Our world and Freeman Dyson’s world

Over spring break, I read Phillip Schewe’s biography of the great physicist Freeman Dyson. It’s a terrific book. Schewe keeps the science explanations simple (simple enough that even a science-klutz like me can follow along), and he does a terrific job reconstructing the contexts–intellectual, institutional, and social– in which Dyson’s career has unfolded. There are fair-minded accounts of policy disputes, and the private disputes certainly seem to get fair treatment too. No sordid revelations, but we do feel we’ve encountered a real human being, not a cardboard cut-out version of the Genius Scientist.

All that information makes Dyson another interesting example for a question I keep asking in this blog: how does high-level thinking function here in millenial America, and what does it do to America?

For those unfamiliar with his story, Dyson is both one of the great geniuses and one of the key creators of contemporary science. In the 1950s he played a big role in the development of quantum physics, but he’s done dozens of other things too, all at the same high level: math, nuclear engineering, defense consulting, science journalism, etc etc etc. He was already a recognized international all-star in his early twenties, and he’s still going strong now in his nineties.

Plus he’s serious about European culture, the kind that people like me make such a fuss about. He reads poetry and foreign languages, he plays classical music, he’s a sensational writer, on all kinds of subjects. Since the 1950s he’s been a fixture at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, a research institute that brings together humanists, social scientists, physicists, and mathematicians, some of them superstar permanent faculty like Dyson, the rest a rotating cast of visitors on year-long fellowships. Brilliant but humane, at home in multiple disciplines, eager to speak to a wide public and effective at doing so — Dyson pretty much embodies the Institute ethos.

But of course the story isn’t all brainy interdisciplinary strolls through the Princeton woods– it can’t be for physicists of Dyson’s vintage, since so many of them have been drawn into some form of weapons research. Partly because of his eminence, partly because of his interests, Dyson’s done more weapons research than most of his colleagues, and since the mid-sixties he’s spent at least a month or two on defense consulting every year. But over those years he’s also been a voice of scientific sanity in the weapons domain (he played a big part in ending open-air nuclear testing, for instance).

So he gets at least a passing grade on the military-industrial-university complex side of things.

No, the real Dysonian dark sides emerge as you come to understand the larger assumptions that structure all his efforts, whether he’s discussing bombs or the abstractions of string theory. Dyson thinks very very big, we come to understand, and he’s totally ready to apply a Very Big History perspective to human affairs.

Some hint of that came out a few years ago, when Dyson weighed in on climate change– in the New York Times Magazine, no less. With a fair amount of shock, the Times’s mainly-liberal readers learned that Dyson is a climate contrarian. Not an outright climate-change denier, but (as Schewe reconstructs his views) someone who sees climate change as an inevitable and mainly benign process, one that will improve the world, not damage it. Changing our environment is what we humans do, what we’ve always done; it’s how we’ve made a hostile world meet our needs. If we didn’t, we’d still be living in caves.

As you read Schewe’s account, you start to understand how these particular views fit into a bigger belief system. For instance, Dyson’s always been a space-travel enthusiast. He spent several years helping design an atom-bomb propelled spaceship that would have made it to Mars and beyond. This was a major project, funded by a defense contractor, not just some back-of-the-envelope sketches, and Dyson planned to be a member of the first Mars landing crew. Columbus didn’t stay home in 1492, he explained, and space travel’s just our version of the Columbus story, one more step in humanity’s ongoing expansion.

That’s his belief today, decades after the death of the a-bomb spaceship project– in 2009 he encouraged one of his daughters (a successful investment banker) to spend $3 million for a few weeks of astronaut training in Kazakhstan. She completed the course and was ready to spend the extra $30 million the Kazakhs charge for actually shooting you into space, but the flights were all booked up. More enthusiastically than ever, it seems, Dyson still pictures humanity spreading out from earth, harvesting all those resources out there in space, just as our ancestors first moved out of Africa and across the oceans.

Probably I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that a physicist like Freeman Dyson doesn’t see the same earth or the same human history as a historian like me– in one sense that’s obvious, Thomas Kuhn 101: different knowledge systems create different ways of seeing.

But in another sense it is surprising, and a little frightening as well.

Because Dyson’s belief system helps explain something that puzzles me more and more these days: why aren’t those with the most to lose more anguished about the state of the world? I mean, Freeman Dyson has six children and sixteen grandchildren, all leading wonderful lives, with plenty of money, living in cool places, doing wonderful things– why doesn’t he worry more about the planet crumbling around them? Why aren’t all the other über-successful people in today’s world more worried? Sure, some of them are stupid and selfish, and some have bought acreage in Wyoming and set up survivalist fortresses. But aren’t they enjoying the world as it is?  Don’t they worry about getting bored in the survivalist fortress?

Instead, maybe a lot of them actually think like Freeman Dyson: he likes our here-and-now world just fine, but he doesn’t see it as the world. It’s more like a nice picnic area on a very long trek; if we’re headed for grander destinations, we shouldn’t get too attached to this particular spot. Some version of that belief would explain why space travel is so popular among today’s billionaires (Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic company has already sold $80 million worth of tickets).

Maybe Freeman Dyson shows us what those ticket holders are actually buying.