Tuesday, March 31, 2009

James Hansen's rebuttal to "New York Times" article

The quote in The New York Times:

"Reached by telephone, Hansen sounds annoyed as he says, 'There are bigger fish to fry than Freeman Dyson,' who 'doesn’t know what he’s talking about.' In an e-mail message, he adds that his own concern about global warming is not based only on models, and that while he respects the 'open-mindedness' of Dyson, 'if he is going to wander into something with major consequences for humanity and other life on the planet, then he should first do his homework — which he obviously has not done on global warming.'"

"James Hansen sets the record straight on the New York Times article 'The Civil Heretic'"


Diana deRegnier

March 29th, 2009

The New York Times

Dr. James E. Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and an adviser to Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” is quoted and referred to several times in the New York Times article "The Civil Heretic - Freeman Dyson - Profile" - by Nicholas Dawidoff, March 29, 2009, New York Times, page MM32 and in the New York Times Magazine, March 25, 2009.

Dr. Hansen sent his response to the article to those who have subscribed to his e-mail commentaries the day before its publication in the Sunday New York Times. He has given me permission to convey his clarification in its entirety:

New York Times Magazine

Tomorrow's NY Times Magazine article (The Civil Heretic) on Freeman Dyson includes an unfortunate quote from me that may appear to be disparaging and ad hominem (something about bigger fish to fry). It was a quick response to a reporter* who had been doggedly pursuing me for an interview that I did not want to give. I accept responsibility for the sloppy wording and I will apologize to Freeman, who deserves much respect.

You might guess (correctly) that I was referring to the fact that contrarians are not the real problem – it is the vested interests who take advantage of the existence of contrarians.

There is nothing wrong with having contrarian views, even from those who have little relevant expertise – indeed, good science continually questions assumptions and conclusions. But the government needs to get its advice from the most authoritative sources, not from magazine articles. In the United States the most authoritative source of information would be the National Academy of Sciences.

The fact that the current administration in the United States has not asked for such advice, when combined with continued emanations about "cap and trade," should be a source of great concern. What I learned in visiting other countries is that most governments do not want to hear from their equivalent scientific bodies, probably because they fear the advice will be "stop building coal plants now!" These governments are all guilty of greenwash, pretending that they are dealing with the climate problem via "goals" and "caps", while they continue to build coal plants and even investigate unconventional fossil fuels and coal-to-liquids.

I will send out something ("Worshiping the Temple of Doom") on cap-and-trade soon. It is incredible how governments resist the obvious (maybe not so incredible when lobbying budgets are examined, along with Washington’s revolving doors). This is not rocket science. If we want to move toward energy independence and solve the climate problem, we need to stop subsidizing fossil fuels with the public's money and instead place a price on carbon emissions.

My suggestion is Carbon Fee and 100% Dividend, with a meaningful starting price (on oil, gas and coal at the mine or port of entry) equivalent to $1/gallon gasoline ($115/ton CO2). Based on 2007 fuel use, this would generate $670B/year – returned 100% to the public (monthly electronic deposit in bank accounts or debit cards), the dividend would be $3000 per adult legal resident, $9000/year per family with two or more children. This is large enough to affect consumer product and life style choices, investments and innovations. Of course all the other things (rules re vehicle, appliance and building efficiencies, smart electric grid, utility profit motives, etc.) are needed, but a rising carbon price is needed to make them work and move us most efficiently to the cleaner world beyond fossil fuels.

* The reporter left the impression that my conclusions are based mainly on climate models. I always try to make clear that our conclusions are based on #1 Earth’s history, how it responded to forcings in the past, #2 observations of what is happening now, #3 models. Here is the actual note that I sent to the reporter after hanging up on him:

I looked up Freeman Dyson on Wikipedia, which describes his views on "global warming" as below. If that is an accurate description of what he is saying now, it is actually quite reasonable (I had heard that he is just another contrarian). However, this also indicates that he is under the mistaken impression that concern about global warming is based on climate models, which in reality play little role in our understanding -- our understanding is based mainly on how the Earth responded to changes of boundary conditions in the past and on how it is responding to on-going changes.

If this Wikipedia information is an accurate description of his position, then the only thing that I would like to say about him is that he should be careful not to offer public opinions about global warming unless he is willing to first take a serious look at the science. His philosophy of science is spot-on, the open-mindedness, consistent with that of Feynman and the other greats, but if he is going to wander into something with major consequences for humanity and other life on the planet, then he should first do his homework -- which he obviously has not done on global warming. My concern is that the public may assume that he has -- and, because of his other accomplishments, give his opinion more weight than it deserves.

