Wednesday Book Club: The Scientist as Rebel

Wednesday, 9 September 2009 — 12:45am | Book Club, Literature, Science

This week’s selection: The Scientist as Rebel (2007) by Freeman Dyson.

In brief: This collection of book reviews, lectures, and other essays by one of the great twentieth-century physicists is an outstanding guide to his thought, most notably on the ethics of science and the nature of war. Dyson makes a persuasive case for optimism about the future of our species, provided we learn from our past.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on The Scientist as Rebel, keep reading below.)

1.

I was first aware of Freeman Dyson as a child because of his association with the Dyson sphere, a hypothetical energy-harnessing shell constructed around a star. If sci-fi is a speculative fiction, then Dyson is a speculative essayist, dreaming up solutions for the engineering problems that will necessarily face an ever-expanding humanity and fine-tuning the mechanical details with his lifetime of experience in leading-edge physical science.

The selections in The Scientist as Rebel, drawn primarily from his contributions to The New York Review of Books, show a different side of Dyson, as an ethicist and historian. Most of these are in the form of book reviews that have appeared in the NYRB regarding works of every stripe, be it fiction (Michael Crichton’s Prey), history (Peter Galison’s Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps), posthumous documents (Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman), or popular science (Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos).

The only representative of Dyson’s speculative classics is his 1972 lecture on John Desmond Bernal’s The World, the Flesh and the Devil, named for what Bernal saw as the three enemies of man’s rational nature. What begins as a meditation on the obstacles to humanity’s ability to sustain its own development without bringing about its own irrational collapse blossoms into a theory of how we might go about colonizing comets.

If we look to comets instead of planets, says Dyson, the chances of human expansion into the cosmos look decidedly less bleak. And if we think of genetic engineering not in terms of moral eugenic scares, but as a way of designing special-purpose plants and microorganisms to make hostile environments more hospitable, we can grow trees on comets to make them livable, and perhaps even clean up some of our mess here on Earth.

Is this the stuff of science fiction? Yes, it is. The Dyson tree, like the Dyson sphere, has recurrently appeared in fiction since. The Bernal lecture nevertheless fits seamlessly into this collection. It shares with the other essays an appreciation for grand theories of civilization and human nature as well as the role of science and scientists in shaping our society.

Not every piece in the book concerns science. Among the finest chapters in The Scientist as Rebel are the revised and updated excerpts from Dyson’s Weapons and Hope, originally published in 1984. Dyson, a lifelong pacifist, relates how every prognostication in 1939 foretold the collapse of Great Britain in the Second World War in the same manner as Germany in the first. This happily turned out to be wrong, and Dyson muses at length as to why. He looks to the self-destructive cults of soldiery in Germany, Russia, and the American South and contrasts them with the British ideal of seamanship—which, by the very nature of naval warfare, commits itself to limited tactical warfare. (The Allied aerial firebombing of German civilians, on the other hand, showed us that no country is above mass asymmetrical brutality when twentieth-century weapons are in play.)

Dyson’s portraits of national cultures of war draw on literature, letters of convicted war criminals, and his own work as an operational analyst for Bomber Command. He writes with an authority that is instantly apparent from the rigour of his readings and the breadth of his erudition. It is perhaps no coincidence that he locates the darkness of human nature in its insular national sentiments, but finds hope in the reason we share.

2.

I have spoken too briefly of Freeman Dyson, the thinker. I now turn my attention to Dyson, the book reviewer. As a casual book reviewer myself, the experience of reading The Scientist as Rebel was an exercise in witnessing a command performance by a master of the form. I hardly feel qualified to assess it.

My habit as a reader is to think about a book in terms of its internal logic. I like to abstract a structure of ideas from the text, inspect it for coherence, and align it with other abstractions—myths, ideologies, beliefs—to see how they interact in a grand scheme of thought. In fiction, I try to locate aesthetic pleasures that are in the text itself and not wholly a product of my personal emotional response. In non-fiction, I consider whether the rhetoric makes sense provided the supporting facts are true, unless I am in a position to deem them incomplete or false. (Whether I conduct any of this successfully is an exercise I leave to the reader.)

Crucially, I do this because it is often the best I can manage as an inexpert reader. It frightens me somewhat that this is how a lot of decisions in society are made, whether you are a student volunteer adjudicating a contest of impromptu debate or a Supreme Court justice weighing the testimonies of equally credentialed specialists. We always take some knowledge for granted and derive some facts from authority.

