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Freeman Dyson

By Rushworth M. KidderStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 14, 1986

Princeton, N.J.

THE issue of energy rises toward the top of many agendas for the 21st century. It doesn't even make it onto Freeman Dyson's list. ``I don't regard that as a real problem,'' says Professor Dyson, with the chuckle of a man who knows all sorts of wonderful secrets and who is eager to spring them upon the unwary. ``If you have advanced biotechnology, I don't see any difficulty in getting all the energy you want from the sun,'' he explains. ``It's only a question of redesigning trees so that they produce something other than wood. Gasoline, for example. Alcohol. Convenient fuels.''

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You mean, he is asked, you would get fuel the way you get sap from a sugar maple -- by tapping the tree?

``I wouldn't do it so crudely,'' he says. ``I would have a sort of living, underground pipeline system, so that the gasoline would be delivered where you want it.''

Direct from the tree, with no refining?

``Why not?'' he replies. ``All those things I think will be available in at the most 50 years -- looking at the ways the [genetic] technology is going.''

It's the kind of thinking that for years has flowed from this small, second-floor office overlooking the quiet lawns of the Institute for Advanced Study. Mr. Dyson, a slender man sitting with his back to the window, takes a refreshingly unfamiliar perspective on the world's problems.

``I take a long view of things,'' he admits. ``I find it difficult to discuss . . . day-to-day events, because I'm looking to another century.''

As the author of ``Weapons and Hope,'' a well-received book setting out the possibilities for dialogue between the military establishment and the peace movement (both of which he knows first hand), he naturally puts the problem of nuclear weaponry high on his agenda. He notes, however, that ``I have nothing new to say'' on the subject.

Instead, he turns to a handful of other issues that he feels will demand particular attention in the next century, including biotechnology, space, population, education, and class distinctions.

Central to Dyson's vision of the future is the use of biotechnology as a means of creating environments that are not only productive but pleasant.

Designing plants -- like the gasoline-producing trees -- ``will be a new art form,'' he says, in which the designers will strive ``to make them not only useful but also beautiful and clean and elegant.''

Lest his listeners imagine, however, that his purpose is simply to enrich Earth's resources, Dyson makes it clear that his heart is elsewhere. His real goal: the colonization of space, which he is convinced will happen during the 21st century.

The planet Earth, he says, ``is clearly in considerable dangers of all sorts. The question is . . . whether you may reduce the risks to life by spreading it out more widely [into space].''

Asked to elaborate on the dangers to Earth, he answers bluntly.

``We are the risks,'' he says. ``We're the ones who are destroying life on the planet. Essentially the problem is to remove the destructive effects of our species on all the others.

``You're not going to solve that problem by colonizing the other planets,'' he concedes. ``But you may alleviate it.''

Such colonization, however, may not come in the forms envisioned by popular literature -- either by finding life already existent in space, or by sending human beings out to live in what he calls the ``tin cans'' of man-made, expensive, unaesthetic space stations.

Nor, he says, is a colony likely to be established on another planet. Dyson's goal, instead, is to find a solid, sunny chunk of celestial real estate -- perhaps one of the numerous asteroids that orbit between Mars and Jupiter -- and create an environment that would eventually be able to support human life. He's not overly concerned about the lack of water, nor even by the absence of an atmosphere. That's where biotechnology enters. He foresees that plants will be designed which can grow little ``greenhouses'' around themselves and generate their own atmospheres.