RIP Freeman Dyson: World-Renowned Physicist, ‘Einstein’s successor’, Climate Skeptic, Died Aged 96
|1) Freeman Dyson, World-Renowned Physicist & GWPF Founding Member, Has Died Aged 96
Global Warming Policy Foundation, 1 March 20202) Freeman Dyson, Legendary Theoretical Physicist, Dies At 96
National Geographic, 28 February 20203) Freeman Dyson on Global Greening & Climate Alarm
Conversations that Matter, May 2017
4) Freeman Dyson: The Shale Gas Shock
Global Warming Policy Foundation, 2011
5) The Scientist As Rebel: Benny Peiser Interviews Freeman Dyson
The Global Warming Policy Forum, 2014
1) Freeman Dyson, World-Renowned Physicist & GWPF Founding Member, Has Died Aged 96
Freeman Dyson, one of the world’s most eminent theoretical physicists and a founding member of the GWPF, has died aged 96.
Born in England on 15 December 1923, Freeman Dyson graduated from Cambridge University in 1945 with a BA in mathematics. In 1947, he moved to the USA where he went to work at Cornell University and, later, at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.
Professor Dyson was a dedicated supporter of the GWPF and a founding member of the GWPF’s Academic Advisory Council. He will be sorely missed.
Freeman Dyson: Scientific Dogmatism Still Alive
Foreword to Indur Goklany’s GWPF report Carbon Dioxide: The Good News
Indur Goklany has done a careful job, collecting and documenting the evidence that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere does far more good than harm. To any unprejudiced person reading this account, the facts should be obvious: that the non-climatic effects of carbon dioxide as a sustainer of wildlife and crop plants are enormously beneficial, that the possibly harmful climatic effects of carbon dioxide have been greatly exaggerated, and that the benefits clearly outweigh the possible damage.
I consider myself an unprejudiced person and to me these facts are obvious. But the same facts are not obvious to the majority of scientists and politicians who consider carbon dioxide to be evil and dangerous. The people who are supposed to be experts and who claim to understand the science are precisely the people who are blind to the evidence. Those of my scientific colleagues who believe the prevailing dogma about carbon dioxide will not find Goklany’s evidence convincing. I hope that a few of them will make the effort to examine the evidence in detail and see how it contradicts the prevailing dogma, but I know that the majority will remain blind. That is to me the central mystery of climate science. It is not a scientific mystery but a human mystery. How does it happen that a whole generation of scientific experts is blind to obvious facts? In this foreword I offer a tentative solution of the mystery.
There are many examples in the history of science of irrational beliefs promoted by famous thinkers and adopted by loyal disciples. Sometimes, as in the use of bleeding as a treatment for various diseases, irrational belief did harm to a large number of human victims. George Washington was one of the victims. Other irrational beliefs, such as the phlogiston theory of burning or the Aristotelian cosmology of circular celestial motions, only did harm by delaying the careful examination of nature. In all these cases, we see a community of people happily united in a false belief that brought leaders and followers together. Anyone who questioned the prevailing belief would upset the peace of the community.
Real advances in science require a different cultural tradition, with individuals who invent new tools to explore nature and are not afraid to question authority. Science driven by rebels and heretics searching for truth has made great progress in the last three centuries. But the new culture of scientific scepticism is a recent growth and has not yet penetrated deeply into our thinking. The old culture of group loyalty and dogmatic belief is still alive under the surface, guiding the thoughts of scientists as well as the opinions of ordinary citizens.
To understand human behavior, I look at human evolution. About a hundred thousand years ago, our species invented a new kind of evolution. In addition to biological evolution based on genetic changes, we began a cultural evolution based on social and intellectual changes. Biological evolution did not stop, but cultural evolution was much faster and quickly became dominant. Social customs and beliefs change and spread much more rapidly than genes.
Cultural evolution was enabled by spoken languages and tribal loyalties. Tribe competed with tribe and culture with culture. The cultures that prevailed were those that promoted tribal cohesion. Humans were always social animals, and culture made us even more social. We evolved to feel at home in a group that thinks alike. It was more important for a group of humans to be united than to be right. It was always dangerous and usually undesirable to question authority. When authority was seriously threatened, heretics were burned at the stake.
