Freeman Dyson was born in England in 1923 and came to the United States after World War II. He has since spent close to fifty years researching physics, and studied with J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton. Dyson was involved with the Orion Project, which attempted to send manned spacecraft to Mars. He has written a variety of works interpreting science for the general public, including Origins of Life, Imagined Worlds, Weapons and Hope, Disturbing the Universe, and From Eros to Gaia. As the titles of his books suggest, Dyson's writing is poetic, his interests far-ranging, his fundamental attitude one of profound optimism. Through the course of his career Dyson has received a long list of honors, including a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship to study physics (1947), a Wolf Prize for accomplishments in physics (1981), and the 1996 Lewis Thomas Prize, an award honoring scientists for their artistic achievements. Wired magazine has called Dyson "our deepest and most trustworthy futurist."
I was excited when I heard Freeman Dyson was coming to town, but frankly, I expected to be alone in that. I was wrong. There was a quiet but perceptible buzz in the weeks before Dyson came to town, and a bit of tension between Western Washington University, which was sponsoring his appearance as part of their Distinguished Lecture Series, and Bellingham, Washington, the surrounding town. Series organizers made sure students had access to tickets first, and released only a limited number of these (free) tickets to the general public; apparently, in the past, townspeople had snapped up all the tickets, leaving no room for the university students to attend.
And again, I was excited, because I knew who Freeman Dyson was. I knew him as the author of a number of other intelligent, accessible works on science, as well as countless scientific papers. I cherished Dyson for his commitment to projects near and dear to my heart, such as space exploration, but even more I appreciated the bravura daring of his mind. It was Freeman Dyson who observed that an advanced civilization requires two things to keep growing: space and power, and envisioned, in response, the Dyson sphere, a hypothetical artifact in which an advanced civilization builds a sphere that entirely encloses their sun, multiplying the surface area available to them for building many thousandfold and addressing their power needs by harnessing the entire energy output of their sun. Amazing in itself, the Dyson sphere quickly moved through science fiction, spawning many projects in response, including Larry Niven's Ringworld, which addressed many of the same needs but simplified construction immensely. (For example, you can spin a ringworld to get artificial gravity, whereas you must generate gravity in a Dyson sphere.) In short, I was excited because I knew who Dyson was, but didn't believe that the general population could.
Apparently, I was wrong. All tickets for the Freeman Dyson lecture were gone within 30 minutes of the time they became available; I wasted some time trying to negotiate standing room for an interested third party later.
The talk was scheduled for 6:30 PM. When I arrived at 6:10, the auditorium, which held thousands of people, was completely full on the ground floor, and the only seats available were midway back in the balcony. There was a buzz in the crowd, which looked to be mostly undergraduates; they sounded like they were waiting for a good concert to start. I later learned that the university had done a fine job of prepping the students, with months of publicity, on campus meeting with Dyson, and a strong push for instructors to link class activities to the visit.
The Pacific Northwest is known as a hotbed of political liberalism, and it became obvious throughout the evening that it was the lecture's specific topic, "Technology & Social Justice," that had drawn most of the audience. Any time that Dyson articulated a view that could be claimed as liberal, he was greeted with intense applause. However, several times he spoke with even greater insight and compassion, but without voicing a recognizably liberal position, and was greeted with confused silence.
However, I'm getting ahead of myself. The evening started on time. A university representative delivered a brief biography that accented Dyson's background and summarized his career -- and answered the question of how Western got him to come to campus. It turns out that his son, Lyn Dyson, teaches for Western Washington (in the college of education), and Dyson was lured more by his son and grandson's presence in the town than by anything special about the school.
For indeed neither the general topic, which has long been a concern of Dyson's, or the specific talk, seemed adapted for this particular audience. When Dyson took the stage, springing up the steps two at a time in a fashion that belied his recent retirement, he took it as a platform, as another chance to talk about issues that have consumed him his entire career. Early in the talk he stated that he was there to talk about two questions. First, is it possible to have a high technology civilization without aggravating the gap between rich and poor? And second, is there a practical way to combine increased technology with social justice?
To address these questions, he delivered eight case studies, incidents in which conscious attempts had been made to bring about social change for the better by means of technological enhancement. The first of these, an intricate tale of the "African groundnut scheme," in which the plant Americans know as the peanut was introduced to Tanzania in an attempt to address regional hunger and economic need, established a couple of expectations which Dyson spent the remainder of the evening fulfilling. First and decidedly not least, he is a fine speaker. He spent his early years in London, and the traces of an accent combine with precise wording, a careful cadence, and considerable dry wit to produce complete control of his audience. Not the least of these qualities as a speaker was his willingness and ability to educate without condescending; each generalization was illustrated, each principle followed by examples and analogies -- and again, often jokes.