Jim Hansen

Freeman Dyson--optimist

Value of a college degree--Jack Hough's perspective

I have discussed this many times and it appears to be a viable issue...an issue involving "true academics" and money [the ratio of cost and benefit]. Smart Money's Jack Hough has written two articles regarding these issues. Since multiple graphics are employed links to the articles are...

The Case Against the College Degree Part I

The Case Against the College Degree Part II

"Academics for all" poll

Academics--not for everyone

Art of essays--T. H. Huxley

Bertrand Russell...critical thinker

College beyond the reach of some?

Higher education--costly

Higher education--not for all

Liberal arts...going?

Liberal education may be dying

More grads?

The disadvantaged

Universities and umbrella majors

"YouTube"...venue for instruction and knowledge?

Thanks to stringer Tim.

Brian Malow and science humor

Scientists and philosophers are not always droll...they do have some fun and chuckle now and then. The current issue of Symmetry features the humor of physicist Brian Malow. Not a Richard Pryor or Mort Sol but as he says: "As one colleague put it, "Your jokes contain more information than other comics' jokes.""

"Women have passed through my life like exotic particles through a cloud chamber, leaving only vapor trails for me to study for clues to their nature."

"Science yuks"


Brian Malow

March 9th, 2009


If someone had told me when I was in high school that one day I would meet Stephen Hawking and have a meeting at NASA, I never could've guessed the trajectory I'd follow to get there. I would've assumed I had become a physicist.

I was good at—and enjoyed—math and science, but I couldn't decide if I wanted to be a scientist or a rock star (not that there is a difference!) I ended up taking the arts path, but rock star morphed into stand-up comedian.

Most comedians dream of "making it" in nightclubs and theaters. Corporate gigs and private events, while often lucrative, are considered sellouts, because you can't do anything remotely provocative. You have to edit yourself or risk not getting paid—or worse, not getting laughs.

I've never been particularly dirty. My act has always reflected my love of science, drawing on its language and concepts for analogies and metaphors. My sensibilities were shaped more by Asimov and Clarke than Carlin and Pryor. I'm geekier—and I say that proudly—than the average comedian. As one colleague put it, "Your jokes contain more information than other comics' jokes."

A few years ago I had a revelation: I was editing myself more in the comedy clubs than at certain private gigs. Some of my favorite routines were gathering dust because the typical nightclub audience isn't likely to laugh at a joke whose punch line invokes the inverse-square law.

But, at shows for Apple or Microsoft or Stanford—when my audience contained a critical mass of engineers and science enthusiasts—I could wax scientific in the voice that was most colorful and entertaining to me. I could crack a joke about cloud chambers and it would be greeted with laughter and appreciation.

It was gratifying. It was as if I'd grown up speaking a foreign language and then one day found myself in a land where the people spoke that language. It was like coming home.

I decided to really focus on science comedy, to seek out and bond with the complementary audience I knew was out there—the adenine for my thymine, the guanine for my cytosine. I concentrated on performing for science organizations, museums, festivals, medical and technology companies, and conferences.

I've been thrilled by the response.

At public outlets of the National Academies, increasingly large crowds have shown up, curious to check out the "science comedian." They seem as excited and grateful to have found me as I am to have found them.

And I'm pleased to report empirical evidence that scientists do, in fact, have a sense of humor. True, they sometimes have a tendency toward literal interpretations—like when I compared the 125-degree heat in Arizona to the surface temperature of Venus, and a loud voice in the room countered, "No!"

Of course Venus is much hotter than that. I was employing a comedic device known as exaggeration. Other comedians just have to be funny. They don't have to strive for scientific and mathematical accuracy. I do, or the audience will dissect me.

I also reach out to general audiences, hoping to dispel the fallacy that science is dull or impenetrable, by using humorous analogies and radiating enthusiasm.

During a recent appearance at the Koshland Museum of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC, an impassioned argument I made in favor of the manned space program led to a meeting at NASA headquarters and an invitation to attend an exclusive lecture by Professor Hawking. At the reception afterwards I met him, spoke with him, even told him a couple of jokes.

Quite suddenly, I'm meeting and entertaining some of the most interesting people on the planet—physicists, chemists, rocket scientists, cell biologists, entomologists…heroes. And not just the famous ones, but people who are quietly advancing the frontiers of science.

