2015年8月23日 星期日

Questions and answers with Freeman J. Dyson 2015.8.12


Questions and answers with Freeman J. Dyson

What does the iconic physicist think about the Pluto flyby, the Iran nuclear deal, and how his scientific legacy might be affected by his contrarian climate-change views?

Bookends:


Now 91 years old, mathematical physicist Freeman Dyson continues to churn out fresh opinions and original ideas. He is well known for his contributions to quantum electrodynamics and random matrix theory, among other things. However, he also expresses broad views and visions in book reviews and essays, including on topics as varied as space exploration, genetic engineering, and nuclear weapons.
Freeman Dyson at the 2013 Dreams of Earth and Sky celebration in honor of his 90th birthday and 60th year as a professor at IAS. CREDIT: Andrea Kane
Freeman Dyson at the 2013 Dreams of Earth and Sky celebration in honor of his 90th birthday and 60th year as a professor at IAS. CREDIT: Andrea Kane
Two collections of Dyson’s writings were released earlier this year, within a month of each other: Dreams of Earth and Sky (New York Review of Books, 2015) and Birds and Frogs: Selected Papers, 1990–2014 (World Scientific, 2015). “One of the joys of both books is the pleasure of getting to know Dyson better,” writes theoretical physicist Frank Wilczek in his review for this month’s issue of Physics TodayDreams of Earth and Sky, geared for the general reader, is a selection of Dyson’s reviews for the New York Review of Books. The second offering, Birds and Frogs “is more varied and on the whole more technical,” writes Wilczek.
Physics Today caught up with Dyson recently to talk about his new books and about his views on current issues.
PT: What prompted you to assemble these two collections around the same time? And what's new or different about them?
DYSON: The simultaneous publication of the two books was unexpected and unplanned.Dreams of Earth and Sky is a collection of book reviews published by the New York Review of Books. It is a sequel to The Scientist as Rebel (New York Review Collections, 2006). Birds and Frogs is a collection of writings—everything except for book reviews—published by World Scientific. It is a sequel to an earlier volume of selected papers published by the American Mathematical Society.
PT: The reviewer highlights your appreciation for the virtues of blunders and of wrong theories. At what point in your career did you begin developing these appreciations?
DYSON: I did not think much about blunders and wrong theories until I read the books by Mario Livio (Brilliant Blunders, Simon & Schuster, 2013) and Margaret Wertheim (Physics on the Fringe, Walker Books, 2011) and wrote reviews of them. Writing reviews gives me a chance to think new thoughts and express new opinions. Sometimes the opinions are sincere and sometimes not. Reviews are intended to entertain as well as educate.
PT: Three hot topics in the news right now are the Pluto flyby, the Iran nuclear deal, and thenew $100 million SETI initiative. What, briefly, is your reaction to each of these issues? And what do you say about them in your new books?
DYSON: My reaction to the Pluto flyby: A magnificent achievement. It will take a year and a half to send back to Earth the information collected in a couple of days. We will not know what we have discovered until the information comes back.
My reaction to the nuclear deal with Iran: Enthusiastic approval. This was long overdue. Iran is like China, an ancient and gifted civilization, to be treated with respect even when we disagree. It is far better for us to learn to live with them as equals rather than to tell them how to behave.
My reaction to the Milner SETI initiative: A mixture of good and bad. It is good to keep SETI observations going ahead at a sustainable level. It is bad to give the public the impression that this cannot be done for less than a hundred million dollars. I have in mind the unfortunate history of Bob Forward's Project Cyclops. Cyclops gave the public the wrong idea that SETI was an expensive and extravagant folly, with the result that sustained support of SETI became more difficult. There is one important difference between Milner and Forward. Milner is supporting his project with real money. Forward did not.
I said nothing in the new books about any of these three topics.
PT: Are you ever concerned that your contrarian view of climate science will become as much a part of your legacy as all the other contributions you’ve made to science? Or do you embrace that possibility?
DYSON: I do not care what my legacy will be. To me the most beautiful aspect of science is that it is a collaborative enterprise, with a multitude of people from all over the world taking part. In the long run, it does not matter who discovered what. We all share the joy of discovery even if we do not share the credit. I am happy to be skeptical about the prevailing dogma concerning climate change, whether or not it turns out that I am right. As a scientist, I can disagree vigorously with my colleagues and still remain friends.
PT: What projects—a book or something else, personal or professional—do you have on the horizon?
DYSON: My next publishing project is a book of letters. My mother preserved the weekly letters that I wrote to her as a dutiful son for 30 years. These letters contain a record of historic events as they appeared at the time, without the distortion of hindsight. I still need to select and edit the letters, and to write comments to explain the context and identify the characters. After that, I have no plans.
PT: What books are you currently reading?
DYSON: The last three books that I have read were biographies of famous physicists. I wrote reviews of all of them for the New York Review of Books, too late to be included in Dreams of Earth and Sky. I recommend all of them to readers of Physics Today. They are Half-life: The Divided Life of Bruno Pontecorvo (Basic Books, 2015) by Frank Close, Einstein: His Space and Times (Yale University Press, 2015) by Steven Gimbel, and Planck: Driven by Vision, Broken by War (Oxford University Press, 2015) by Brandon Brown.
By a remarkable coincidence, these three lives exemplify precisely the three alternatives described by my late colleague [the economist] Albert Hirschman in his classic book, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States (Harvard University Press, 1970). Hirschman is discussing the three possible responses of a person who belongs to a big organization where things are going badly. Exit means giving up the struggle to influence events. Voice means standing firm and speaking out against evil. Loyalty means keeping quiet and making compromises with evil. Pontecorvo chose exit, Einstein chose voice, and Planck chose loyalty. Each of them paid the price for his choice, just as Hirschman described it.
For more about Dyson, you can read the recent biography Maverick Genius (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2013) by Phillip Schewe and the Physics Today review of that book.

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