The defining characteristic of science is its accompanying disclaimer that we need not take anything for granted or from authority; that there is a paper trail of observables and methodologies challenging us to check the facts ourselves. One could equally say this of history, but only once we admit human actions and man-made records as evidence, and make allowances for non-predictive theories, the disappearance of evidence, and fundamentally unrepeatable controls.

Freeman Dyson is a scientist, historian, and expert reader. There are some things he can say about books that I cannot.

Of the pieces in The Scientist as Rebel, the first example that comes to mind is Dyson’s review of Edward Teller’s Memoirs. There is arguably no giant of twentieth-century physics as vilified as Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb and the man most singly responsible for advocating its proliferation. Dyson is steadfastly opposed to technology as an instrument of death and destruction—the misuse of science, as distinct from science itself—but is no less clear about what he remembers of Edward Teller as a colleague, friend, and human being: one who made mistakes and regretted them, as when he testified against Robert Oppenheimer before the Atomic Energy Commission in 1954, and made other mistakes he never recanted to anyone’s satisfaction, like his instrumental role in H-bomb development; but a human being nonetheless.

Dyson engages other reviewers and historians in open debate about Teller’s legacy, drawing attention to Teller’s earnest helpfulness to colleagues and students alike, yet relying in equal measure on what he personally knew of the man. The latter is never by itself a persuasive argument, but to the extent that it relies on what we think of Dyson’s own sense of principle and his judgment of character, it succeeds. Dyson’s extensive personal collaboration with many of the leading figures in physics lends him credibility as a character witness, and a position of reasoned authority that few others can say they share.

3.

A second example is Dyson’s review of Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, a popular exposition of string theory by one of its leading exponents. Dyson speaks favourably of Greene’s book as an illuminating example of how theoretical physicists think, for the purposes of an inexpert audience. At the same time, he advises strongly against taking string theory as accepted or even necessary. There are scientific revolutions like Einstein’s relativity, but they are exceptions to the rule. Often, the theoretical foundations are strong enough that physicists need only build conservatively upon the existing body of knowledge, as Richard Feynman did with quantum electrodynamics.

Dyson goes on to declare that he sees no need to reconcile the mutually contradictory mathematics of relativity, which works on the scale of the very large, and quantum mechanics, which works on the scale of the very small. String theory is presently the dominant attempt to unify the two into a Theory of Everything, a single coherent mathematical description of both matter and the fundamental forces. According to Dyson, such a theory is physically meaningless so long as it depends on entities that are, in principle, apparently undetectable—in this case, gravitons, quanta of gravity analogous to how photons are quanta of light. Dyson postulates that gravitons are unobservable by any method or experiment, and that they may as well not exist.

Barring the development of a way to observe gravitons, this is a dispute that is unlikely to be decided by facts. It is a disagreement emblematic of one of the core debates in the philosophy of science: the question of whether unobservable entities are “real”, and with it, the related question of whether theories get to the truth. Theories that rely on unobservables often provide their own justification in the form of predictive success, or in explaining observable consequences better than any known alternatives. What Dyson suggests is that gravitons contribute to neither, and that a unified theory provides only mathematical neatness while adding nothing to the predictive value already supplied by relativity and quantum mechanics in separate domains.

While he likens gravitons to the theory of luminiferous aether that died at turn of the twentieth century, it does not seem as though Dyson’s critique extends to all unobservables broadly. He aims it instead at the frills that come with assuming that the laws of nature fit into an elegant mathematical closure simply because we wish it to be so. As we know from Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, even mathematics does not have mathematical closure.

In any case, I highlight Dyson’s review of Greene because it demonstrates how meaningful the general-audience book review can be when it aims for deep engagement with the content of a text and its wider implications. It marks a distinction between a book-as-object’s value as a product of human thought and a book-as-subject’s adequacy in telling us something about the world. The dynamic between these two flavours of criticism govern the many collected essays in which Dyson reviews books in contrast with their peers and antecedents, particularly in the case of histories and biographies on the same subject.

What makes Dyson a book reviewer par excellence is not his unique expertise and life story, nor simply that he has read more books. These are important factors that inform his thinking in a manner unavailable to most people, but ancillary to the task that puts them together: the illumination of a context that grants us access to the issues of the day. As a book for the general public, The Scientist as Rebel eschews technical detail in favour of the big picture. Dyson’s background instills in us a great measure of trust in his knowledge’s basis in fact, allowing us to rest comfortably in the literary habits of the amateur who reads to learn. It is sensible for us to debate the ramifications because we trust the facts.

I often state as an axiom that good criticism ought to make its object more interesting, not less. The Scientist As Rebel is at no loss for objects, and Dyson is at no loss for interesting things to say.

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