I am suggesting that the thinking of politicians and scientists about controversial issues today is still tribal. Science and politics are not essentially different from other aspects of human culture. Science and politics are products of cultural evolution. Thinking about scientific questions is still presented to the public as a competitive sport with winners and losers. For players of the sport with public reputations to defend, it is more important to belong to a winning team than to examine the evidence. Cultural evolution was centered for a hundred thousand years on tales told by elders to children sitting around the cave fire. That cave-fire evolution gave us brains that are wonderfully sensitive to fable and fantasy, but insensitive to facts and figures. To enable a tribe to prevail in the harsh world of predators and prey, it was helpful to have brains with strong emotional bonding to shared songs and stories. It was not helpful to have brains questioning whether the stories were true. Our scientists and politicians of the modern age evolved recently from the cave-children. They still, as Charles Darwin remarked about human beings in general, bear the indelible stamp of their lowly origin.
In the year 1978, the United States Department of Energy drew up a ‘Comprehensive Plan for Carbon Dioxide Effects Research and Assessment’, which fixed the agenda of official discussions of carbon dioxide for the next 37 years. I wrote in a memorandum protesting against the plan:
“The direct effects of carbon dioxide increase on plant growth and interspecific competition receive little attention. The plan is drawn up as if climatic change were the only serious effect of carbon dioxide on human activities. . .In a comparison of the non-climatic with the climatic effects of carbon dioxide, the nonclimatic effects may be:
1. more certain,
… Our research plan should address these issues directly, not as a mere side-line to climatic studies.”
My protest received no attention and the Comprehensive Plan prevailed. As a result, the public perception of carbon dioxide has been dominated by the computer climate-model experts who designed the plan. The tribal group-thinking of that group of experts was amplified and reinforced by a supportive political bureaucracy.
Indur Goklany has assembled a massive collection of evidence to demonstrate two facts. First, the non-climatic effects of carbon dioxide are dominant over the climatic effects and are overwhelmingly beneficial. Second, the climatic effects observed in the real world are much less damaging than the effects predicted by the climate models, and have also been frequently beneficial. I am hoping that the scientists and politicians who have been blindly demonizing carbon dioxide for 37 years will one day open their eyes and look at the evidence. Goklany and I do not claim to be infallible. Like the climate-model experts, we have also evolved recently from the culture of the cave-children. Like them, we have inherited our own set of prejudices and blindnesses. Truth emerges when different groups of explorers listen to each other’s stories and correct each other’s mistakes.
Princeton – September 2015
Freeman Dyson FRS was Professor Emeritus of Mathematical Physics and Astrophysics at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton where he held a chair for many years. Dyson was the author of numerous widely read science books. He was a founding member of the GWPF’s Academic Advisory Council.
2) Freeman Dyson, Legendary Theoretical Physicist, Dies At 96
Dyson helped create modern particle physics, criticized nuclear weapons tests, and imagined how civilizations could take to the stars.
A GREAT FIGURE in 20th-century physics, Freeman J. Dyson—the theorist who unified the world of the atom and the electron, a critic of nuclear weapons tests, a designer of space civilizations, and a steadfast climate change contrarian—died on February 28, 2020, in Princeton, New Jersey. He was 96 years old.
At his death, Dyson still maintained an office at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey, where he took up residence in 1953 as a professor of physics. The IAS confirmed Dyson’s passing to National Geographic.
“No life is more entangled with the Institute and impossible to capture—architect of modern particle physics, free-range mathematician, advocate of space travel, astrobiology and disarmament, futurist, eternal graduate student, rebel to many preconceived ideas including his own, thoughtful essayist, all the time a wise observer of the human scene,” Robbert Dijkgraaf, director of the IAS, said in a statement. “His secret was simply saying yes to everything in life, till the very end.”
When Dyson began his appointment at the IAS, Albert Einstein still roamed the grounds. Though he would later be called an “heir” to his renowned colleague, Dyson never came up with a general theory of anything. Modest, shy, and self-effacing, he was always content to work with others on their ideas.
“I’m not a person for big questions,” he told Quanta Magazine shortly after his 90th birthday. “I look for puzzles. I look for interesting problems that I can solve. I don’t care whether they’re important or not, and so I’m definitely not obsessed with solving some big mystery. That’s not my style.”
