology without widening the gap between rich and poor? Second, is there a practical way to combine technological progress with social justice? These are the crucial questions that must be answered if we want the public to believe that science and technology have anything to do with social justice.”
Dyson said society is polarized into groups of technophiles and humanitarians, both with little regard for the other’s purpose. “I happen to belong to both and that’s why I ask these questions,” he said.
His lecture consisted of a collection of case studies in which people had attempted to help the poor through the use of technology. He concluded that three precautions must be taken in attempting to help the poor with technological projects.
First, Dyson said, people should make a careful attempt to understand the problems of the poor and to take steps to give them control over such projects. Second, people must proceed cautiously, sounding out the effects of their actions in a step-by-step manner. “Step-by-step experiments provide the best chance to avoid failures and find unexpected routes to success,” Dyson said.
Finally, Dyson said, many different groups must work together to achieve success. “If we’re ever to solve this problem it can only be by a working alliance of people who are experts in different areas.”
Panelist Paul Hansma, a professor in the UCSB Physics Dept., agreed with Dyson’s analysis and said he believed it was important to remain open to different possibilities for progress.
“For us the path is always unexpected,” he said. “If we knew where we’d end up – we’d start there.”