Freeman Dyson, the Great Tidier, Lived Between Two Worlds

The recent death of Dr. Dyson reminds us of his contributions to quantum electrodynamics and biotechnology plus warnings about mankind’s future.

Freeman J. Dyson, famous mathematician and technology visionary, recently died at 96 near Princeton, NJ.

Early in his academic career, Dyson wrote a seminal paper on quantum electrodynamics, or QED, which greatly advanced the understanding of how light interacts with matter in the physical world. But much of his public recognition later in life came from writings on space travel, the morality of war, his now controversial views on the Earth’s environmental future and genetically engineered plants.

It was on these latter topics that I talked with him several years ago. Our discussion took place after his public lecture on the future of mankind, part of the “Linus Pauling” lecture series established by the Institute of Science, Engineering and Public Policy (ISEPP).

Image Source: ISEPP

During his lecture, Dyson talked about many things ranging from personal observations about the need for unilateral destruction of nuclear weapons to discussions centered on the importance of biotechnology.

His comments about the origins and growth of biotechnology were intriguing. For example, Dyson compared the ongoing domestication of biotechnology to the analogous evolution of computers. At first, computers were big, massive and very complicated machines. Since that time, though, computers have gotten smaller and more powerful, leading Dyson to conclude that computers have now become domesticated. From my perspective, this seemed like an oddly agrarian choice of words, since “domesticated” usually refers to the taming of plants or animals for the service of humanity. Today, we talk about the commoditization – not domestication – of computers, which are our silicon-based creations.

Other colleagues who attended his talk offered a different point of view, seeing the concept of taming or domestication as a metaphor, which matched up the idea that in the deep past would have been limited to "specialists" (animal husbandry) being brought to the "masses.” The “taming” of semiconductor technology and computer could be seen in a similar way, although in a much shorter timeframe. In this sense, the reference to domestication wasn’t meant to under-emphasize the complexities involved in the creation of semiconductor systems. Still, the difference in context and timeframe between the evolution of animal husbandry verses computer technologies made his comments more difficult to appreciate. But this viewpoint – part from the world of technology but also biotechnology – made Dyson’s perspective unique and thoughtful.

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