A voice for the FUTURE

CATHLEEN MED WICK January 1 1980

A voice for the FUTURE

CATHLEEN MED WICK January 1 1980

A voice for the FUTURE



To get to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, you can take Einstein's route—across the wide, lazy lawns toward the stout brick building with its white cupola. Old-timers at the Institute remember when Einstein used to walk across these lawns in the mornings. Freeman Dyson walks across them now. He has a house nearby, beyond the trees. Dyson is a quiet man, almost inconspicuous, except that his face has a startled look about it—as if he's just seen something he didn't expect. And, at the same time, as if he's seen everything. His face is worn, in a geological sort of way, like a mountain range viewed from above, carved with hairline rivers. You wish you could get closer in; but it is a face that keeps its distance. His eyes seem to focus on some vanishing point just beyond you. When he listens, his ears almost seem to point. You might say there is something alien about him, at once wary and receptive. But there is also something very human: the way he holds his body (it is slight, concave) and his long, thin arms. In his shirt sleeves, he looks almost like a boy. When he smiles, there is a crookedness, a kind of impish charm.

Dyson is something of a curiosity among physicists-a man who can appreciate the intricacies of a hydrogen bomb as well as those of a Romantic poem. He values friendship above almost anything, and his friends have included such men as Robert Oppenheimer (the “father” of the atomic bomb) and Ted Taylor, the physicist who once worked with Dyson on the nuclear-powered Orion rocket project and is today fighting nuclear terrorism. Dyson's heroes range from John Milton to Martin Luther King.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Men of faith are a rare breed—especially when they are also men of science. Freeman Dyson, pioneering physicist, has been a part of some of the greatest discoveries—and follies—to which modern science has exposed the world. Working with Robert Oppenheimer and others at Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study, Dyson saw what motivated scientists to develop (and politicians to deploy) nuclear weapons technology, even after its destructive power was unleashed on Hiroshima. Yet he still believes in the progress of science, and of humanity.

As an author—his epoch-opening book “Disturbing the Universe” was published by Harper and Row last year—Dyson has made his ideas, dreams, unwavering self-appraisals available to the general reader. It is a book that offers nothing less than a way to live fully in the present, and wisely in the future.

A profoundly honest man, Dyson not only admits his failures—he corrects them. An advocate of diversity, of human potential, Dyson is a voice for the future—a future in which his researches, hopes, and cautions may well play a vital part.

A practical-minded scientist, Dyson has developed nuclear-powered missiles, supported recombinant DNA research, and envisioned programs for industrializing asteroids. He has also fought for arms control, opposed biological warfare, and advocated a new “greening of the galaxy.” Dyson admits—publicly—to having championed some wrong causes. But he has never failed to take a stand on an issue. In an age of confused morality, he is a deeply moral man.

It is ironic that such a shy character (one whose children tease him about being afraid to make telephone calls) should find himself always at the center of human events. As a young Englishman, he dreamed of becoming an oceanographer—a dream of distances. But times were hard, “mathematics was cheaper.” He drifted off into realms of numbers, while his mother gently warned him against the Faustian dangers of abstract science. With the coming of World War II, he joined the Operational Research Section of the British Royal Air Force Bomber Command. His mission was to find out whether, on a bombing raid, the experience of the crew members had anything to do with their survival. He discovered that the odds were overwhelmingly against survival for the experienced and inexperienced alike. That discovery generated two responses in Freeman Dyson: he wanted to enlist as a crewman; and he wanted to break through the blind bureaucracy that rejected safety proposals. Dyson was talked out of the first goal by his mother, who persuaded him that his navigating would mean the waste of a good plane. The second goal was more lasting. Dyson today is still fighting bureaucracies. They are his dragons, the enemy of progress and change.

On religion: “Everything we do is two-sided. That is, of course, as true of religion as it is of science. People have killed larger numbers of people in the name of religion than they have killed in the name of science. The existence of evil in the world is something that the people who wrote the Bible knew all about, people who have written the great tragic literature knew all about—that is nothing new. So, whether you believe in God or not should not depend on whether last week's newspapers carried good or bad news.”

