Long live Freeman Dyson!

Freeman Dyson believes in positive iconoclasm in the same way that his near contemporary, Richard Feynman, advocated the “scientific spirit of adventure”. Feynman urged recognizing the unknown as unknown in order for it to be explored. Dyson shares Feynman’s “humility of the intellect”. 

These ideas come from the chapter “The Uncertainty of Values” in Feynman’s book The Meaning of it All (1998). The American physicist Richard Feynman (1918-88) was known for his work on quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics, the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, as well as on particle physics. For his contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics, Feynman, jointly with Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, received the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics.

As if he hadn’t enough to keep him occupied, Feynman was also a painter, bongo-drum player, and safe-cracker, with an extraordinary ability to communicate science at all levels. When he died, Freeman Dyson, called him “the most original mind of his generation”.

Freeman Dyson (born 1923) is a theoretical physicist and mathematician, famous for his work in quantum field theory, solid-state physics, astronomy, and nuclear engineering. He worked at the renowned Institute for Advance Study, in Princeton, New Jersey, and for many years on climate studies with the Institute for Energy Analysis. This group pioneered multidisciplinary climate studies, of which Dyson is a staunch advocate in his outspoken criticism of climate change theories.

Dyson is a polymath, which makes him an ideal observer of life and social behaviour. It also makes him a fascinating critic, open to new ideas, but with an unrivalled capacity to inject his own. Reviewing James Gleick’s The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood (2011), he relates the complexities of the digital sphere to scientific exploration and human evolution.

The review, published in The New York Review of Books, can be found here. Three excerpts follow to whet the appetite. Dyson observes that the consequences of today’s inundation of information are not all bad. While Wikipedia, for example, cannot be trusted, it still has its uses:

“Wikipedia is the ultimate open source repository of information. Everyone is free to read it and everyone is free to write it… The information that it contains is totally unreliable and surprisingly accurate. It is often unreliable because many of the authors are ignorant or careless. It is often accurate because the articles are edited and corrected by readers who are better informed than the authors.”

Dyson links the information glut to the benefits it has brought to science, which the public has been taught to believe is a collection of firmly established truths. He travels from our planet to the universe and back in one paragraph:

“In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries. Wherever we go exploring in the world around us, we find mysteries. Our planet is covered by continents and oceans whose origin we cannot explain. Our atmosphere is constantly stirred by poorly understood disturbances that we call weather and climate. The visible matter in the universe is outweighed by a much larger quantity of dark invisible matter that we do not understand at all. The origin of life is a total mystery, and so is the existence of human consciousness.”

From there, it’s an easy leap to chaos theory and unpredictability:

“The explosive growth of information in our human society is a part of the slower growth of ordered structures in the evolution of life as a whole. Life has for billions of years been evolving with organisms and ecosystems embodying increasing amounts of information. The evolution of life is a part of the evolution of the universe, which also evolves with increasing amounts of information embodied in ordered structures, galaxies and stars and planetary systems. In the living and in the nonliving world, we see a growth of order, starting from the featureless and uniform gas of the early universe and producing the magnificent diversity of weird objects that we see in the sky and in the rain forest. Everywhere around us, wherever we look, we see evidence of increasing order and increasing information.”

The world could do with more iconoclasts like Freeman Dyson.


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