Interview with Freeman Dyson

Freeman Dyson is that rare scientist who is esteemed as much for the felicity of his prose (Disturbing the Universe, Weapons of Hope) as for the elegance and imagination of his work in physics and mathematics. The English-born researcher, whose home base for most of his career was the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, was an early advocate of interplanetary space exploration and a designer of Orion, a proposed space vehicle that but for politics might have slipped the surly bonds of Earth in the 1960s. Freeman Dyson was interviewed at Princeton by Frederick Turner, the TAE contributing writer and University of Texas at Dallas poet whose works include the epic Genesis, which describes the terra-forming of Mars.

TAE: Can you tell us a little bit about your family background?
DYSON: My father was working class from the north of England. His mother, a wonderful old lady, went to work in the factory at the age of eight and loved it. She said it was much more fun than going to school. She always insisted that the decline of England started in 1870 when they introduced compulsory schooling. After that, the children never learned to take care of themselves. She made good money and was independent. She was a skilled weaver and she even bought a piano so that her son could play when he was born. She grew up as a member of this oppressed proletariat that Marx and Engels wrote about.
In those days, she said, the family all went to the factory together; the children were not alone. She went with her father and mother and her older sister and so it was a team that worked together. She was closer to her family working in the factory than she would have been if she’d been in school. And she also said that the factory was warm, whereas the cottages where they lived were cold and miserable and dark. It all depended immensely on the factory owner and the fact that the factories were generally quite small, so that it was a personal relationship. You knew the boss even if you didn’t like him.
TAE: You have expressed a certain skepticism about formal education, and you were made a professor by Cornell without a Ph.D. What do you make of the credentialism in today’s academy?
DYSON: Oh, it’s horrible. Occasionally they do make an exception. My son did even better because he never even went to college at all. Not only doesn’t he have a Ph.D., he doesn’t have any degree of any kind, and two years ago he was appointed as a member of the Institute for Advanced Study here as a historian. He is totally self-educated and is now regarded by the historians as one of them. That is still possible, but it’s much harder to do than it should be. I would like to abolish the Ph.D. just like that, but that seems to be unfeasible.
TAE: A huge survey by the Carnegie Commission showed that most scientists are religious. Yet there is a view around that science is incompatible with religion. What do you feel about this?
DYSON: For me personally, religion is a willingness to accept mystery. Most of the important questions are mysteries which we shall never solve, and the purpose and meaning of life is just one of those. Religion in that sense is a way of life, and it has a great deal of meaning.
TAE: At the age of eight, I had a realization of the beauty and the incredible elaboration of nature. I’ve never really gotten over that feeling that the whole of life is miraculous, from beginning to end. This piece of biochemistry actually has a soul. It seems to me that the world means something.
DYSON: I absolutely agree with that. Whatever you learn from science doesn’t contradict that. In fact, it only makes it more miraculous.
TAE: There are differences among scientists, aren’t there? A lot of physicists, even if they don’t particularly believe in God themselves, almost find it necessary to postulate God in order to be able to do physics: Einstein talking about God playing dice, Hawking talking about what’s in God’s mind, Rutherford saying that the universe is like a gigantic thought more than like a gigantic machine, and so on. Biologists, on the other hand, in order to be able to do evolutionary biology, feel the need to take it as a principle that there is no creator.
DYSON: Right. Biologists are much more hostile to religion than physicists, and I think needlessly so. They create this opposition to science by being so dogmatic. It certainly is true that if you are a physicist, you are familiar with the fact that things are not machines. They don’t follow predestined tracks. All the time we are making random choices. It’s just a totally different way of looking at things from these ball and stick models that the biologists use.
TAE: So you’re not a determinist?
DYSON: You can’t be. Physics tells you quite clearly that randomness is built into nature.
TAE: So nature is in a sense free. There’s an old philosophical idea that the physical universe is determined and rumbles on with meaningless predictability. But you don’t feel that way?