I'm thriving in the ecological niche to which I'm peculiarly adapted. And I'm constantly exposing myself to new information, expanding like the universe.

A chuckle...

Darwin levity

Fuzzy math?--some humor

POSP Blog birthday--1 year


Well, POSP Blog is just a little over one year old now.

March 17th, 2008

A special "thanks" to POSP stringer Tim for his valuable input.

And a "thank you" to those that took the time to offer thoughtful comments.

"Is regenerative human organ science ethical?" poll

Do you believe that regenerative human organ science is ethical?


Sparse response. There are some ethical issues here but overall it is not a bad science. I think there is little fear of bionic men and women but more of a way of patching the wounds of accidents, disease, and war. [This should not be a justification for armed conflict.] I just wonder how expensive it would be? I wonder if insurance companies would underwrite a "patch policy"? Bioscience is a wonderful tool and the results should be made available to all.

Regeneration of cells

March 23rd, 2008


"Science and Ethics"


Bertrand Russell

From Religion and Science

Those who maintain the insufficiency of science, as we have seen in the last two chapters, appeal to the fact that science has nothing to say about "values." This I admit; but when it is inferred that ethics contains truths which cannot be proved or disproved by science, I disagree. The matter is one on which it is not altogether easy to think clearly, and my own views on it are quite different from what they were thirty years ago. But it is necessary to be clear about it if we are to appraise such arguments as those in support of Cosmic Purpose. As there is no consensus of opinion about ethics, it must be understood that what follows is my personal belief, not the dictum of science.

The study of ethics, traditionally, consists of two parts, one concerned with moral rules, the other with what is good on its own account. Rules of conduct, many of which have a ritual origin, play a great part in the lives of savages and primitive peoples. It is forbidden to eat out of the chief's dish, or to seethe the kid in its mother's milk; it is commanded to offer sacrifices to the gods, which, at a certain stage of development, are thought most acceptable if they are human beings. Other moral rules, such as the prohibition of murder and theft, have a more obvious social utility, and survive the decay of the primitive theological systems with which they were originally associated. But as men grow more reflective there is a tendency to lay less stress on rules and more on states of mind. This comes from two sources - philosophy and mystical religion. We are all familiar with passages in the prophets and the gospels, in which purity of heart is set above meticulous observance of the Law; and St. Paul's famous praise of charity, or love, teaches the same principle. The same thing will be found in all great mystics, Christian and non-Christian: what they values is a state of mind, out of which, as they hold, right conduct must ensue; rules seem to them external, and insufficiently adaptable to circumstances.

One of the ways in which the need of appealing to external rules of conduct has been avoided has been the belief in "conscience," which has been especially important in Protestant ethics. It has been supposed that God reveals to each human heart what is right and what is wrong, so that, in order to avoid sin, we have only to listen to the inner voice. There are, however, two difficulties in this theory: first, that conscience says different things to different people; secondly, that the study of the unconscious has given us an understanding of the mundane causes of conscientious feelings.

As to the different deliverances of conscience: George III's conscience told him that he must not grant Catholic Emancipation, as, if he did, he would have committed perjury in taking the Coronation Oath, but later monarchs have had no such scruples. Conscience leads some to condemn the spoliation of the rich by the poor, as advocated by communists; and others to condemn exploitation of the poor by the rich, as practised by capitalists. It tells one man that he ought to defend his country in case of invasion, while it tells another that all participation in warfare is wicked. During the War, the authorities, few of whom had studied ethics, found conscience very puzzling, and were led to some curious decisions, such as that a man might have conscientious scruples against fighting himself, but not against working on the fields so as to make possible the conscription of another man. They held also that, while conscience might disapprove of all war, it could not, failing that extreme position, disapprove of the war then in progress. Those who, for whatever reason, thought it wrong to fight, were compelled to state their position in terms of this somewhat primitive and unscientific conception of "conscience."

The diversity in the deliverances of conscience is what is to be expected when its origin is understood. In early youth, certain classes of acts meet with approval, and others with disapproval; and by the normal process of association, pleasure and discomfort gradually attach themselves to the acts, and not merely to the approval and disapproval respectively produced by them. As time goes on, we may forget all about our early moral training, but we shall still feel uncomfortable about certain kinds of actions, while others will give us a glow of virtue. To introspection, these feelings are mysterious, since we no longer remember the circumstances which originally caused them; and therefore it is natural to attribute them to the voice of God in the heart. But in fact conscience is a product of education, and can be trained to approve or disapprove, in the great majority of mankind, as educators may see fit. While, therefore, it is right to wish to liberate ethics from external moral rules, this can hardly be satisfactorily achieved by means of the notion of "conscience."

