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Where science and ethics meet

Physicist Freeman Dyson explores the ability of science to help us make sense of the world.

By / December 19, 2006



Throughout history scientists from Galileo to Andrei Sakharov have been persecuted for challenging the orthodoxy of their societies. But in The Scientist as Rebel, Freeman Dyson advocates rebellion of a broader kind.

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Science, the theoretical physicist writes, should rebel "against poverty and ugliness and militarism and economic injustice." Benjamin Franklin is Dyson's ideal of the scientific rebel, one who embodied "thoughtful rebellion, driven by reason and calculation more than by passion and hatred." If science ever stops rebelling against authority, Dyson insists, it won't deserve to be pursued by our brightest children.

In this highly readable compilation of previously published essays and book reviews written over nearly four decades, Dyson also rebels against the idea that scientists should only concern themselves with the problems of the laboratory.

In one chapter he asks "can science be ethical?" In another he explores the uneasy relationship between science and religion ("Is God in the lab?"). He considers the qualities of mind expressed by the great scientists of the past in essays such as "In Praise of Amateurs" and "Seeing the Unseen."

What is science? Dyson quotes from biologist J.B.S. Haldane: "It is man's gradual conquest, first of space and time, then of matter as such, then of his own body and those of other living beings, and finally the subjugation of the dark and evil elements in his own soul."

Dyson, a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, has made his own share of contributions to the advancement of scientific knowledge, in fields from nuclear physics to quantum electrodynamics. But here he also proves himself an adept essayist on ethical issues less obviously connected with science.

In "Generals," for example, he questions the motives and actions of warriors: Why were "two good men working for a bad cause" – Nazi Gen. Alfred Jodl and German tank commander Hermann Balck – treated so differently after World War II? (Jodl was convicted and executed for war crimes at Nuremberg while Balck was not prosecuted.) The Allies, it appears, saw a moral difference between a personally honorable man who planned a horrifying war (Jodl) and one who merely carried it out efficiently on the battlefield (Balck).

Warriors are necessary, Dyson concludes, but shouldn't be idealized. Echoing Robert Louis Stevenson, he compares a successful general or admiral to "a successful boxer."

Dyson also stands opposed to the "reductionist" view of science, the concept that all knowledge, whether history, the arts, or ethics, "can be reduced to science." Dyson argues for a wider definition of knowledge that comes from a broader array of sources, including artistic values and religion, "parts of a human heritage that is older than science and perhaps more enduring."

Science and religion need not be seen as foes, argues Dyson, who finds the roots of modern science, with its demand for logical thinking and "scientific method," in a millennium of Christian theological disputes in Europe that had the effect of sharpening minds. The contentiousness sometimes felt between Christianity and modern science actually springs from their common roots, he says.

"Science is a particular bunch of tools that have been conspicuously successful for understanding and manipulating the material universe," Dyson concludes. "Religion is another bunch of tools, giving us hints of a mental or spiritual universe that transcends the material universe."

To those who see the world evolving toward a post-religious era, Dyson offers the words of his mother, whom he describes as "a skeptical Christian, like me." She used to tell him, "You can throw religion out of the door, but it will always come back through the window."

For Dyson, scientists are neither secular saints who have an answer for every human need nor irresponsible devils without regard for human values. Science, for example, doesn't have solutions to the great issues of war and peace. But scientists can be advocates for international understanding and cooperation by serving as models of those values themselves, he says.

Science needs both its revolutionaries and conservatives, Dyson explains – those eager to abandon past views and those who defend them. It also needs both hedgehogs and foxes, scientists who dig deeply at a few fundamental problems (hedgehogs include Albert Einstein) and those who have wide interests and move quickly from problem to problem (foxes include Dyson's mentor, Richard Feynman).

"The Scientist as Rebel" does not include a single equation or technical diagram. When scientific concepts do arise, as in an essay on the wonders of string theory, they are described in clear layman's language. What really fills this book is wisdom – wisdom that helps us understand how scientists think and work and how science, properly understood, can help us make better sense of our world.

Gregory M. Lamb is a Monitor staff writer.

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