On offensive und defensive weapons: ”There is basically something wrong with relying on offensive weapons for our survival. I think it's possible to get away from it. At the moment, there is a big decision going forward, whether to develop and deploy a whole ne w missile system in the United States called the MX. That's a huge, very long-range and accurate new offensive missile system which is supposed to be necessary for what is called the survival of our deterrent capability, in the bureaucratic jargon. I think that's basically wrong. The practical alternative is to put in a non-nuclear defense of our existing missile sites.... It is cheaper. It is safer. And it is going in the right direction. “The question of whether we want to go for defense or offense as the main component of our military force is a mora! question. And it's something on which anybody could and should have an opinion.”

On physics: “There's a big difference between the ideas of modern physics and their application. I don t think the ideas of modern physics are threatening to human values at all. It is their applications which are threatening. and that, of course, is an old story. All through the nineteenth century, we had these horrible industrial developments which people of sensibility considered evil, and what we are experiencing now is only a continuation of the same thing.”

He came from England to the United States in 1947 to study advanced physics at Cornell. There he met Dick Feynman, a former Los Alamos scientist, who was to create a revolutionary approach to quantum electro-dynamics, the study of the physical behavior of electrons. With Feynman, Dyson took a journey across the United States. Like other journeys taken by men of great spirit and intellect, this one was a series of revelations—about America (of which he was later to become a citizen), about physics, about himself. Dyson was unable to travel across a landscape without analyzing it and himself in relation to it. There had to be a reason for his journey. America became, for Dyson, a chance to stretch his mind past its natural boundaries, to map the points at which reason and instinct intersect. On the long bus ride back from the West Coast, he finally found a middle passage between the opposing theories of Feynman, an unconventional theorist, and Julian Schwinger, a Harvard physicist known for the precise methodology of his work. Dyson's discovery was nothing less than the way to bridge the distance between reason and imagination. He writes:

“As we were droning across Nebraska on the third day, something suddenly happened. For two weeks I had not thought about physics, and now it came bursting into my consciousness like an explosion.... For an hour or two I arranged and rearranged the pieces. Then I knew that they all fitted. I had no pencil or paper, but everything was so clear I did not need to write it down. Feynman and Schwinger were just looking at the same set of ideas from two different sides.”

It was a revelation, a vision. What Dyson understood was something even more basic than quantum electrodynamics. It was the principle, governing human lives, of the basic two-sidedness of things: the difficulty of choosing between partial goods, partial evils, and the necessity of finding “a middle ground on which reasonable people can stand.” That is, after all, the primary concern of a peace-maker; and that is what Dyson is.

He is eloquent in his reasonableness. “On the one side, the gospel that Jesus and Gandhi and Martin Luther King preached. On the other side, the madness of hydrogen bombs and the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction with which we are now precariously living. Given this choice, how could any sane person not choose the path of non-violence?” Yet, Dyson explains, the choice is not so simple. To Oppenheimer and those who worked with him to develop the atomic bomb, the work was seductive, daring. It was technically “sweet.” The technology of defense, by contrast, is uninspired. Physicists, like Faust, have “known sin” (as Oppenheimer once put it) and found it compelling.

Still, Dyson insists that we have to recognize a moral imperative, what he calls the “ethics of defense”: “I believe that if we are morally sensitive, if we have a feeling for what offensive weapons really do, and how destructive they are, that we shall be able to carry the world along with us. The world after all is ready for a change.”

A qualified optimism, based on a belief (regardless of evidence to the contrary) in the sanity of human beings. “The whole of human history is the story of follies of one kind or another,” Dyson admits. “But we also have a great power for surviving our follies.”

As a child, Dyson was intrigued by a book by E. Nesbit, called The Magic City. It is about a place where, if anyone wishes for a piece of machinery, he can have it. But he will also have to keep it and keep on using it forever. Of course, whoever wishes for a machine can't know the consequences—any more than the physicists of the 1940s could know that the world of the 1980s would be terrorized by the threat of nuclear war. “The magic city,” says Dyson, “is where we are living, a place full of overgrown toys, some of which became horrible, some of which became beautiful.... It was obviously a fine thing to invent nylon. Class distinctions between those who could afford silk stockings and those who couldn't disappeared. That was fine. Another development that happened at the same time was nuclear fission. This led to atomic bombs. That wasn't so fine. But the people who did the work of course didn't know that.”