Philosophers, by a different road, have arrived at a different position in which, also, moral rules of conduct have a subordinate place. They have framed the concept of the Good, by which they mean (roughly speaking) that which, in itself and apart from its consequences, we should wish to see existing - or, if they are theists, that which is pleasing to God. Most people would agree that happiness is preferable to unhappiness, friendliness to unfriendliness, and so on. Moral rules, according to this view, are justified if they promote the existence of what is good on its own account, but not otherwise. The prohibition of murder, in the vast majority of cases, can be justified by its effects, but the practice of burning widows on their husband's funeral pyre cannot. The former rule, therefore, should be retained, but not the latter. Even the best moral rules, however, will have some exceptions, since no class of actions always has bad results. We have thus three different senses in which an act may be ethically commendable: (1) it may be in accordance with the received moral code; (2) it may be sincerely intended to have good effects; (3) it may in fact have good effects. The third sense, however, is generally considered inadmissible in morals. According to orthodox theology, Judas Iscariot's act of betrayal had good consequences, since it was necessary for the Atonement; but it was not on this account laudable.

Different philosophers have formed different conceptions of the Good. Some hold that it consists in the knowledge and love of God; others in universal love; others in the enjoyment of beauty; and yet others in pleasure. The Good once defined, the rest of ethics follows: we ought to act in the way we believe most likely to create as much good as possible, and as little as possible of its correlative evil. The framing of moral rules, so long as the ultimate Good is supposed known, is matter for science. For example: should capital punishment be inflicted on theft, or only for murder, or not at all? Jeremy Bentham, who considered pleasure to be the Good, devoted himself to working out what criminal code would most promote pleasure, and concluded that it ought to be much less severe than that prevailing in his day. All this, except the proposition that pleasure is the Good, comes within the sphere of science.

But when we try to be definite as to what we mean when we say that this or that is "the Good," we find ourselves involved in very great difficulties. Bentham's creed that pleasure is the Good roused furious opposition, and was said to be a pig's philosophy. Neither he nor his opponents could advance any argument. In a scientific question, evidence can be adduced on both sides, and in the end, one side is seen to have the better case - or, if this does not happen, the question is left undecided. But in a question as to whether this or that is the ultimate Good, there is no evidence either way; each disputant can only appeal to his own emotions, and employ such rhetorical devices as shall rouse similar emotions in others.

Take, for example, a question which has come to be important in practical policies. Bentham held that one man's pleasure has the same ethical importance as another man's, provided the quantities are equal; and on this ground he was led to advocate democracy. Nietzsche, on the contrary, held that only the great man can be regarded as important on his own account, and that the bulk of mankind are only means to his well-being. He viewed ordinary men as many people view animals: he thought it justifiable to make use of them, not for their own good, but for that of the superman, and this view has since been adopted to justify the abandonment of democracy, We have here a sharp disagreement of great practical importance, but we have absolutely no means, of a scientific or intellectual kind, by which to persuade either party that the other is in the right. There are, it is true, ways of altering men's opinions on such subjects, but they are all emotional, not intellectual.

Question as to "values" - that is to say, as to what is good or bad on its own account, independently of its effects - lie outside the domain of science, as the defenders of religion emphatically assert. I think that in this they are right, but I draw the further conclusion, which they do not draw, that questions as to "values" lie wholly outside the domain of knowledge. That is to say, when we assert that this or that has "value," we are giving expression to our own emotions, not to a fact which would still be true if our personal feelings were different. To make this clear, we must try to analyse the conception of the Good.

It is obvious, to begin with, that the whole idea of good and bad has some connection with desire. Prima facie, anything that we all desire is "good," and anything that we all dread is "bad." If we all agreed in our desires, the matter could be left there, but unfortunately our desires conflict. If I say "what I want is good," my neighbour will say "No, what I want." Ethics is an attempt - though not, I think, a successful one - to escape from this subjectivity. I shall naturally try to show, in my dispute with my neighbour, that my desires have some quality which makes them more worthy of respect than his. If I want to preserve a right of way, I shall appeal to the landless inhabitants of the district; but he, on his side, will appeal to the landowners. I shall say: "What use is the beauty of the countryside if no one sees it?" He will retort: "What beauty will be left if trippers are allowed to spread devastation?" Each tries to enlist allies by showing that his own desires harmonize with those of other people. When this is obviously impossible, as in the case of a burglar, the man is condemned by public opinion, and his ethical status is that of a sinner.