But second, it established that Dyson meant "technology" in its deepest sense, not its common usage. Dyson used the term in the sense of its original Greek original, in which any techne, -- a body of knowledge, or established craft or practice -- is a technology. In this sense, he spoke late in the speech of the respective reigns of "green technology" and "gray technology." Green technology is his term, not specifically for technology which is ecologically friendly, but rather for techne that is based in biology; Dyson spoke of green technology as producing the first five thousand years of human civilization, during which time human civilization centered on the village. Gray technology, on the other hand, is based on chemistry and physics, and produced the most recent five thousand years of human civilization. Beginning with the smelting of metals, gray technology brought humanity into cities.
Throughout the talk Dyson implicitly accented the need to redress the balance of power between these two loci of civilization. At the end of the speech he explicitly called for such a redistribution of power, so that once again the village would be the center of human life. And here is one of many places where my reaction parted from the bulk of the audience's. Dyson made this point near the close of his formal speech, calling for a rebirth of green technology, and seeing its foreshadowing in things such as the cloning of Dolly the sheep. When Dyson spoke approvingly of this, the audience applauded. I waited, but Dyson didn't provide anywhere near as complex or consistent a set of reasons when dealing with ethical questions as when dealing with technological ones
But again, I'm getting ahead of myself. Dyson's discussion of the African ground nut scheme, which was historically informed and culturally astute, showed his ability to synthesize lessons from history, economics, sociology, and anthropology, as well as farming, and to treat them all as techne fit for solving problems. His flexibility was impressive, as was his willingness to think in truly independent ways.
Part of this flexibility comes from his own acknowledged membership in two communities that are too often distinct: that in which science and technology are seen as goods in themselves, and that in which social justice is pursued, with little or no concern for science. As someone in both communities, Dyson repeatedly reflected on the compatibility of ethics and intellectual freedom. He brought home the complexity of this question through sharing a number of further case studies, each of which were selected to highlight some lesson or principle.
Each of his summaries was cogent and relevant to his guiding questions; each offered Dyson's audience another chance to follow him through a complex interdisciplinary path in search of ethical truths. As he spoke, one thing that became desperately clear was how fundamental his use of technology in its original meaning was. Rather than equate "technology" with current high technology, such as computers, Dyson used it to mean any condensed form of human understanding, from hammers and screwdrivers to principles of social organization. What's more, at no time in his stories did a single science or specific technology provide an answer to anything, and, most often, when someone did attempt to address a complex question with a single science, they failed. Often these failures were horrendous, as in his second case study, Mao's Great Leap Forward and the millions it left dead in its wake. Without ever saying so directly, Dyson undercut the arrogance of the fanatic, the vested interest, and the overly rigid. Such tools, he indicated, were at best wasteful, and at worst deadly.
Such judgments offer clues to the slippery complexity of Dyson's own politics. He is clearly opposed to the massive centralized planning that has characterized many socialist nations. However, he made it clear that for members of developing countries, both free market projects of industrialization and altruistically-minded human aid programs have been experienced in the same fashion. Both have imposed solutions from the outside on local situations without full knowledge of local customs, or, even of local geology, climate, or biological constraints. If pressed, I would characterize Dyson's politics as a sort of enlightened cybernetic web. He acknowledges the presence of and need for both a world economy and a global information network, but accents the sovereignty of local communities and the need to respect regional beliefs and practices. In theory that sounds pretty good. In practice, despite Dyson's detailed examples, I'm not sure how this works as a policy.
While all of Dyson's case studies were exciting to hear about, and as rich with possibilities for truly wonderful science fiction, several of them deserve especially close attention. The first of these was a story about Dyson's own involvement in an attempt by President Carter to provide affordable housing for the poor. Specifically, Dyson was part of a group assembled by HUD and charged with finding out how high-tech materials and processes could be used to produce cheaper housing. He went into fair detail about how he and the other scientists called on expert after expert to inform themselves on the state of the field, and how they spent a great deal of time developing alternatives to common practice. Upon examination, using new materials didn't look promising for economic reasons, so they focused on discovering more efficient methods to assemble existing materials. And they found them. They blocked out a number of ways to fabricate housing materials differently, and especially more efficiently. They established that they could in fact cut the cost of housing substantially, and then, when they were done and quite proud of themselves, they found, in Freeman Dyson's own words, "that they had reinvented the mobile home."
After the waves of laughter subsided -- half of it surprise, half of it appreciation for Dyson's humility in including his own work among his examples of failed projects -- Dyson went on to spell out the implications of his story. They, and he, had failed in part due to the scientific arrogance about which he had already warned us. That he himself fell prey to it was a lesson on just how pervasive this arrogance is. They were the scientists; surely they could do a better job than the market! He was careful to indicate that this assumption was wrong, and that the mobile home industry had already done a better and cheaper job in all of the areas that the group produced proposals. By implication, Dyson was indicating that it is always possible to ignore "native" knowledge, and to abstract erroneously from a recalcitrant specific problem, even in one's own land. He closed this account by summarizing the socio-cultural reasons mobile homes would not solve the problem of housing the poor, and accented that scientific solutions must always fit existing cultural contexts to fully solve problems of social justice.
