Doom Sooner or Later

John Leslie

  • Imagined Worlds by Freeman Dyson
    Harvard, 216 pp, £14.50, May 1997, ISBN 0 674 53908 7

Freeman Dyson warns us in Imagined Worlds that he is now ‘an old scientist pretending to be a sage’ and that ‘we learn from science and from history that the future is unpredictable.’ As well as diagnosing our present ills, however, Dyson offers strong hopes that our descendants will colonise not just their own galaxy in its entirety, but others too. They could continue onwards for infinitely many years. Humans would have first to survive the difficulties of the next few centuries. On the grounds, however, that he has ‘nothing fresh to say’, Dyson resolves to pass over in silence ‘fashionable environmental problems such as global warming and overpopulation’ – although he does later indicate that his hopes are pinned on local, not global solutions. ‘People who try to impose global solutions should remember,’ he writes, ‘the words of the poet William Blake, “One Law for the Lion and Ox is Tyranny”.’

To scientists, Dyson may be best known for his work in physics shortly after World War Two. Many equations in quantum field theory were producing meaningless, infinite figures. Dyson helped, if not to eliminate the infinities, then at least to sweep them under the carpet so that calculations gave sensible results. It was, however, Disturbing the Universe (1979) and Infinite in All Directions (1988) which captured the imagination of the general public. He fired off ideas everywhere, but particularly towards the future.

In Imagined Worlds, the object of Dyson’s interest, and animosity, is ‘ideology’. Nuclear energy programmes have failed because bureaucratic idealists were determined they should succeed. In the intense desire ‘to create something peaceful and useful out of the ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki’, ‘rules for environmental cleanliness were written so that the ultimate disposal of spent fuel and worn-out machinery was left out of consideration.’ ‘Technological arrogance’ led to Earth’s ‘defilement’ by radioactivity. We need ‘concerned scientists, educators and entrepreneurs’, all ‘working together’ for human well-being; yet not as ideologues or even, it would seem, in committees. It is ‘the power of committees in the administration and funding of science’ that made nuclear reactors into ‘toys for the rich’ acting ‘mostly for evil’, and gave us ‘the laptop computer and the cellular telephone’ as ‘the latest of the new toys’. The conduct of ‘Henry Ford, with dictatorial power over his business’ was preferable. No committee would have acted like Ford when he dared ‘to create a mass market for automobiles by arbitrarily setting his prices low enough and his wages high enough so that his workers could afford to buy his product’.

True, Ford’s approach was of the kind Dyson calls ‘Napoleonic’, and in general he much prefers ‘creative chaos and freedom’, which he labels ‘Tolstoyan’. When he started off in particle physics, the field was in ‘a Tolstoyan phase’. Major discoveries were reached with home-made instruments for detecting cosmic rays: particles were accelerated free of charge by astronomical processes. Later came large, man-made accelerators. Particle physics entered ‘a long Napoleonic phase’ and became ‘a welfare programme for scientists and engineers’. Luckily, the gigantic Superconducting Supercollider was cancelled in 1993, after some $3 billion had been spent on it. More spending would have been ‘immensely harmful to the future of science’.

Dyson sees the shameful gap between the rich and the impoverished as sure to widen in the near future, under the pressure of new technology. Families with access to computers ‘are rapidly becoming a hereditary caste’. Poor individuals and poor nations may well turn to ‘irrational and violent remedies’. Yet ‘even if economic inequalities can be greatly reduced, racial and religious animosities will persist’ – ‘a hundred years from now, our planet will not be a peaceful utopia.’ And although Dyson sees the nuclear arms race, at least in its ‘military’ as distinct from its ‘political’ form, as having ‘petered out in the Seventies, after the development of reliable and invulnerable missiles and submarines’, actually getting rid of nuclear bombs, ‘the most serious danger to mankind’, is still ‘perhaps a hundred years away’.

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