Ethics is thus closely related to politics: it is an attempt to bring the collective desires of a group to bear upon individuals; or, conversely, it is an attempt by an individual to cause his desires to become those of his group. This latter is, of course, only possible if his desires are not too obviously opposed to the general interest: the burglar will hardly attempt to persuade people that he is doing them good, though plutocrats make similar attempts, and often succeed. When our desires are for things which all can enjoy in common, it seems not unreasonable to hope that others may concur; thus the philosopher who values Truth, Goodness and Beauty seems, to himself, to be not merely expressing his own desires, but pointing the way to the welfare of all mankind. Unlike the burglar, he is able to believe that his desires are for something that has value in an impersonal sense.

Ethics is an attempt to give universal, and not merely personal, importance to certain of our desires, I say "certain" of our desires, because in regard to some of them this is obviously impossible, as we saw in the case of the burglar. The man who makes money on the Stock Exchange by means of some secret knowledge does not wish others to be equally well informed: Truth (in so far as he values it) is for him a private possession, not the general human good that it is for the philosopher. The philosopher may, it is true, sink to the level of the stock-jobber, as when he claims priority for a discovery. But this is a lapse: in his purely philosophic capacity, he wants only to enjoy the contemplation of Truth, in doing which he in no way interferes with others who wish to do likewise.

To seem to give universal importance to our desires - which is the business of ethics - may be attempted from two points of view, that of the legislator, and that of the preacher. Let us take the legislator first.

I will assume, for the sake of argument, that the legislator is personally disinterested. That is to say, when he recognizes one of his desired as being concerned only with his own welfare, he does not let it influence him in framing the laws; for example, his code is not designed to increase his personal fortune. But he has other desired which seem to him impersonal. He may believe in an ordered hierarchy from king to peasant, or from mine-owner to black indentured labourer. He may believe that women should be submissive to men. He may hold that the spread of knowledge in the lower classes is dangerous. And so o and so on. He will then, if he can, so construct his code that conduct promoting the ends which he values shall, as far as possible, be in accordance with individual self-interest; and he will establish a system of moral instruction which will, where it succeeds, make men feel wicked if they pursue other purposes than his.[1] Thus "virtue" will come to be in fact, though not in subjective estimation, subservience to the desires of the legislator, in so far as he himself considers these desires worthy to be universalized.

The standpoint and method of the preacher are necessarily somewhat different, because he does not control the machinery of the State, and therefore cannot produce an artificial harmony between his desires and those of others. His only method is to try to rouse in others the same desires that he feels himself, and for this purpose his appeal must be to the emotions. Thus Ruskin caused people to like Gothic architecture, not by argument, but by the moving effect of rhythmical prose. Uncle Tom's Cabin helped to make people think slavery an evil by causing them to imagine themselves as slaves. Every attempt to persuade people that something is good (or bad) in itself, and not merely in its effects, depends upon the art of rousing feelings, not upon an appeal to evidence. In every case the preacher's skill consists in creating in others emotions similar to his own - or dissimilar, if he is a hypocrite. I am not saying this as a criticism of the preacher, but as an analysis of this essential character of his activity.

When a man says "this is good in itself," he seems to be making a statement, just as much as if he had said "this is square" or "this is sweet." I believe this to be a mistake. I think that what the man really means is: "I wish everybody to desire this," or rather "Would that everybody desired this." If what he ways is interpreted as a statement , it is merely an affirmation of his own personal wish; if, on the other hand, it is interpreted in a general way, it states nothing, but merely desires something. The wish, as an occurrence, is personal, but what it desires is universal. It is, I think, this curious interlocking of the particular and the universal which has caused so much confusion in ethics.

The matter may perhaps become clearer by contrasting an ethical sentence with one which makes a statement. If I say "all Chinese are Buddhists," I can be refuted by the production of a Chinese Christian or Mohammedan. If I say "I believe that all Chinese are Buddhists," I cannot be refuted by any evidence from China, but only by evidence that I do not believe what I say; for what I am asserting is only something about my own state of mind. If, now, a philosopher says "Beauty is good," I may interpret him as meaning either "Would that everybody loved the beautiful" (which corresponds to "all Chinese are Buddhists") or "I wish that everybody loved the beautiful" (which corresponds to "I believe that all Chinese are Buddhists"). The first of these makes no assertion, but expresses a wish; since it affirms nothing, it is logically impossible that there should be evidence for or against it, or for it to possess either truth or falsehood. The second sentence, instead of being merely optative, does make a statement, but it is one about the philosopher's state of mind, and it could only be refuted by evidence that he does not have the wish that he says he has. This second sentence does not belong to ethics, but to psychology or biography. The first sentence, which does belong to ethics, expresses a desire for something, but asserts nothing.