Dyson followed this failure in addressing the problems of the poor with a summary of Habitat for Humanity, which succeeds without any particular technological advancement, then with other case studies about solar panels powering lights in Asian villages and computer networks in South African schools, the micro-credit banking of the Grameen Bank, and closed with an account of his recent trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Several themes ran through it all: Dyson's deep desire to alleviate pain and suffering, his respect for other individuals doing so on any level, from the level of loaning money to buy a hammer (literally) to making global decisions about the proper future for bio-engineered plants, and his desperate desire to bring knowledge and ethical action together.
Dyson closed his talk in a surprising fashion, but one entirely appropriate for a scientist; he decided that there was not sufficient information to answer either of his opening questions. He did, however, state several lessons that could be drawn from all of his case studies. The first of these was that if one compares top-down projects and bottom-up projects, bottom-up projects have a much higher rate of success. He drew several dry observations about the American tendency to favor top-down solutions, but stopped before actually pointing fingers. I, on the other hand, could not help but see that he was pointing out how often economic success and military might had led us into policies that were anti-democratic, anti-freedom, and anti-community; it was as if Dyson was critiquing the pull towards an imperial perspective that accompanies any great power, be it political or scientific.
His second lesson was also appropriate for a scientist; he observed that step-by-step experimentation with trial and error built in tended to work, while single schemes intended to resolve every aspect of a problem always failed. This too fits a sort of cybernetic model of politics, and sets Dyson quietly in opposition to many social trends. Americans are impatient people, and most countries have terrible difficulty establishing temporary laws, just as most politicians find themselves unable to propose partial solutions. By default, many of Dyson's successful examples must be local, and/or private; only those organizations can act in accord with his lessons in the realm of realpolitick.
His third and final lesson was that collaboration is always necessary. To apply a high quality of technology well, he argues, one needs local economic initiatives. And from this lesson Dyson slid quickly into conceptually swampy ground. He abandoned his more measured stance and began to make generalizations. Two of these were that the free market ideology was as dangerous as socialism, and that ethics must rule our decisions, and ethics dictates that a gap between rich and poor was wrong.
The audience again roared with applause at these two points; I was and remain puzzled. What do these statements mean? To take the first, if it is true, how would one organize an economy? What system of distribution is an alternative to both capitalism and collectivism? Most of Dyson's solutions assumed a right to property. Some used government funds; usually these were applied locally. I found and find myself paralyzed as I attempt to apply this lesson. Vote for or against a bill? Refuse to vote? I know what a Dyson sphere would look like; I don't know what a Dyson society would look like, except that there would not be a gap between rich and poor, and it would tend to be organized on a local level. Did we have a hard scientist who was an anarchist? That seemed unlikely.
His second pronouncement, that ethics must guide our decisions, seems inarguable. except when you apply it back to his case studies. Mao was seeking to destroy the gap between rich and poor; he was seeking to equalize wealth. Were these not ethical goals, by Dyson's standards? In other words, Dyson's bravura performance as a visionary scientist seemed a bit myopic here. Surely he was not suggesting that it was easy to establish a shared ethical code? Or that science offered a single ethical answer?
But by the time I could formulate these questions, dozens of others were already in the queue to be read to Dyson. These ranged from in-jokes about his family there in town, to his interest in baseball, to how to resolve the recent terrorist challenge to America. Here Dyson showed another reason that he deserves my respect: his bravery. Some of the questions were very pointed; the audience clearly preferred one answer to another. In all cases, Dyson spoke directly and clearly. You may like his answers; I laughed with pleasure at the way he turned the assumptions of the ecological activists against them. You may not like his answers; I found myself wincing at his proposed solution to the question of peace between Israel and Palestine, which seemed both naïve and arrogant. But in all cases, he offered answers that managed to be honest, that communicated complex ideas with clarity and grace, and that energized his listeners. Regardless of the immediate emotional response he may have triggered, he always made his listeners think, and, more importantly, helped them to think well.
As I left the auditorium, I reflected on the possibility that Freeman Dyson may be all that I saw, and be even subtler than I thought. Maybe he knew that I and other listeners would surge to classify his ideas within existing systems, and that we would be all too willing to surrender our intellectual autonomy and let the scientist tell us what to do. That way, as each of Dyson's case studies demonstrated, led to disaster. Instead, what he offers is hope, or better, a myriad of hopes, all of which were freely available to us so long as we were in there working along with him, negotiating solutions and voicing our needs. Freeman Dyson made it seem possible to collaborate in the creation of wonder, and that is a great gift indeed.
Greg Beatty recently completed his Ph.D. in English at the University of Iowa, where he wrote a dissertation on serial killer novels. He attended Clarion West 2000, and any rumors you've heard about his time there are, unfortunately, probably true. His previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.
For more on Freeman Dyson, visit this Web site.