“He did not propose radical new ideas, but instead helped clean up the details of the theories first proposed in the quantum revolution of the 1920s,” said Declan Fahy, an associate professor of communications at Dublin City University in Dublin, Ireland, who studies scientists as public intellectuals. “In the 1940s and 1950s, he and others proved experimentally that the theories were correct, and this resulted ultimately in the theory of quantum electrodynamics, which describes how atoms behave. It’s hugely significant in science, but does not capture public imagination in the same way as string theory.”
Dyson became famous for translating the ideas of Richard Feynman and two other physicists into more accessible mathematical calculations in a seminal 1949 paper, “The Radiation Theories of Tomonaga, Schwinger, and Feynman.” But before that, he and Feynman spent four memorable days driving from upstate New York to Albuquerque that included not only deep, inspirational conversations but also taking shelter from an Oklahoma flood in a brothel.
Despite Dyson’s key role in synthesizing their ideas, he was overlooked in 1965 when Feynman, Harvard physicist Julian Schwinger, and Japanese scientist Sin-Itiro Tomonaga won the Nobel Prize for their work on the physics of elementary particles.
Though he was passed over for the Nobel—his 2000 Templeton Prize cited that work as his “most useful contribution to science”—Dyson’s improvement of the early understanding of how atoms behave was a major advance from earlier ideas regarding both relativity and quantum mechanics, said Virginia Trimble, a physicist at the University of California at Irvine.
“You could say that, without this understanding, you wouldn’t have modern computers or telephones or digital cameras,” she said.
You also wouldn’t have certain radiation therapies used for cancer to this day. In the late 1950s, building on an idea by Edward Teller, Dyson led a team that designed and patented the TRIGA (which stands for Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomic), a small, low-power nuclear reactor that is still used in research hospitals to produce medical isotopes to treat various forms of cancer.
Dyson’s nuclear energy work also extended to the Air Force’s secret Project Orion, which sought to build a spaceship propelled by exploding atomic bombs that would take humans to the farthest reaches of the solar system. The fantastical venture was canceled after NASA opted for more conventional rockets and the nuclear test ban treaty put an end to aboveground atomic experiments.
Dyson’s interest in nuclear weapons also brought controversy. As a member during the Vietnam War of JASON, a defense industry advisory panel, he spearheaded research on the feasibility of using small, tactical nuclear weapons against the enemy. His ease in separating the technical from the moral aspects of the project made him a target of the anti-war movement.
Still, the scientist had other, less divisive ideas that became the stuff of science fiction. His hypothetical Dyson Sphere, a megastructure that would encompass a star to capture its energy, was portrayed in novels and in an episode of TV’s Star Trek: The Next Generation. The hypothetical Dyson tree would grow on comets to support future space colonists.
3) Freeman Dyson on Global Greening & Climate Alarm
4) Freeman Dyson: The Shale Gas Shock
Global Warming Policy Foundation, 2011I agree emphatically with the conclusions of Matt Ridley‘s report. This foreword explains why.Two scenes from my middle-class childhood in England. In my home in Winchester, coming wet and cold into the nursery after the obligatory daily outing, I sit on the rug in front of the red glowing gas-stove and quickly get warm and dry. In the Albert Hall in London, in a posh seat in the front row of the balcony, I listen with my father to a concert and hear majestic music emerging out of yellow nothingness, seeing neither the orchestra nor the conductor, because the hall is filled with London‘s famous pea-soup fog. The gas-fire was the quick, clean and efficient way to warm our rooms in a damp climate. The fog was the result of a million opengrate coal fires heating rooms in other homes. In those days the gas was coal-gas, with a large fraction of poisonous carbon monoxide, manufactured locally in gas-works situated at the smelly and slummy east end of the town. Since those days, the open-grate coal fire was prohibited by law, and the coal-gas was replaced by cleaner and safer natural gas. London is no longer the place where your shirt-collar is black with soot at the end of each day. But I am left with the indelible impressions of childhood. Coal is a yellow foulness in the air. Gas is the soft purring of the fire in a cozy nursery.In America when I raised my own children, two more scenes carried the same message. In America homes are centrally heated. Our first home was heated by coal. One night I was stoking the furnace when a rat scuttled out of a dark corner of the filthy coal-cellar, and I killed him with my coal-shovel. Our second home was heated by oil. One happy day, the oil-furnace was replaced by a gas-furnace and the mess of the oil was gone. We were then told that the supply of natural gas would last only thirty years. Now the thirty years are over, but shale gas has extended the supply to a couple of centuries. While the price of oil goes up and up, the price of gas goes down. In America, coal is a bloody fight in the dark. Gas is a clean cellar which became the kids‘ playroom.