DYSON: No. I think that every hydrogen atom has freedom. When you do an experiment you can see that, so it’s probably true on some level that our freedom of will which we feel subjectively is somehow derived from this freedom of the individual atom. I mean, I have two identical twin grandsons, who have the same genes and the same environment and still they are different people. Somewhere in their brains the connections are different; when their brains were growing in the early stages of development, there was sort of a creativity built in.
TAE: What about genetic engineering? Do you think the human life span will be extended? Is it a good thing? Do you think that we’re going to be able to make ourselves much smarter and stronger and even change ourselves so that we can breathe under water or fly and that kind of thing?
DYSON: The one thing I don’t want is to have a cure for death. I’m 80 years old so I can speak freely about death. I think death is a good idea. We have to have some means of clearing away the old to make room for the young, and death seems to be a good way of doing that. The only alternative would be if there was some way of really rejuvenating people so that you lost all your old cantankerous thoughts and are really born anew; that would be almost as good as death and new birth.
Apart from that, I think most of what genetic engineering can do for us is good. I want to see a diversification of life, and we need that, of course, if we are to go away from this planet. I would like life to spread in the universe, and to have all these dead, boring places in the universe come to life with new ecologies and new communities. If we could engineer that, it would be great. It might mean that the human species could also cease to exist as a species, and would diversify into all kinds of different creatures that would be adapted to living in different places.
TAE: In a sense, I suppose that’s already happened: for instance, when dwellers in the ocean colonized the land.
DYSON: It took them a long time, of course. And getting out into space is probably not all that much more difficult than getting from the ocean to the earth.
TAE: The idea of going out and colonizing the universe raises all kinds of questions—how do we overcome the light barrier, or the huge distances barrier, or the time barrier? How might we have space travel that is efficient?
DYSON: Space travel is easy. It’s just the biological adaptation that’s difficult. To take the question of the speed barrier: I think it is a good feature of the universe that you can’t go faster than light. That means if you go far enough, you really do escape from your neighbors. So there is no way in which a large empire can remain in central control. A good feature of the universe is that it really is big enough so that it has room for diversity. As for the practical aspects of space travel, those are not so difficult. We already know how to get around in the solar system. It’s just a question of making it cheap enough so that it’s available to ordinary people. That’ll take a while. And going on interstellar trips, of course, is a totally different proposition. Then it really is a question of biology. You want to be able to put yourself into the deep freeze for a few hundred years, whatever it takes.
TAE: Or hollow out an asteroid and use that as your vehicle while successive generations live on it for 2,000 years.
DYSON: That you can also do, yes. At any rate, it’s going to take a long time.
TAE: What do you think needs to happen politically, socially, economically for us to renew our venture out into space?
DYSON: We’ve been the victim of this really dishonest marketing of the American space program in which the human exploration of space has been sold to the public. The unmanned part of the American space program is doing beautifully, sending expeditions to the planets and to Mars and to Saturn. This is scientifically very good. It’s expensive, but not too expensive. On the other hand, the manned program is not going anywhere. Everybody now realizes the shuttle and the space station are just dead ends going around and around the earth but not doing anything useful. The overall space program has been destroyed by being sold to the public under the false pretenses that what matters is this manned part.
Incidentally, our manned efforts in space could have gotten public support if presented simply as international sporting events. But of course the details would have been very different. In order to be a sporting event, it has to be exciting.
TAE: To call it a shuttle is exactly the wrong direction.
DYSON: Yes. If it were really an international sporting event, it would be a high performance two-seater, like a sports car, which is really going places, preferably to the Moon and to Mars. Something like that could happen. But it then must be honestly described. If it were, I think it would be supported quite generously by the public. I think a race to Mars would be fine.
TAE: What do you think of Robert Zubrin’s idea that there should be prizes, that the money now going into NASA’s manned space program ought to go into setting up prizes that individuals or corporations or enthusiastic groups of people would compete to attain?
DYSON: I completely agree with him.
