August 02, 2005

Infinite in All Directions by Freeman Dyson

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This book is a revised version of the Gifford Lectures given at Aberdeen, Scotland by Freeman Dyson in April-November 1985. The original title of the lectures was `In Praise of Diversity'. Dyson changed the title for this book to a vague description of the content. The content itself ranges in nature so greatly from chapter to chapter that no succinct description seems possible. Some of lectures that were actually delivered by Dyson do not appear in this book. Those lectures were published separately as a book called "The Origin of Life".

The Gifford Lectures are supposed to be about `Natural Theology'. Usually, when famous scientists lecture about religion they turn into babbling idiots. Dyson avoids this fate by not saying much about religion at all. He offers his view of scientific humanism which is a plea for civility rather than an offer to mediate between the issues usually raised between the firmly religious and the firmly scientific. There is a lot of nonsense that goes on at this frontier and Dyson does not say much to address this. He is clearly not interested in spending a whole lecture series on this topic.

He quickly departs on an episodic guide to the scientific answers to cosmology and the origin of life. It is interesting that this kind of science has chipped away at the authority with which religious thinking usually answers such questions. Dyson spends some time discussing the invention of DNA (invented by whom? RNA, it turns out according to the generally accepted theories). He talks of the theories of Alexander Oparin ('The Origin of Life on Earth', 1924) and Manfred Eigen ('Steps Towards Life : A Perspective on Evolution'). Dyson also spends time talking about his own particular theory of the dual origin of life. All of this is pretty much outdated since the publication of this book and if you wish to follow up on this topic there are several new books that might be better to read (e.g. R. F. Gesteland and J. F. Atkins (eds) (1993). The RNA World. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, Cold Spring Harbor, New York.) Dyson also gives Schrödinger a lot of unwarranted credit for the idea of DNA and the theories of the origin of life. Read "Genome" by Matt Ridley for a different picture of the history behind Schrödinger's involvement in the discovery of DNA.

Dyson tries to do many things in this book. One of them is to try and predict the future. He predicts the rise of biotechnology, space science and artificial intelligence. I guess one out of three isn't bad. This notion of predicting the future also intersects with the uncertainty at the time caused by the Cold War. Many chapters are devoted to the burning issues of the day. With the fall of the Soviet Union, these concerns have vanished even though nuclear weapons remain with us in greater numbers than in the 80s. Dyson hopes that nuclear weapons might become the target of planned obsolescence just as carts were replaced by camel caravans in the Middle East and guns by swords in feudal Japan. No such future has occured. He does not dwell on the disturbing question of what could nuclear weapons obsolete?

Dyson also spends a lot of time on the notion of technology and offers several `green' ways of producing power, for example, which would fit right in with modern green power movements which emphasize clean self-sufficient power for small communities over large and dirty power grids.

Every avid reader of science fiction must read this book. In the course of his view of the future based on science, Dyson picks out the speculative writing of many famous scientists especially from late in the 19th and early in the 20th century. Their ideas seem shockingly contemporary when compared to several current sf ideas. Notable mentions are:

  • Excerpts from "Dreams of Earth and Sky" by Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky which feature animal-plants that inhabit a zero-gravity and zero-pressure environment with specialized adaptations including chemical solar panels that are span several thousand square meters.
  • Dyson's own space science program that he calls AstroChicken. A speculative vision of planetary science conducted by a small 1 kg `caterpillar' probe that is launched cheaply from the Earth which exploits ideas from biotechnology to grow into a large `butterfly' with solar sails for wings. Biotechnology also permits the butterfly to `eat' resources from various sources to produce chemical rocket propulsion inspired by the Bombardier beetle. It would also be artificially intelligent and would be able to get itself by using planetary gravity in slingshot maneuvers to the outer Solar Sytem.
  • Excerpts from the book "Daedalus" by J. B. S. Haldane written in 1924 which predict the rise of genetic engineering in the 1940s. Changes wrought by this technology actually changing the face of the planet Earth ('the sea assumed the intense purple colour that seems so natural to us').

Dyson uses these examples and others to compare and contrast the use of `big' science as epitomized by the Space Shuttle and small, cheap and often repeated science such as the International Ultraviolet Explorer (IUE) which is controlled by one console at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. For more passionate arguments against 'big' science in space, see "Entering Space" by Robert Zubrin.

In the final chapter, Dyson realizes that he hasn't said much about science and religion and proceeds to give an admirably short summary of the main philosophical problems in this area and proceeds to quickly impugn himself by calling the Anthropic principle 'illuminating' (for another point of view, see "The Night is Large" by Martin Gardner) and then further sullying himself by calling free will a manifestation of quantum mechanics (sharing this rickety stage with Penrose, Dyson does not even acknowledge the many critics of this position).

In these lectures, Dyson manages to talk about the many things that he has spent time thinking about. The end result is more interesting than coherent. The balance in this equation is where it should be.

%T Infinite in All Directions %T :Gifford Lectures given at Aberdeen, Scotland (April-November 1985) %A Freeman Dyson %I New York: Harper and Row %D 1988 %G ISBN: 0060390816 (pb) %P 319 %K science, politics, religion

Review written: 2001/04/11

Posted by anoop at August 2, 2005 02:57 PM