The most important improvements of the human condition caused by new technologies are often unexpected before they happen and quickly forgotten afterwards. My grandmother was born around 1850 in the industrial West Riding of Yorkshire. She said that the really important change in working-class homes when she was young was the change from tallow candles to wax candles. With wax candles you could read comfortably at night. With tallow candles you could not. Compared with that, the later change from wax candles to electric light was not so important. According to my grandmother, wax candles did more than government schools to produce a literate working class.
Shale gas is like wax candles. It is not a perfect solution to our economic and environmental problems, but it is here when it is needed, and it makes an enormous difference to the human condition. Matt Ridley gives us a fair and even-handed account of the environmental costs and benefits of shale gas. The lessons to be learned are clear. The environmental costs of shale gas are much smaller than the environmental costs of coal. Because of shale gas, the air in Beijing will be cleaned up as the air in London was cleaned up sixty years ago. Because of shale gas, clean air will no longer be a luxury that only rich countries can afford. Because of shale gas, wealth and health will be distributed more equitably over the face of our planet.
Freeman Dyson, 22 April 2011
5) The Scientist As Rebel: Benny Peiser Interviews Freeman Dyson
The Global Warming Policy Forum, 2014Freeman Dyson, one of the world’s most eminent theoretical physicists, recently celebrated his 90th birthday. On this occasion, we republished an interview he gave Benny Peiser in March 2007.Benny Peiser: Let me start with your essay, “Sir Phillip Robert’s Erolunar Collision,” that you wrote in 1933, aged 9. Your first ever piece of science fiction, a story about asteroid Eros, is very charming from a historical perspective. Eros plays a significant role in the history of modern astronomy. It was the first discovered near Earth asteroid and, with a size of circa 13 x 13 x 30 km, is the second largest known NEO. Evidently, your narrative about the asteroid’s close approach was written in the aftermath of the Eros fly by in 1930/31.
What I find intriguing in your account is the conspicuous cheerfulness of the astronomers. When the fictitious president of the astronomical society, Sir Phillip Roberts, announced that Eros may one day collide with the Earth, the reaction of his fellow astronomers is enthusiastic: “Three cheers for Eros!” and “Hip, Hip! Hurrah! They all shouted.” After more calculations revealed that Eros would collide with the Moon in as little as 11 years, the astronomical society decided to organise an expedition to the Moon so that they would witness the collision in situ, “instead of through a telescope.”
It would appear that the perception of a collision by a large asteroid with the Earth was still regarded as something of a challenge rather than a global catastrophe. Today, we know that the impact of an asteroid the size of Eros would wipe out more than 90% of all terrestrial forms of life. This, then, raises the following questions: Why was the potentially existential threat at the time of your writing greatly underestimated? Looking back at your own intellectual development, when did you yourself begin to realise the severity of the threat posed by asteroids and comets?
Freeman Dyson: Certainly as a nine-year-old I considered the Erolunar collision as a great lark and did not worry about the dangers. That is the normal reaction of nine-year-olds to adventures of all kinds. I remember an excellent film called Hope and Glory‘ portraying World War Two as seen through the eyes of a nine-year-old kid in England. For the kid, the war was a great lark. That was true. That film gave the most accurate picture of the war that I have seen.
To me it came as a complete and wonderful surprise when Luis Alvarez discovered the iridium layer that showed a connection between the dinosaur extinction and an extraterrestrial impact. There was no doubt that the two events occurred at the same time, and that many species of plankton in the ocean became extinct at the same time too. And still, I was always skeptical of Alvarez’s theory explaining how the impact caused the extinctions. And I am still skeptical. We now know that the other major extinctions do not have iridium layers associated with them, and we know that the dinosaur extinction has a major volcanic eruption (Deccan Traps) associated with it. So it is plausible that volcanic eruptions are the main cause of extinctions, with extraterrestrial impacts giving an additional push if they happen to occur at the same time.
