A Little Science


From Eros to Gaia, by Freeman Dyson, New York: Pantheon Books, 372 pages, $25.00

When I idly turned on the TV in a Dallas hotel room recently, the first thing I heard was a local anchorman burbling about the day's big piece of good news: The Superconducting Supercollider, sited near Dallas, had survived an attack in Congress. In the worldview of Dallas, this was good news for two reasons. First, the supercollider means jobs. Second, the supercollider will be approximately the biggest machine in the known universe and so will rain glory on Texas and the nation.

For some large share of the American public, that is science: big, expensive, mechanistic and mechanical, nationalistic, a kind of Olympic games of the mind. Those Americans would profit from a few hours with the physicist Freeman Dyson, whose view of science, and of life, is different. The book to begin with is Dyson's previous one, Infinite in All Directions, which is at once humble and brilliant, sensible and visionary. From Eros to Gaia, a collection of writings and speeches spanning more than 50 years, has an odds-and-ends feel and so is less compelling. Still, this new book is undiluted and, at times, radiant Dyson. And that is enough.

What is it that makes Dyson one of the finest of all writing scientists (as distinct from a science writer, which is not the same thing)? First, his view of the world. Second, his view of science. Third, his literary skill.

At the core of Dyson's outlook is a keen appreciation of a point that Americans far too often ignore: the importance of "being the right size"—the importance, in other words, of scaling every endeavor correctly, not only as to size but also as to expense and time. Quick is beautiful, says Dyson. A technological project that takes 10 years to finish is not the same as an otherwise identical project that takes only five: The 10-year project will be roughly five years outmoded by the time it becomes available for use.

The American automakers, with their slow-motion design cycles, learned the lesson of time scaling the hard way. In the car market, two "identical" sedans are not the same at all if one of them takes five years to develop but the other takes only three.

In science, and in life, Dyson is an enemy of gigantism at every turn: Just as a wedding cake can only be baked so large before it collapses, so economic planning that makes sense at the scale of a single enterprise cannot work on the scale of a nation. He is an enemy of obsessive centralism and an advocate of pluralism and flakiness, a friend of "small scale, diversity of objectives, idiosyncratic style, and a certain lack of superficial seriousness." Committees, alas, love big, one-shot projects—and when big, one-shot projects go awry, as the space shuttle program and the Hubble orbiting telescope have done, there is no ready replacement, and progress is set back by a decade or more.

"The right size," he says, "means the size at which you can afford to take a gamble." Any guesses, then, how he feels about the Texans' beloved supercollider?

Some of these 35 essays, which were produced over more than 50 years, today seem arcane or dated; but more often one is astonished to see how well Dyson's thinking has worn. He notes that global climate change may be beneficial: "I see no reason to believe that the present climate of this planet is in any sense optimal." He points out that the hidden costs of regulatory nay-saying, for instance in drug approval and genetic engineering, can be tragically steep. What is remarkable is not that he made these two points, but that he made them in 1974, when they were even more unfashionable than they are today.

What to do about worrisome carbon-dioxide buildup in the atmosphere? Dyson has a proposal. He opposes drastic restrictions on fuel burning "because such restrictions are not beneficial in the short run and may not be necessary in the long run." Instead, build new reservoirs for carbon. In plain English: Plant trees! "If trees and topsoil are nurtured…, the growth of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will be slowed down or halted incidentally." Alas, he notes, conservatives reject his plan "because it says that large-scale action by government is necessary. The gloom-and-doom environmentalists reject it because it says the situation is not hopeless." In other words, tree planting as a substitute for growth slowing is unfashionable.

But Dyson is a proudly unfashionable thinker who reminds us at every turn that intellectual fashion has its uses but that oddness, too, must thrive. "Bureaucratic regulation has a killing effect on all creative endeavor," he warns (again, in 1974). "These are the hidden costs of saying no."

Dyson's view of science is no less invigorating. Among writing scientists, his only peers are the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and the late immunologist Sir Peter Medawar; and like them he has done yeoman's work debunking the "Mr. Spock" model of science, in which science is a giant computer tended by a cadre of disinterested logicians. Dyson will have none of it. The driving forces of science are the ego and personal enmity, weird ventures and wild guesses, blind chance and blind ambition.

"There is no illusion more dangerous than the belief that the progress of science is predictable," he says. "The driving force of a scientific project is institutional self-aggrandizement rather than intellectual curiosity." And—the crucial point—this is as it should be. The genius of science is like the genius of markets: Science harnesses ordinary people and vulgar motives to advance the general welfare.

True, ordinary people's vulgar motives can sometimes gum up the works. In 1934 the astronomers Fritz Zwicky and Walter Baade suggested in a theoretical paper that a supernova "represents the transition of an ordinary star into a neutron star"—this only two years after the neutron was discovered. Then Zwicky and Baade had a falling out and became enemies, and their lead went unpursued for years. "If they had remained friends," Dyson writes, "neutron stars might have been discovered twenty-five years sooner, in 1942 instead of 1967."

Personalities no less than calculations are what makes science run or, at times, stall. One reason scientists sometimes work hard to test a theory, as the philosopher of science David L. Hull has noted, is to "get that son of a bitch." Generations of propagandists for science, seeking to hold it up as reason's antiseptic weapon against philistinism and superstition, have tried to pooh-pooh its petty and personal side. But ultimately science's talent for accommodating itself to human idiosyncrasy and coarseness is what makes it work so well. (Remember, in due course neutron stars did get discovered.) Understanding this, Dyson revels in science's grubby humanity.

Indeed, mystifying science may do real harm by persuading millions of ordinary people that they have little to contribute. Dyson fumes at "the tyranny of the Ph.D. system," which, he says, drives "many of the best and brightest of our young people, including my own daughters," from scientific careers. The Ph.D. "has become a union card for scientists," he declares, and his solution is typically Dysonesque: "I would like to give everybody a Ph.D. at birth, or on the day they enter graduate school, so that the Ph.D. would no longer be an obstacle either to education or to scientific employment. If such a rational solution of the problem is judged to be too radical, we could envisage a compromise solution in which the time required to obtain a Ph.D. is drastically shortened."

Many would disagree, but few will fail to find Dyson intellectually refreshing. He is one of those valuable writers who can change the way one thinks.

"I was a writer long before I became a scientist," says Dyson. The first line of his book is as follows: "The world of science and the world of literature have much in common." How many scientists, or poets, could have not only made that statement but supported it with 350 pages of unfailingly transparent prose?

Read Dyson for his view of the world and for his view of science, but read him also for pleasure and the warmth of his company: "Last but not least, the public can participate in science by sharing our public monuments, taking the kids for a picnic and walking through the dome of the Hale telescope in the peace of a summer afternoon on Mount Palomar, driving up Mount Hamilton by moonlight for a visitors' night at the Lick Observatory and looking at the glory of Saturn's rings through the Crossley refractor." I called him a writing scientist; "writer who does science" would be just as fitting. Either way, he is indispensable.

Jonathan Rauch, a contributing editor of National Journal, is author of Kind Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought, to be published this spring by the University of Chicago Press.