“Physicists, like Faust, have 'known sin'”

As Dyson sees it, “Physicists have already done the worst that they can do by inventing nuclear weapons.... Biologists are in the science that will probably do most to alter human conditions in the next fifty years.” The great danger is that biologists will try to “play God”—reinventing the human species in the laboratory. As in H.G. Wells's The Island of Doctor Moreau, biology could create a new breed of beings, not really men but a danger to continued natural evolution of mankind. “Nuclear war is not the worst of imaginable horrors,” writes Dyson. “Doctor Moreau's island is worse.”

The greater the excesses of science, the greater the challenge to rational minds. It is typical of Dyson's vision that he anticipates, not the extinction of the species, but its expansion into the universe. “Some of us,” he writes, “will become insane, and rule over empires as crazy as Doctor Moreau's island.... But in the long run, the sane will adapt and survive better than the insane.... Sanity is, in its essence, nothing more than the ability to live with nature's laws.”

He foresees a future in which resolute, patient people—much like the early Mormons and Pilgrims—pack up their families and move out to space. If, as Dyson suspects, asteroids prove habitable, a generation of space colonists may build their houses, plant their crops, and begin a new world.

It stands to reason: If the earth is over-populated, begin to populate the universe. If technology is greying the face of the earth, invent a new “green” technology that utilizes infinite resources, like solar heat. Find new resources in space, and transport industrial waste to barren planets. Restore the beauty of the earth, and explore the beauties of space.

Einstein once defined the scientist as an “unscrupulous opportunist.” Dyson would define the physicist, at his best, as an inspired dreamer. He makes sense of his dreams by pursuing thought experiments—imaginary experiments used to illuminate theoretical ideas. There is something disarming about these thought experiments; like a child's fantasy world, they are at once playful and serious, practical and imaginative, improbable and real. Dyson's asteroid colony not only has farms—it also has space-borne power stations transmitting energy to earth. The cost estimates are high; but since no probe has yet reached an asteroid, and no one knows whether the soil is even tillable, any estimates remain conjectures. Still, they give physicists something to dream about.

Peace, like war, has its arts. War making is an art of displacement, a sudden and strategic invasion of boundaries. The arts of peace are subtler. They require gentle skills of exploration, the taking of firm and measured steps onto new ground. Diplomacy, assimilation of the explorer into the delicate natural balance of an untouched world.

Dyson has a vision of pioneers in space—not heroes, but quiet adventurers. Space travel could be as simple and as beautiful as sailing through an unknown sea. The explorer of the future will be an oceanographer of space, his vessel a solar sailboat. “In principle,” Dyson writes, “it is possible to sail around the solar system using no engine at all. All you need is a huge gossamer-thin sail made of aluminum-coated plastic film. You can trim and tack wherever you want to go, balancing the pressure of sunlight on the sail against the force of the sun's gravity to steer a course ... as the skipper of an earthly sailboat balances the pressure of the wind in his sails against the pressure of the water on his keel.”

It is a beautiful, peaceful vision—that boat and its human navigator. In the end, it is the human presence that apprehends whatever in the universe is divine.

This is how Dyson tells it:

“My twelve-year-old daughter brought six beautiful monarch caterpillars home from camp with her. They lived on milkweed, and they grew. In a few days they hung upside down and grew their cocoons. After a few days, the butterflies came out of their cocoons. They were monarch butterflies, wonderfully beautiful, stretching their wings in the sun. And they flew off into the trees as if they had been doing it all their lives.... That may be a metaphor of how the human species has to change as it goes out into the universe. We are, in a way, caterpillars here on the earth. And then we wrap ourselves up into these steel and glass cocoons and go off into space in our space capsules, sitting there not really knowing how to do anything. And then one day somebody will come out of one of these cocoons and spread his wings in the universe, and then we will be free. That is, of course, my dream.”

Kathleen Blumenfeld and Cathleen Medwick interviewed Freeman Dyson at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study last fall.