TAE: I also like his idea of going to Mars and then using the Martian atmosphere to make fuel to come back with.
DYSON: His scheme for going to Mars is very good. He’s a real engineer. He knows what he’s talking about. And I think from a human point of view it also makes sense that it shouldn’t be just a one-shot mission. It should be a succession of missions, and each one then uses the one before as a guarantee that they can get back. The one fatal flaw in his program is that he’s expecting NASA to do it. When I argued with him about this he said that if NASA were given a job like this to do, it would be a different NASA. Maybe he’s right, but that remains to be seen.
TAE: Would NASA work better if it had some competition?
DYSON: Of course. A competition between different countries would work best. We can hope that China will compete with us some day.
TAE: What about competition right here in the U.S. between private institutions and public institutions? What if some billionaire set up a Burt Rutan or Robert Zubrin and a few other bright sparks, and put some people on Mars and brought them back?
DYSON: That could happen. I don’t think it’s feasible at the moment but there’s no reason it shouldn’t be eventually. But all this will only make sense when things get a lot cheaper than they are now. As long as the costs of Mars are as high as even Zubrin’s lowest estimates, the costs are for me much too high.
TAE: There seems to be a kind of joy, a kind of hope, in your work. Can you talk a little bit about that?
DYSON: I think to a large extent it comes from growing up in the 1930s, when the situation in all respects was much worse than it is today. We had an economic depression much worse than what we have now. We had industrial pollution much worse than it is today. We had Hitler on the horizon. Our parents had lived through the horrors of World War I, and we expected World War II to be at least as bad. We all expected World War II would be a biological war. And in spite of that, we survived. Not everybody, but most of us did. If we could survive that, then I can’t have any serious doubt we can survive the problems we have today.
TAE: I was born in 1943, and it seems to me that since 1943, things have just been getting better and better all the time. So I wonder why people are so worried and anxious and miserable and pessimistic.
DYSON: It’s part of human nature. I think of my grandparents, who lived through this wonderful Victorian era which in retrospect was so prosperous and peaceful, and they were always worried about one thing or another. My grandmother on my mother’s side actually believed the world was going to end in 1897. So my mother was brought up expecting not to be alive after age 17.
TAE: Do you think that we could, or should, one day improve ourselves biochemically so that we’re not quite as miserable as we are?
DYSON: It’s very dangerous once you start doing that. It’s the same problem we have with drugs.
TAE: So you seem to be optimistic about our ability to use science to improve our lives, but you think there need to be rules about what to mess around with and what not to mess around with.
DYSON: Yes. Because things often go in unforeseen directions. I think of the computer industry as an interesting example. It started out with Richard Feynman here in Princeton, in this very institute. When he was building his machine he estimated that the total demand for computers in the United States would be 18. He thought of computers as being centralized, expensive, massive, and used by institutions like the Army and the nuclear weapons labs. He never dreamed of computers in the hands of children and housewives. Of course, the domestication of computers has been transforming to the whole society. I see that same thing happening with biotech in the next 30 years.
TAE: Why are the Europeans so hostile to genetic engineering?
DYSON: They see the future and don’t like it. But some day a gardener who loves to grow roses and orchids will have the genetic tools available to do it better. And children will play games with little dinosaur eggs and see who can hatch the cutest dinosaur.
TAE: You seem to be saying that the safest place for any kind of new technology is in the hands of everybody.
DYSON: If everybody has the technology, you have much more chance to know what’s going on. You need to try to make it very difficult to do things in secret.
TAE: So you are a sort of free marketeer.
DYSON: Oh, yes, very much so. For managing technology it is certainly what’s needed. Anyway, I feel very hopeful about biotech, and if it gets out into the open in this fashion, people won’t be so scared of it. Every child will grow up able to handle genomes, just as today’s children are more capable with computers than their parents. And in the process, those children will be much more in touch with the organisms themselves. They will have a feeling for plants and animals, which is also very precious.

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