Thursday, March 26, 2009

Freeman Dyson: Heterodox Humanist

The Civil Heretic
Published: March 29, 2009
How did Freeman Dyson, the world-renowned scientist and public intellectual, wind up opposing those who care most about global warming?

Beyond the specific points of factual dispute, Dyson has said that it all boils down to “a deeper disagreement about values” between those who think “nature knows best” and that “any gross human disruption of the natural environment is evil,” and “humanists,” like himself, who contend that protecting the existing biosphere is not as important as fighting more repugnant evils like war, poverty and unemployment.

Winchester is a medieval town in which, Dyson writes, he felt that everyone was looking backward, mourning all the young men lost to one world war while silently anticipating his own generation’s impending demise. He renounced the nostalgia, the servants, the hard-line social castes. But what he liked about growing up in England was the landscape. The country’s successful alteration of wilderness and swamp had created a completely new green ecology, allowing plants, animals and humans to thrive in “a community of species.” Dyson has always been strongly opposed to the idea that there is any such thing as an optimal ecosystem — “life is always changing” — and he abhors the notion that men and women are something apart from nature, that “we must apologize for being human.” Humans, he says, have a duty to restructure nature for their survival.

“There’s a lot of truth to the statement Greens are people who never had to worry about their grocery bills,” he says.

He and Imme have spent 51 happy years together in the same house, a white clapboard just over the garden fence from the stucco affair once inhabited by their former neighbors, the Oppenheimers. On some Sundays the Dysons pile into a car still decorated with an Obama bumper sticker and drive to running races, at which Dyson can be found at the finish line loudly cheering for the 72-year-old Imme, a master’s marathon champion.

All six of Dyson’s children describe him as a loving, intensely devoted father and yet also suggest that this is a parent with, in the words of his son, George, core parts of him that have always seemed “remote.” William Press said he finds Dyson to be both a “deep” and “magnificently laudable person” and also mysterious and inscrutable, a man with contrarian opinions that Press suspects may be motivated by “a darker side he’s determined the world isn’t going to see.” When I asked Sacks what he thought about all this, he said that “a favorite word of Freeman’s about doing science and being creative is the word ‘subversive.’ He feels it’s rather important not only to be not orthodox, but to be subversive, and he’s done that all his life.”

Dyson says he can “remember so vividly lying in bed at age 15, absolutely enjoying hearing the bombs go off with a wonderful crunching noise. I said, ‘That’s the sound of the British Empire crumbling.’ I had a sense that the British Empire was evil. The fact that I might get hit didn’t register at all. I think that’s a natural state of mind for a 15-year-old. I somehow got over it.” At Cambridge, Dyson attended all the advanced mathematics lectures and climbed roofs at night during blackouts. By the end of the school year in 1943, which Dyson celebrated by pushing his wheelchairbound classmate, Oscar Hahn, the 55 miles home to London in one 17-hour day, Dyson was fully formed as a person of strong, frequently rebellious beliefs, someone who would always go his own way.


LanceMiller said...

I have never encountered a contemporary that mirrors my sentiments so exactly as Dyson. I've been planning on writing on heterodoxy as a personal trait I am heavily inclined towards, and this NYT article appeared to give lots of inspiration.

Lord Rybec said...

Something I read recently fits this well.

Evidently, someone (I am not sure who) is planning on building high rise structures for growing food crops. It was not clear whether the buildings were just multi-level climate controlled green houses, or full on hydroponics bays.

This is to take place in the near future, in some major city; New York City I think it was, but I don't remember exactly.

Anyhow, high rise style growing establishments not only use ground space more efficiently than huge horizontal stretches of open land, but I would make an educated guess that one of these would produce more oxygen than a similar sized patch of land in a Brazilian rain forest. (Feel free to correct me if you have evidence to the effect that I am wrong. Please don't bother if you don't have evidence though.)

Lord Rybec

The Serpent Lord said...


H2O + CO2 + light --> sugar + O2

Artificial structures will be limited by available light and water just like natural rainforests and deserts which maximize the use of those resources in their respective environments.

(However, you could add the stored light of extinct stars and plants by burning nuclear and fossil fuels.)

The high rise greenhouse suggests alternatives to the current arrangement where people are physically separated from the biotechnology that sustains them - perhaps including alternatives that would encourage the kind of interesting and potentially useful biotechnology Dyson talks about rather than the gimmicky proprietary biotechnology that dominates our grocery aisles today.