Freeman Dyson

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.''

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.''

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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.

Dyson is convinced, then, that technology will not stand in the way of colonizing space. But will there be sufficient human motivation? Here he points to another of the major agenda items for the 21st century: the issue of population.

``The human species on Earth has got to be submitting itself to all kinds of disciplines in order to survive,'' he says. One of the foremost is the discipline of controlling population.

So far, Dyson suggests, the Earth is not hopelessly overcrowded.

``You can live a civilized life with a much higher population density than we have [in the United States],'' he says, singling out the densely populated Netherlands as ``a very civilized country'' in which ``the countryside looks beautiful.''

But he adds that the world ``can't go on growing at the present rate for very long . . . somewhere you're going to really hit the stops.'' Those stops have already been reached, he says, in China, where government regulations are aimed at permitting only one child per couple.

``That's tough,'' Dyson says. ``I have six kids, and I would hate to be limited to one.'' But he feels strongly that ``that's the kind of discipline we're going to have to live under in order to preserve this planet.'' Space for rebels SUCH imposed limits, he says, may well provide one of the motivations for colonizing space -- just as they sometimes provide, on Earth, an impetus for immigration.

``The point about immigration,'' he explains, ``is not that it really reduces the population substantially. But at least it makes the severe discipline more acceptable, if the people who really rebel can go off somewhere else.'' As on Earth, he suggests, so in space -- where colonization, especially at the outset, may provide a means whereby ``people who really can't take it can leave.''

Dyson foresees that the strongest push for space colonization, in fact, will be made by the very people who do want to ``go off somewhere else'' -- and who will thrust into space in fairly small, private-enterprise ventures.

``The governments, of course, are going to continue exploring,'' he says, noting the success of such operations as the Voyager 2 probe that passed Uranus last January. ``Governments can do that kind of thing very well. What I don't think the governments are good at is organizing human settlements. That, I would hope, will be done by the people themselves, so they can do it the way they want to.''

What about the expense? ``I think there is a great deal of illusion in that,'' he says.

``The really good space exploring wasn't that expensive. Things that cost the most money are usually the least productive scientifically. You don't need vast sums of money. You just need to be clever.

``I'm not saying the government shouldn't support science,'' he hastens to add. ``Obviously it should.'' But he notes that ``I never expected much from the government, anyway.''

It's a point that leads Dyson, as he contemplates the future, to shy away from programs that depend heavily on government involvement. ``I regard governments as a necessary evil,'' he says, observing that ``I don't expect any sort of perfection from a government.

``They muddle along, and that's all you can say. I wouldn't want to have the government intruding more than it does. I'm sort of a Reaganite at heart, I suppose: I believe that the less government the better.'' No to world government THEN would Dyson, like some other forward-looking thinkers, want to see some form of world federal government?

``No, on the contrary,'' he responds with some alarm. ``That would be terrible.'' Fortunately, he says, the power of governments tends to diminish over long distances -- providing a kind of self-limiting factor on the geographical extent of any governing body.

``That's a happy state of affairs,'' he says. ``I think it's a good thing the world has more countries now than it had when I grew up . . . . Small countries on the whole are socially better run than big ones.'' The United States, he notes, is ``evidently too big, and I think that's probably the cause of most of our problems.''

Dyson takes an uncommon perspective on still another item on his agenda for the future -- the educational system. Far from calling for a widespread and centralized movement for education reform, he says he remains ``quite impressed with the advantages of not having a well-organized system'' of education. What he looks for, instead, is a means of fostering real creativity in students.

``There is something lacking in modern life,'' he notes. ``One of the reasons I'd like to go to Mars or some other place is simply [to find] the peace and quiet that used to be [on Earth].'' That peace, he says, is an essential element in the creative process. ``In the old times you'd go through a wet Sunday and have absolutely nothing to do,'' he recalls. ``That forced you to think.'' A rainy climate ``produced a lot of the creativity in northern Europe.''

Dyson's goal is an educational system that ``gives the kids a lot more flexibility.'' He objects to the educational structures in the ``well organized'' European countries where ``the kids are under terrible pressure.'' And he particularly disapproves of the French system, in which students ``have to do the [baccalaur'eat] that determines their fate for the rest of their lives.''

He admires, instead, the ``tremendous looseness in the structure'' in US education. ``If you don't get into one college, you get into another,'' he says, ``and in the end it doesn't really matter whether it was Harvard or not.'' Having spoken recently at several small, little-known colleges in New Jersey, he says he has been impressed with the brightness of the students he has encountered. PhDs at birth, if at all THE bulk of his concern about education focuses on the post-graduate level. His remedy? ``First of all, abolish the PhD system.''

Especially in the sciences, he says, ``the educational system is designed to drag out the time it takes to get qualifications. But you don't need all that. The best work I did was at a time when I was tremendously ignorant. You don't want to stuff your head full . . . That's why I'm against the PhD system: It slows people down tremendously and quite unnecessarily. Only the very best are able to withstand it.''

``I don't have a PhD myself,'' Dyson says, ``and I never produced PhDs. The teaching I do is strictly outside the system.''

What would he do in place of the PhD? ``Simply let people loose and give them a PhD at birth,'' he says, breaking into his slightly elfin grin, ``and then let them get on with their education.''

The suggestion may be partly in jest. But it flows from Dyson's altogether serious perception of yet another problem on the 21st century's agenda: the increasing problem of class distinction.

``One of the things I see as very bad,'' he says, ``is the accentuating split between the educated and the uneducated.'' He recalls the relief he felt when, on first coming to America from England, he found he could talk to cabdrivers ``without being immediately identified as upper class.''

Now, he says, ``the class system in this country is getting more rigid. And it's largely a result of this elitist educational apparatus.'' He is especially concerned about a tendency to require what he calls ``papers,'' or credentials. ``For every kind of administrative job, you're supposed to have an MBA or something.'' As a result, ``the people who manage and the people who teach are sort of becoming a hereditary caste.''

Finally, what about the raising of the children who will someday participate in the educational process?

``I wouldn't force anybody to raise kids,'' says Dyson, whose five working daughters have so far elected not to raise families. ``I think it's a vocation. I think the ideal society is probably one where one family out of three has six kids, and the rest have zero.''

That way, he adds, ``only those with a real vocation for it raise families. And they do it with love and a great deal of care.''

Next: Sissela Bok, social philosopher, Oct. 14.

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