Ethics, if the above analysis is correct, contains no statements, whether true or false, but consists of desires of a certain general kind, namely such as are concerned with the desires of mankind in general - and of gods, angels, and devils, if they exist. Science can discuss the causes of desires, and the means for realizing them, but it cannot contain any genuinely ethical sentences, because it is concerned with what is true or false.

The theory which I have been advocating is a form of the doctrine which is called the "subjectivity" of values. This doctrine consists in maintaining that that, if two men differ about values, there is not a disagreement as to any kind of truth, but a difference of taste. If one man says "oysters are good" and another says "I think they are bad," we recognize that there is nothing to argue about. The theory in question holds that all differences as to values are of this sort, although we do not naturally think them so when we are dealing with matters that seem to us more exalted than oysters. The chief ground for adopting this view is the complete impossibility of finding any arguments to prove that this or that has intrinsic value. If we all agreed, we might hold that we know values by intuition. We cannot prove, to a colour-blind man, that grass is green and not red. But there are various ways of proving to him that he lacks a power of discrimination which most men possess, whereas in the case of values there are no such ways, and disagreements are much more frequent than in the case of colours. Since no way can be even imagined for deciding a difference as to values, the conclusion is forced upon us that the difference is one of tastes, not one as to any objective truth.

The consequences of this doctrine are considerable. In the first place, there can be no such thing as "sin" in any absolute sense; what one man calls "sin" another may call "virtue," and though they may dislike each other on account of this difference, neither can convict the other of intellectual error. Punishment cannot be justified on the ground that the criminal is "wicked," but only on the ground that he has behaved in a way which others wish to discourage. Hell, as a place of punishment for sinners, becomes quite irrational.

In the second place, it is impossible to uphold the way of speaking about values which is common among those who believe in Cosmic Purpose. Their argument is that certain things which have been evolved are "good," and therefore the world must have had a purpose which was ethically admirable. In the language of subjective values, this argument becomes: "Some things in the world are to our liking, and therefore they must have been created by a Being with our tastes, Whom, therefore, we also like, and Who, consequently is good." Now it seems fairly evident that, if creatures having likes and dislikes were to exist at all, they were pretty sure to like some things in their environment, since otherwise they would find life intolerable. Our values have been evolved along with the rest of our constitution, and nothing as to any original purpose can be inferred from the fact that they are what they are.

Those who believe in "objective" values often contend that the view which I have been advocating has immoral consequences. This seems to me to be due to faulty reasoning. There are, as has already been said, certain ethical consequences of the doctrine of subjective values, of which the most important is the rejection of vindictive punishment and the notion of "sin." But the more general consequences which are feared, such at the decay of all sense of moral obligation, are not to be logically deduced. Moral obligation, if it is to influence conduct, must consist not merely of a belief, but of a desire. The desire, I may be told, is the desire to be "good" in a sense which I no longer allow. But when we analyse the desire to be "good" it generally resolves itself into a desire to be approved, or, alternatively, to act so as to bring about certain general consequences which we desire. We have wishes which are not purely personal, and, if we had not, no amount of ethical teaching would influence our conduct except through fear of disapproval. The sort of life that most of us admire is one which is guided by large impersonal desires; now such desires can no doubt be encouraged by example, education, and knowledge, but they can hardly be created by the mere abstract belief that they are good, nor discouraged by an analysis of what is meant by the word "good."

When we contemplate the human race, we may desire that it should be happy, or healthy, or intelligent, or warlike, and so on. Any one of these desires, if it is strong, will produce its own morality; but if we have no such general desires, our conduct, whatever our ethic may be, will only serve social purposes in so far as self-interest and the interests of society are in harmony. It is the business of wise institutions to create such harmony as far as possible, and for the rest, whatever may be our theoretical definition of value, we must depend upon the existence of impersonal desires. When you meet a man with whom you have a fundamental ethical disagreement - for example, if you think that all men count equally, while he selects a class as alone important - you will find yourself no better to cope with him if you believe in objective values than if you do not. In either case, you can only influence his conduct through influencing his desires: if you succeed in that, his ethic will change, and if not, not.

