- Disturbing the Universe by Freeman Dyson
Harper and Row, 283 pp, £6.95, November 1979, ISBN 0 06 011108 9
The most striking thing about this book is how well it is written. Each word is right for its place, the images are apt, and the quotations expressive. In explaining that his style is not that of the social scientists, the author says: ‘The methodology of this book is literary rather than analytical. This is the result of my upbringing and background.’ The outcome is a work which it is a pleasure to read, even in places where one cannot agree. For believers in the ‘Two Cultures’, this writing by a scientist would be hard to classify.
Vol. 2 No. 15 · 7 August 1980
SIR: In the early Seventies, Professor Freeman J. Dyson was involved, as a member of the JASON Division of IDA (Institute for Defence Analysis), in a controversy over the role of that group of élite academic consultants to the Pentagon. JASON was under attack for having recommended strategic choices such as the creation of the ‘electronic battlefield’ in Vietnam in 1966. On 16 January 1973, to a younger physicist who had urged him to ‘cease all [his] services for the Pentagon; repudiate the US militaristic policies and corruptions of science in that service; reveal whatever inside information [he had] about the military, as Ellsberg did’, Professor Dyson wrote in reply: ‘At the risk of appearing sanctimonious, I must say that the basic issue seems to me the one raised in Luke, Chapter Six, verses 30-31: “But their scribes and Pharisees murmured against his disciples, saying, ‘Why do you eat and drink with publicans and sinners?’ And Jesus answering said to them, ‘They that are whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.’” Professor Dyson also wrote: ‘It is important, quite apart from JASON, to establish the principle that one may eat and drink with sinners without being used by them. Was Jesus used by the company he kept?’ Readers of Mr Rudolf Peierls’s review of Professor Dyson’s autobiography, Disturbing the Universe (LRB, 19 June), in which the war in Vietnam is not even mentioned (let alone Professor Dyson’s participation in the JASON Division), will decide if the rejoinder was that of a scientist ‘thinking deeply and seriously about the ethical problems of war and peace’.
Department of English, Université Paris VII
Vol. 2 No. 16 · 21 August 1980
SIR: I am grateful to Claire Bruyère (Letters, 7 August) for quoting me accurately and for reminding me of a correspondence which helped to clarify my thinking. The issues which she raises are discussed to some extent in Chapter 13 of my book. I have never claimed that these questions are easy or that I know the answers, but I am still an active member of the JASON group, and I still believe that our work is on the whole helpful rather than harmful to the cause of peace.
Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton
Vol. 2 No. 17 · 4 September 1980
SIR: Claire Bruyère (Letters, 7 August) blames me for omitting to mention, in my review of Freeman Dyson’s book the Vietnam War or Dyson’s participation in JASON. I was not trying to sit in judgment on Dyson, I was only reviewing his book. More seriously, she blames Dyson for belonging to JASON, and quotes, with evident disapproval, his justification for continuing discussions with people holding what are, in her opinion, wrong views. In the McCarthy era, the idea was not uncommon that Marxist views were an infectious disease which one could contract by being exposed to it: I hope Claire Bruyère will not apply this idea in reverse.
I see no reason to withdraw, or qualify, my statement that Dyson has thought deeply and seriously about the ethical problems of war and peace. This process does not necessarily produce all the answers (as Freeman Dyson points out in his reply), nor would any answers he arrives at necessarily agree with my conclusions or even with his own views at a later date. But it is essential to think about these issues seriously and without prejudice – an exercise I would recommend to Claire Bruyère.