After looking at the evidence, I do not agree with your statement, “we know that an impact of an asteroid the size of Eros would wipe out more than 90% of all terrestrial forms of life”. I would say that this statement is an exaggeration, similar to statements of the same kind that are made about global warming. Certainly the danger from asteroid impacts is real, and certainly it makes sense to study ways of deflecting asteroids when the opportunity arises. But I find much of the rhetoric about asteroid impacts to be exaggerated. It seems likely that the real dangers to the survival of the biosphere come more from inside the earth than from outside.
Benny Peiser: In your book Infinite in all Directions (1988) you discuss eschatological questions surrounding the theoretical issue of the end of the universe. As one of a very small number of optimistic cosmologists, you have developed a scientific theory of infinity. You write: “I have found a universe growing without limit in richness and complexity, a universe of life surviving forever and making itself known to its neighbors across unimaginable gulfs of space and time.” This hopeful cosmology contrast sharply with the apocalyptic Zeitgeist. What would you say are the most important intellectual principles and ideas that have sustained your unrelenting optimism?
Freeman Dyson: My optimism about the long-term survival of life comes mainly from imagining what will happen when life escapes from this planet and becomes adapted to living in vacuum. There is then no real barrier to stop life from spreading through the universe. Hopping from one world to another will be about as easy as hopping from one island in the Pacific to another. And then life will diversify to fill the infinite variety of ecological niches in the universe, as it has done already on this planet. If you want an intellectual principle to give this picture a philosophical name, you can call it “The Principle of Maximum Diversity”. The principle of maximum diversity says that life evolves to make the universe as interesting as possible. A rain-forest contains a huge number of diverse species because specialization is cost-effective, just as Adam Smith observed in human societies. But I am impressed more by the visible examples of diversity in rain-forests and coral-reefs and human cultures than by any abstract philosophical principles.
Benny Peiser: In the first chapter of your new book, The Scientist as Rebel, you write that the common element of the scientific vision “is rebellion against the restrictions imposed by the locally prevailing culture,” and that scientists “should be artists and rebels, obeying their own instincts rather than social demands or philosophical principles.”
Contrary to this liberal if not libertarian concept of scientific open-mindedness, there has been growing pressure on scientists to tow the line and endorse what is nowadays called the ‘scientific consensus’ – on numerous contentious issues. Dissenting scientists frequently face ostracism and denunciation when they dare to go against the current. Has Western science become more authoritarian in recent years or have rebellious scientists always had to face similar condemnation and resentment? And how can young scientists develop intellectual independence and autonomy in a bureaucratic world of funding dependency?
Freeman Dyson: Certainly the growing rigidity of scientific organizations is a real and serious problem. I like to remind young scientists of examples in the recent past when people without paper qualifications made great contributions. Two of my favorites are: Milton Humason, who drove mules carrying material up the mountain trail to build the Mount Wilson Observatory, and then when the observatory was built got a job as a janitor, and ended up as a staff astronomer second-in-command to Hubble. Bernhardt Schmidt, the inventor of the Schmidt telescope which revolutionized optical astronomy, who worked independently as a lens-grinder and beat the big optical companies at their own game. I tell young people that the new technologies of computing, telecommunication, optical detection and microchemistry actually empower the amateur to do things that only professionals could do before.
Amateurs and small companies will have a growing role in the future of science. This will compensate for the increasing burocratization of the big organizations. Bright young people will start their own companies and do their own science.
Benny Peiser: In a Winter Commencement Address at the University of Michigan two years ago you called yourself a heretic on global warming, the most notorious dogma of modern science. You have described global warming anxiety as grossly exaggerated and have openly voiced your doubts about the reliability of climate models. These models, you argue, “do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields, farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in.” There seems to be an almost complete endorsement of the world’s scientific organisations and elites of these models together with claims that they reliably epitomize reality and can consistently predict future climate change. How do you feel belonging to a tiny minority of scientists who dare to voice their doubts openly?
Freeman Dyson: I am always happy to be in the minority. Concerning the climate models, I know enough of the details to be sure that they are unreliable. They are full of fudge factors that are fitted to the existing climate, so the models more or less agree with the observed data. But there is no reason to believe that the same fudge factors would give the right behavior in a world with different chemistry, for example in a world with increased CO2 in the atmosphere.