Some people feel that if a general desire, say for the happiness of mankind, has not the sanction of absolute good, it is in some way irrational. This is due to a lingering belief in objective values. A desire cannot, in itself, be either rational or irrational. It may conflict with other desires, and therefore lead to unhappiness; it may rouse opposition in others, and therefore be incapable of gratification. But it cannot be considered "irrational" merely because no reason can be given for feeling it. We may desire A because it is a means to B, but in the end, when we have done with mere means, we must come to something which we desire for no reason, but not on that account "irrationally." All systems of ethics embody the desires of those who advocate them, but this fact is concealed in a mist of words. Our desire are, in fact, more general and less purely selfish than many moralists imagine; if it were not so, no theory of ethics would make moral improvement possible. It is, in fact, not by ethical theory, but by the cultivation of large and generous desires through intelligence, happiness, and freedom from fear, that men can be brought to act more than they do at present in a manner that is consistent with the general happiness of mankind. Whatever our definition of the "Good," and whether we believe it to be subjective or objective, those who do not desire the happiness of mankind will not endeavour to further it, while those who do desire it will do what they can to bring it about.

I conclude that, while it is true that science cannot decide questions of values, that is because they cannot be intellectually decided at all, and lie outside the realm of truth and falsehood. Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.

Thanks to stringer Tim.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Pluto, Tyson, CNN lecture

From CNN:

"The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet"

Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about the controversy over re-classifying Pluto as a comet. New York's American Museum of Natural History, where this talk was held, was the first public institution to adopt this position.

About 1-1/2 hours.


"Naming Pluto"--a film


"Pluto a planet" poll

Pluto...a reader's contribution

Pluto not fitting definition

"The Pluto Files" by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Tyson, Weintraub, Tombaugh & Pluto

Tyson's interview with "Time" on Pluto and planets

What's in a name?--Pluto

Thanks to stringer Tim for the link.

"Space colonization/death of the human species" poll

Do you feel that space colonization is doomed and that mankind will die out as an Earth species?


It would stand to reason that if the mechanical failures are not addressed, as well as a better propulsion system, we may well be trapped on this planet. Also consider all the space junk in orbit. Besides, species don't exist forever.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Freeman Dyson--optimist

It is difficult to stop a rolling stone going down a large hill and gaining momentum as is the tragedies affecting thousands of people in this current economic state coupled with doom and gloom naysayers like Al Gore but there is an individual that is quite optimistic--Freeman Dyson.

"Tragedy Is Not Freeman Dyson's Business"


John Tierney

March 28th, 2009

The New York Times

Nicholas Dawidoff's article about Freeman Dyson in the Times Magazine [below] nicely captures Mr. Dyson's independent spirit as well as a couple of other appealing traits: humanism and optimism. While so many other scientists and intellectuals fret about humans ruining the planet - and some even revel in fantasies about a world free of our pernicious presence - Mr. Dyson has long had faith in humans' ability to deal with problems like nuclear weapons and global warming.

Reading about his background, and how was happy he was to leave the class-conscious society of England for the freedoms of the United States, reminded me of the wonderful conclusion to his 1984 book, "Weapons and Hope." He wrote about the British aristocratic tradition of celebrating the "glorious failure," epitomized by the public veneration of Robert Falcon Scott after he and four comrades died in the Antarctic after trying (and failing) to win the race to the South Pole against Roald Amundsen. One surviving member of the Scott expedition, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, went on to write "The Worst Journey in the World," in which he offered this unfashionable assessment of the British performance:

I now see very plainly that though we achieved a first-rate tragedy, which will never be forgotten just because it was a tragedy, tragedy was not our business. In the broad perspective opened up by ten years' distance, I see not one journey to the Pole, but two, in startling contrast one to another. On the one hand, Amundsen going straight there, getting there first, and returning without the loss of a single man, and without having put any greater strain on himself and his men than was all in the day's work of polar exploration. Nothing more business-like could be imagined. On the other hand, our expedition, running appalling risks, performing prodigies of superhuman endurance, achieving immortal renown, commemorated in august cathedral sermons and by public statues, yet reaching the Pole only to find our terrible journey superfluous, and leaving our best men dead on the ice. To ignore such a contrast would be ridiculous: to write a book without accounting for it a waste of time.

