If this profile of Freeman Dyson in the Times magazine doesn’t make it into both science writing anthologies, there is no justice in the world. I can’t recommend it enough. The hook is that Dyson doesn’t think climate change is a big deal. But it touches on everything: life, beauty, genius, science, masculinity, war, string theory, expertise, libertarianism, Greek mythology, polar bears, the Obamas.
I once claimed that journalists don’t play favorites. I’m forced to eat my words: Freeman Dyson is officially my favorite scientist. Bar none.
Some immediate reactions:
- Science is a weapon.
- Reasonable people – read: sides of JR’s brain – can disagree about how to frame the potential threats of climate change; or in other words, how shrill to be. (The fact that I always find myself referring to them as “potential threats” says something – to myself, if to noone else.).
- I think the point for everyone – and by everyone, I mean “me” – is don’t let your commitment to your personal identity blind you to how you’re using “facts” against other people. Translation: I’m sorry, Patrick.
On why we could have flying cars if we wanted to:
“I don’t think of myself predicting things,” he says. “I’m expressing possibilities. Things that could happen. To a large extent it’s a question of how badly people want them to. The purpose of thinking about the future is not to predict it but to raise people’s hopes.”
On specialists vs. informed outsiders:
Experts are, he thinks, too often crippled by the conventional wisdom they create, leading to the belief that “they know it all.”
On how to disagree with someone:
“I don’t think it’s time to panic,” [expert says] but contends that, because of global warming, “more sea-level rise is inevitable and will displace millions; melting high-altitude glaciers will threaten the food supplies for perhaps a billion or more; and ocean acidification could undermine the food supply of another billion or so.” Dyson strongly disagrees with each of these points, and there follows, as you move back and forth between the two positions, claims and counterclaims, a dense thicket of mitigating scientific indicators that all have the timbre of truth and the ring of potential plausibility.
On facts vs. values:
Beyond the specific points of factual dispute, Dyson has said that it all boils down to “a deeper disagreement about values” between those who think “nature knows best” and that “any gross human disruption of the natural environment is evil,” and “humanists,” like himself, who contend that protecting the existing biosphere is not as important as fighting more repugnant evils like war, poverty and unemployment.
On coal – well scrubbed, of course:
Dyson has great affection for [it] and for one big reason: It is so inexpensive that most of the world can afford it. “There’s a lot of truth to the statement Greens are people who never had to worry about their grocery bills,” he says.
On how not to become speaker for the dead:
Dyson writes in “Weapons and Hope,” he became an expert on “how to murder most economically another hundred thousand people.” This work, Dyson told the writer Kenneth Brower, created an “emptiness of the soul.”
On funny and less funny:
Like many physicists, Dyson has always loved explosions, and, of course, uncovering the secrets of nature is the first motivation of science. […] “I felt it myself, the glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist.”
And finally, on being Michelle Obama:
Other physicists quietly express disappointment that Dyson didn’t do more to advance the field, that he wasted his promise. […] “I’ve always enjoyed what I was doing quite independently of whether it was important or not,” he says.