Benny Peiser: In a chapter about the scientific revolutions in modern physics and mathematics, you describe the deep intellectual confusion in Weimar Germany in the aftermath of the First World War. You portray a society troubled by a mood of doom and gloom, a milieu that was conducive for scientific revolution as well as political upheaval. Unmistakably, the Great War set off a major shift in German thought, from the idea of progress and technological confidence to cultural pessimism and apocalypticism. As we know, the consequences of this mood of despair was calamitous. Do you see any comparison with the gloomy frame of mind that seems to be on the increase among many Western scientists today?
Freeman Dyson: Yes, the western academic world is very much like Weimar Germany, finding itself in a situation of losing power and influence. Fortunately, the countries that matter now are China and India, and the Chinese and Indian experts do not share the mood of doom and gloom. It is amusing to see China and India take on today the role that America took in the nineteen-thirties, still believing in technology as the key to a better life for everyone.
Benny Peiser: One of your most influential lectures is re-published in your new book. I am talking about your Bernal Lecture which you delivered in London in 1972, one year after Desmond Bernal’s death. As you point out, the lecture provided the foundation for much of your writing in later years. What strikes me about your remarkably optimistic lecture is its almost religious tone. It was delivered at a time, similar to the period after World War I, when a new age of techno-pessimism came to the fore, reinforced by Hiroshima and Vietnam.
It is in this atmosphere of entrenched techno-scepticism and environmental anxiety that you advanced biological, genetic and geo-engineering as industrial trappings of social progress and environmental protection. At the height of ecological anxiety, in the same year as the Club of Rome proclaimed the “Limits to Growth,” you envisaged endless technological advancement, terrestrial progress and the greening of the galaxy, famously predicting that “we shall learn to grow trees on comets.”
Freeman Dyson: It is true that the tradition of Judeo-Christian religion is strongly coupled with philosophical optimism. Hope is high on the list of virtues. God did not put us here on earth to moan and groan. As my mother used to say, “God helps those who help themselves”.
I am generally optimistic because our human heritage seems to have equipped us very well for dealing with challenges, from ice-ages and cave-bears to diseases and over-population. The whole species did cooperate to eliminate small-pox, and the women of Mexico did reduce their average family size from seven to two and a half in fifty years. Science has helped us to understand challenges and also to defeat them.
I am especially optimistic just now because of a seminal discovery that was made recently by comparing genomes of different species. David Haussler and his colleagues at UC Santa Cruz discovered a small patch of DNA which they call HAR1, short for Human Accelerated Region 1. This patch appears to be strictly conserved in the genomes of mouse, rat, chicken and chimpanzee, which means that it must have been performing an essential function that was unchanged for about three hundred million years from the last common ancestor of birds and mammals until today.
But the same patch appears grossly modified with eighteen mutations in the human genome, which means that it must have changed its function in the last six million years from the common ancestor of chimps and humans to modern humans. Somehow, that little patch of DNA expresses an essential difference between humans and other mammals. We know two other significant facts about HAR1. First, it does not code for a protein but codes for RNA. Second, the RNA for which it codes is active in the cortex of the human embryonic brain during the second trimester of pregnancy. It is likely that the rapid evolution of HAR1 has something to do with the rapid evolution of the human brain during the last six million years.
I am optimistic because I see the discovery of HAR1 as a seminal event in the history of science, marking the beginning of a new understanding of human evolution and human nature. I see it as a big step toward the fulfilment of the dream described in 1929 by Desmond Bernal, one of the pioneers of molecular biology, in his little book, The World, the Flesh and the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul. Bernal saw science as our best tool for defeating the three enemies. The World means floods and famines and climate changes. The Flesh means diseases and senile infirmities. The Devil means the dark irrational passions that lead otherwise rational beings into strife and destruction. I am optimistic because I see HAR1 as a new tool leading us toward a deep understanding of human nature and toward the ultimate defeat of our last enemy.
Benny Peiser: Britain’s leading cosmologists seem to be particularly gloomy about the future of civilisation and humankind. The so-called Doomsday Argument seems to have had a significant influence on many Cambridge-based scientists. It has induced among them a conviction that global catastrophe is almost imminent. Martin Rees, for instance, estimates that there is a 50% chance of human extinction during the next 100 years. How do you explain this apocalyptic mood among leading cosmologists in Britain and the almost desperate tone of their pronouncements?
