A physicist pursues disarmament

Pioneering scientist Freeman Dyson says fusion is dead and advocates breaking up NASA. INTERVIEW

Freeman Dyson lets out a wry, snorting chuckle as he recalls his work on the Orion Project in the late 1950s. ``It was in a way absurd, but I was quite happy developing this project,'' says the physicist and author, whose career helped shape many landmarks - minor and major - of the nuclear age.

That career often climbed into the stratosphere of mathematics and physics. Mr. Dyson's colleagues included such nuclear pioneers as J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, Hans Bethe, and others. His interests, exhibited in his books on science and society, have frequently stretched beyond physics to astronomy and biology. His honors include this year's Enrico Fermi Award, given by the United States government for lifetime achievement in science.

The Orion Project, which proposed the use of controlled nuclear explosions to propel vehicles through space, in the end lost its federal funding and failed. At the time, Dyson says, the project made good technical sense. Chuckling again, he notes that the bullet-shaped Orion spacecraft would have used up 1,000 nuclear bombs per trip, and so might have been a great way for the US to unilaterally disarm.

Disarmament is a recurrent theme in a course called ``The Nuclear Age'' that Dyson teaches as a visiting fellow at Dartmouth College, along with history professor Martin Sherwin. It's a theme he knows by heart, having followed the issue for decades as a scientist, an interested citizen, and, for a stint during the 1960s, as a staff member of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

For the moment, teaching is his work, the slight but dynamic physicist says after the class adjourns. He recently retired after 40 years at Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Studies and may soon devote himself again to writing. A string of books, starting with ``Disturbing the Universe'' (1979), have become classics of science writing for the general reader.

Returning to the disarmament theme, Dyson says efforts over the past couple of years to reduce nuclear weaponry have heartened him. ``Considering what a vast apparatus it is, it's remarkable the process has gone as quickly as it has,'' he says. He describes a tour he took a few years ago of US nuclear-weapons installations as ``absolutely hair-raising.'' But the ``quick alert'' forces in use then have receded as a result of post-cold-war arms agreements.

Dyson believes the most dangerous pieces of the the nuclear arsenal were ship-based cruise missiles, which could have been launched at the discretion of a vessel's captain. Those, too, are gone.

Still, he estimates it will take at least 10 years to get rid of even half of the weaponry stockpiled on both sides of the old Iron Curtain. Meanwhile, he hopes politicians will not derail the process. He worries that Americans could ``brag too much about being the only superpower'' and play into the hands of Russians who want to return to military glory days.

But Dyson is not worried that the recent seismic shift in US politics will undermine nuclear disarmament. ``Historically, Republicans have been much better with arms control than the Democrats,'' he says. He points to Richard Nixon's unilateral move to jettison US biological weapons and George Bush's far-reaching arms-reduction agreements.

John F. Kennedy had the worst record in this area, Dyson asserts. ``What was so dangerous about Kennedy was that everybody trusted him'' even as he increased the nuclear Minuteman missile force out of all proportion to need, he says, and played nuclear brinkmanship in Cuba.

Dyson has long been involved in finding peaceful uses for atomic power too, having developed a type of small reactor that is still used for research. The future of nuclear fission as an energy source is fairly bright, he says, despite the political backlash against nuclear power in the US. France, Japan, and other countries have large investments in nuclear plants, and Dyson doesn't see them backtracking. The nuclear-waste problem is manageable through secure storage areas, he adds.

Nuclear fusion, sometimes touted as the source of virtually limitless energy, has a much more clouded future, Dyson says. ``It's really dead as far as I can see, and for the same reasons as the trouble with other government programs.'' That ``trouble'' is something Dyson has written about frequently: the tendency of policymakers to favor the big project over smaller, but probably more productive, alternatives.

Fusion research would be better off if, 20 years ago, it had been allowed to remain a multiplicity of smaller, experimental programs instead of being consolidated by the government into three or four big ones, he says. Now, he looks around and sees a few prototype fusion plants, including one near him at Princeton, that are ``a plumber's nightmare'' - too complicated, expensive, and potentially dangerous to risk using.

Dyson sees similar miscalculations in other fields too. The superconducting supercollider is a prime example, in his view. He applauds its recent demise at the hands of Congress, which recently cut off its funding. Dyson directs particularly withering fire at the government space agency, NASA, which he describes as ``welfare for a huge standing army'' of technicians, scientists, and others drawing a federal pay check. He has criticized the space shuttle as overly expensive and inefficient. His prescription for NASA would be to apply the antitrust laws and dismantle it, along the lines of what happened to AT&T.

``Each of NASA's pieces could go on its own and try to survive,'' Dyson says.

Science is done best by individuals following their own curiosity and creativity, according to this longtime foe of scientific orthodoxy. And there's plenty of excellent science going on today, he asserts. He mentions a young scientist at Princeton who recently ``applied physics to biochemistry,'' developing an apparatus for visually analyzing DNA. The images produced are ``striking,'' Dyson says.

He worries that the public doesn't hear enough about breakthroughs like this and too much about the more esoteric realms of physics or cosmology, which occasionally generate headlines. ``People get the feeling it's all philosophically profound,'' he says, but the talk about ``quarks'' or ``chaos'' doesn't really affect anybody. ``Buzzword science,'' he calls it.

At a time when both science and religion, particularly evangelical religion, are helping set the public agenda, does Dyson see new collisions between these ancient adversaries?

``I think both are wonderful human faculties we ought to treasure,'' he says. He describes science and religion as ``two windows looking out at the universe, and both ought to be wide open.''

He admits, however, that some of his colleagues in the sciences - notably some biologists - view ``religion as a childhood disease from which we have recovered.'' Countering that perception, Dyson says, is a ``little club'' of scientists who see no reason for conflict between the two realms.

His membership in that little club was confirmed when he was recently named to the board of advisers to the Templeton Foundation for Progress in Religion. ``It's an interesting bunch of people,'' he says. And it may provide another avenue for Dyson to veer off from the scientific mainstream.

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