Thursday, March 26, 2009

An honest heretic

I am deeply buried in my dissertation but I had to take some time out for this.
"He is a short, sinewy man with strawlike filaments of excitable gray hair that make him resemble an upside-down broom. Every day he dresses with the same frowzy Oxbridge formality in L. L. Bean khaki trousers (his daughter Mia is a minister in Maine), a tweed sport coat, a necktie (most often one made for him, he says, by another daughter, Emily, many years ago “in the age of primary colors”) and wool sweater-vests. On cold days he wears a second vest, one right over the other, and the effect is like a window with two sets of curtains. His smile is the real window, a delighted beam that appears to float free from his face, strangely dynamic with its electric ears and quantum nose, and his laugh is so hearty it shakes him. The smile and laughter have the effect of softening Dyson’s formality, transforming him into a sage and friendly elf, and also reminding those he talks with that he has spent a lifetime immersed in efforts to find what he considers humane solutions to dire problems, whose controversial gloss never seems to agitate him. His eyes are murky gray, and whatever he’s thinking beyond what he says, the eyes never betray."
I still remember the first time I walked into the library and discovered Freeman Dyson's autobiography lying neglected in a corner of the college library, covered with years of fine dust. I dusted off the book and noticed that the cover was missing. In spite of its miserable condition, I was so entranced that I read the volume cover to cover that night. Ever since then it has been the single-best socioscientific memoir I have read. Briefly corresponding with Dyson by e-mail was one of the high points in my life.

I won't say much about Dyson since I have already written about him in detail before. He is considered an extraordinary scientist and humanist, one of the most highly respected of the last fifty years, having inhabited the lofty Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton with luminaries like Oppenheimer, EInstein, Witten and Gödel. Earlier Dyson had worked with Hans Bethe and Richard Feynman, both legends. But what I have found puzzling about him in recent times is his skeptical stance on global warming. Now Dyson is no Bjørn Lomborg, but some of his statements really bothered me. For instance, in spite of spending some of the most productive years of his life designing a safe nuclear reactor, Dyson still does not talk in favour of nuclear energy. At least some of his ideas make sense; he has espoused research into genetically modified plants that would soak up CO2 for instance, but I cannot see how any such measures could do no more than supplement solutions to climate change.

In any case, Nicholas Dawidoff has a well-written profile of Dyson in the New York Times magazine which Nikhil was kind enough to inform me about. The article is well-written and documents well Dyson's outstanding credentials as a scientist and humanist as well as his early years in war-torn England. Dawidoff documents Dyson's contrarian stance on climate change; indeed this seems to be the reason for the article. Dyson's fondness for coal is also jarring. But while you may strongly disagree with what he says (and there's at least some stuff in there which makes sense), of one thing you can be sure; Dyson's criticism is scientific and honest and he has no political axe to grind. The invective that he seems to have received in some emails is actually amusing.

Global warming stances aside, Dyson probably has the best command over both science and the English language of anyone that I have come across; as he himself says, he has two passions- "calculation and English prose". In his magnificent books Dyson liberally quotes from both the best scientists and the best poets and writers. Over the last fifty years his mind has ranged and soared high over topics as diverse as nuclear reactor engineering, space exploration, problems of population and poverty, poetry, solid-state physics, quantum electrodynamics, adaptive optics in telescopes, origins of life and genetic engineering. Still a sprightly 85, Dyson continues to inspire and awe. I hope to gather up enough mettle to try to ask him for an audience sometime.



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