Freeman Dyson: My view of the prevalence of doom-and-gloom in Cambridge is that it is a result of the English class system. In England there were always two sharply opposed middle classes, the academic middle class and the commercial middle class. In the nineteenth century, the academic middle class won the battle for power and status. As a child of the academic middle class, I learned to look on the commercial middle class with loathing and contempt. Then came the triumph of Margaret Thatcher, which was also the revenge of the commercial middle class. The academics lost their power and prestige and the business people took over. The academics never forgave Thatcher and have been gloomy ever since.
Benny Peiser: Your sociological reading raises the question whether the current fashion of issuing doomsday predictions could be interpreted as the revenge by leading academics against the business community? After all, their very activities, success and societal role are blamed for impending catastrophe. Could it be that the scientific prophets of doom are trying to regain some of their lost influence by portraying themselves as saviours who, at the same time, provide governments with strong incentives for increased state power and intervention?
Freeman Dyson: I agree with your diagnosis of the academic disease. The academics are suffering from business envy, in the USA as well as inBritain. And of course there are companies like Halliburton that it is reasonable to hate, enjoying political power in the Bush government and profiteering from the war that they encouraged Bush to start. Opposition to the war is mixed up with opposition to the business community. But I agree with you that there is a longer-lasting envy of the business community that has nothing to do with the war. The academics preaching doom and gloom are indeed hoping to take their revenge on the business community by capturing the government.
Benny Peiser: There has been an apparent shift among the political left and liberals from what used to be called progressive ideas to more dystopian anxieties. What are the reasons that you have not been carried away by this tide of cultural and technological pessimism. And why have so few academics and authors of popular science been able to resist this shift towards unhappiness and desperation? In other words, how much of our optimism is shaped by people around us and positive experiences, and how much is due to rational thought, I wonder?
Freeman Dyson: I do not agree that there has been a recent shift from progressive ideas to dystopian anxieties. The best writers have always been dystopian. In the 1890s we had Wells’s Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau‘. In the 1930s Huxley’s Brave New World. These were the classics that I grew up with seventy years ago. Nothing that has been written recently is gloomier than Wells and Huxley. And in spite of that, there have always been optimists like me and Amory Lovins. I recommend Amory Lovins as an antidote to gloom and doom.
Benny Peiser: Finally, let me ask you about your thoughts regarding Britain, the country of your birth, the USA, the country of your choice, and the future of the Western democracies. At the end of your new book you write that “without religion, the life of a country would be greatly impoverished.” Perhaps nothing symbolises the glaring differences between Britain and the USA more than the gradual fading of religion in the cultural life of the UK and the profound permeation of religion on public life in the US. Sometimes I wonder whether both extremes may be detrimental to a stable, liberal and open-minded society. In a world of mounting intellectual dogmatism, is there, in your view, a middle way between the Scylla of nihilist despair and the Charybdis of fundamentalist unreasonableness?
Freeman Dyson: I do not agree with your assessment of religion in Britain and the USA. The extremes of religious dogmatism in the USA and of atheistic dogmatism in Britain are greatly exaggerated by the media. In both countries, the average atheist and the average Christian are not dogmatic or unreasonable. So far as I can see, there is about the same variety of beliefs on both sides of the ocean. Certainly we do not need any accurate navigation to find a middle way between the two extremes. Probably ninety percent of the population are somewhere in the middle.
It is also interesting in this connection to observe the similarity, in optimistic mood and rapid material progress, between China and India. Although China is traditionally non-religious and India is traditionally permeated with religion, this does not seem to make much difference. In both countries, rapidly growing wealth and technological progress create a mood of optimism, with or without religion.
That’s all for today. Thank you for posing a good set of questions.
Thanks also for CCNet which I enjoy reading.
P.S. One more thing. I met your father’s cousin Ernst Straus once when he came to a conference in Princeton. He gave an interesting talk about the frustrations of being Einstein’s assistant. He said Einstein treated his assistants as slaves, in the tradition of the German Geheimrat. It was a thankless job with very little joy, and he escaped as soon as he could.
Benny Peiser: Thank you for the interview, Professor Dyson!
14 March 2007
Freeman Dyson: Quotable Quotes: ‘We now have academic snobbery, the snobbery of people who think that just because they work at a university and have a Ph.D. after their name they are a superior breed and are entitled to despise others’