'Dreams of Earth and Sky' draws intriguing lines between philosophy and science

At age 91, a master physicist shares his wisdom, and the burning questions he still ponders.

Dreams of Earth and Sky By Freeman Dyson New York Review Books 312 pp.

“I learn more from critics than from flatterers,” writes Freeman Dyson in Dreams of Earth and Sky. Well then. I didn’t suppose I was going to teach Dyson anything, but he didn’t have to staple it to my forehead. So I’ll keep the flattery brief. Dreams is a mind-expanding collection of twenty-one review essays Dyson wrote for the New York Review of Books between 2006 and 2014, a follow-up to his "The Scientist as Rebel," which covered 1996 to 2006. Dyson has been a professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton for many years, some sixty-two of his ninety-one, and I am of the generation that genuflects when the institute is mentioned. However, enough with the flattery; "Dreams" is just terrific if not staggeringly incandescent. It is human. Though, of course, stimulating to the point of making you hop from foot to foot. The writing is smooth as butter cream, too. Say no more, lest ye be judged a bootlicker.

Dyson is famous for his accessibility. His plainspokenness is arresting: “Poincaré, in the late nineteenth century, discovered chaos.” If that doesn’t stop you in your tracks, look again. Yet very little digging reveals the spreading roots of his thought process, its complexity, its great Whitmanesque reach. “I like to break down the barriers that separate science from other sources of human wisdom,” he writes. “We gain knowledge of our place in the universe not only from science but also from history, art, and literature.” You feel him pine for the adventure of science in its infancy: “The scientists of that age were as romantic as the poets. The scientific discoveries were are as unexpected and intoxicating as poems. Many of the poets were intensely interested in science, and many of the scientists in poetry.”

Still, if “science is a creative interaction of observation with imagination,” remember that science consists of facts and theories. “Facts are supposed to be true or false ... theories are provisional,” and let no fuzz gather on either. But theories are exciting and creative, he freely admits – helpful, unhelpful, unavoidable in our struggle to understand – and “wrong ideas and false trails are part of the landscape to be explored.” Open the window and let in blunders. Charles Darwin, Lord Kelvin, Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, Albert Einstein – blunderers all. Where would we be without their mistakes? “All philosophical Experiments that let Light into the Nature of Things, tend to increase the power of Man over Matter, and multiply the Conveniencies or Pleasures of Life,” Dyson admiringly quotes Benjamin Franklin.

If philosophy is a collection of meaty stories that raise questions and fire our pursuit of the answers, it is also much like the best science in its wholesale trespassing. “Philosophers became insignificant when philosophy became a separate academic discipline, distinct from science and history and literature and religion. The great philosophers of the past covered all these disciplines,” as they do today. “[William] Blake, a buffoon to his enemies and an embarrassment to his friends, saw Earth and Heaven more clearly than any of them,” Dyson suggests and turns to the Jesuit credo espoused by particle physicist Frank Wilczek: “It is more blessed to ask forgiveness than permission.”

Not altogether unintentionally, Dyson has a reputation for provocation. He cares little about prevailing or received opinion. The mandarins who decide what is studied and what is funded nauseate him. He despises the politicizing and propagandizing of any science in its infancy, of any public policy formulated from half-baked ideas: nuclear weapons (“They are effective for destroying cities and for killing large numbers of people indiscriminately, and for nothing else”) and missile defense (easily “defeated by concealing real nuclear warheads in a swarm of cheap decoys”).

Dyson has said that we do not know enough about the science of climate or that of genetic engineering to make long-range predictions, and he has been raked across the coals by dull or lazy soapboxers, intent on more-left-than-thou self-aggrandizement. (The “dull or lazy” originally comes from Wendell Berry’s stinging, if crabwise, criticism — in a letter responding to Dyson’s piece on biotech in NYRB, included here – of Dyson’s failure to answer important biotech questions that Dyson himself raised; two passionate thinkers meet in a shower of sparks.) He has also said, from what rigorous testing has been conducted, it is apparent that global warming and biotechnology have the potential to be serious threats.

To paint Dyson as a black-and-white thinker or a knee-jerk contrarian is absurd. He is less the devil’s advocate than the good scientist; like Mary Beard asks when considering classical history, Dyson simply asks, “Show me the evidence and let’s see what we can make of it.” Science is about rigor and testing. By temperament, Dyson is not a gloom-and-doom sort. He would rather look for answers than cry in his soup. How, for instance, might the planting of trees mitigate a number of human-induced problems, including CO2 emissions? “If we can control what the plants do with the carbon” — bring on the “genetically engineered carbon-eating trees” — “the fate of the carbon in the atmosphere is in our hands.” Thus he brightly aggravates two partisan birds with one discordant stone.

His road to peace is sure to ruffle feathers. “Perpetuation of hatred and resentment is a chronic disease of human societies, and amnesty is the only cure.” Get over it. No pussyfooting, no foot dragging. At conflict’s cessation, “It is allowable to execute the worst war criminals, with or without legal trial, provided that this is done quickly, while the passions of war are still raging.” (Another sentence to stop you in your tracks.) After that, “Without reconciliation, there can be no real peace. Reconciliation means amnesty.... Amnesty is not easy and not fair, but it is a moral necessity.” There is a lot of the human condition in those words, a heightened awareness of its messy, chromatic, low-riding progress.

As with many of NYRB‘s contributions, it is not always clear where the book under review leaves off and the reviewer’s knowledge is on parade. Dyson might be reviewing Ivar Ekeland’s "The Best of All Possible Worlds: Mathematics and Destiny", but the lasting impression is that he was reviewing Pierre de Maupertuis’s 270-year-old memoir "The Laws of Motion and Rest Deduced from a Metaphysical Principle."

“That nature arranges all processes so as to minimize a quantity called action,” segues nicely, 200 pages later, with Dyson’s review of Daniel Kahneman’s "Thinking, Fast and Slow", and his brain system 2 – the slow, conscious, critical brain – which finds thinking hard work, “and our daily lives are organized so as to economize on thinking.” Kahneman also investigates cognitive illusions, which brings us back, 80 pages earlier, to our generals’ “constant tendency to glorify technology that is colorful and spectacular, even when it leads them repeatedly to defeat and disaster.” These Venn diagrams are speckled with strange, diverting imagery: Werner von Braun’s SS problems (toadying on the one hand, then comparing, to Heinrich Himmler’s face, “the help offered by the chief of the SS to a load of shit”); Ernest Rutherford “banging one nucleus against another and transmuting nitrogen into oxygen”; black-leaved plants better utilizing sunlight; Richard Feynman creating a wholly new scientific language; Wittgenstein’s tragic, tortured soul; a seventy-six-year-old, four-page paper that invented the concept of the black hole.

The collection, as a piece, feels ordered, random, dazzled, and serendipitous. Like Dyson’s mind, you could say. You could say that he puts his words where his mouth is, and his romantic, humane heart keeps the beat.

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