Mr. Dyson borrowed from that account to conclude his book about nuclear weapons with a chapter titled, "Tragedy Is Not Our Business," in which he urged people to reject fatalism and have faith in humans' capacity for overcoming obstacles. Now, while others are bemoaning the new affluence of China and India and warning that the resulting greenhouse emissions will lead to planetary doom, Mr. Dyson is celebrating these countries’ escape from poverty and reminding everyone of our species' powers of innovation.

As Mr. Dyson wrote in Edge, he disagrees with environmentalists not just on the science of climate change but on a deeper question of values:

The disagreement about values may be described in an over-simplified way as a disagreement between naturalists and humanists. Naturalists believe that nature knows best. For them the highest value is to respect the natural order of things. Any gross human disruption of the natural environment is evil. Excessive burning of fossil fuels is evil. Changing nature's desert, either the Sahara desert or the ocean desert, into a managed ecosystem where giraffes or tunafish may flourish, is likewise evil. Nature knows best, and anything we do to improve upon Nature will only bring trouble.

The humanist ethic begins with the belief that humans are an essential part of nature. Through human minds the biosphere has acquired the capacity to steer its own evolution, and now we are in charge. Humans have the right and the duty to reconstruct nature so that humans and biosphere can both survive and prosper. For humanists, the highest value is harmonious coexistence between humans and nature. The greatest evils are poverty, underdevelopment, unemployment, disease and hunger, all the conditions that deprive people of opportunities and limit their freedoms. The humanist ethic accepts an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a small price to pay, if world-wide industrial development can alleviate the miseries of the poorer half of humanity. The humanist ethic accepts our responsibility to guide the evolution of the planet.

"The Civil Heretic"


Nicholas Dawidorff

March 29th, 2009

The New York Times

FOR MORE THAN HALF A CENTURY the eminent physicist Freeman Dyson has quietly resided in Prince­ton, N.J., on the wooded former farmland that is home to his employer, the Institute for Advanced Study, this country's most rarefied community of scholars. Lately, however, since coming "out of the closet as far as global warming is concerned," as Dyson sometimes puts it, there has been noise all around him. Chat rooms, Web threads, editors' letter boxes and Dyson's own e-mail queue resonate with a thermal current of invective in which Dyson has discovered himself variously described as "a pompous twit," "a blowhard," "a cesspool of misinformation," "an old coot riding into the sunset" and, perhaps inevitably, "a mad scientist." Dyson had proposed that whatever inflammations the climate was experiencing might be a good thing because carbon dioxide helps plants of all kinds grow. Then he added the caveat that if CO2 levels soared too high, they could be soothed by the mass cultivation of specially bred "carbon-eating trees," whereupon the University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner looked through the thick grove of honorary degrees Dyson has been awarded - there are 21 from universities like Georgetown, Princeton and Oxford - and suggested that "perhaps trees can also be designed so that they can give directions to lost hikers." Dyson's son, George, a technology historian, says his father's views have cooled friendships, while many others have concluded that time has cost Dyson something else. There is the suspicion that, at age 85, a great scientist of the 20th century is no longer just far out, he is far gone - out of his beautiful mind.

But in the considered opinion of the neurologist Oliver Sacks, Dyson’s friend and fellow English expatriate, this is far from the case. "His mind is still so open and flexible," Sacks says. Which makes Dyson something far more formidable than just the latest peevish right-wing climate-change denier. Dyson is a scientist whose intelligence is revered by other scientists - William Press, former deputy director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and now a professor of computer science at the University of Texas, calls him "infinitely smart." Dyson - a mathematics prodigy who came to this country at 23 and right away contributed seminal work to physics by unifying quantum and electrodynamic theory - not only did path-breaking science of his own; he also witnessed the development of modern physics, thinking alongside most of the luminous figures of the age, including Einstein, Richard Feynman, Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Witten, the "high priest of string theory" whose office at the institute is just across the hall from Dyson's. Yet instead of hewing to that fundamental field, Dyson chose to pursue broader and more unusual pursuits than most physicists - and has lived a more original life.

Among Dyson's gifts is interpretive clarity, a penetrating ability to grasp the method and significance of what many kinds of scientists do. His thoughts about how science works appear in a series of lucid, elegant books for nonspecialists that have made him a trusted arbiter of ideas ranging far beyond physics. Dyson has written more than a dozen books, including "Origins of Life" (1999), which synthesizes recent discoveries by biologists and geologists into an evaluation of the double-origin hypothesis, the possibility that life began twice; "Disturbing the Universe" (1979) tries among other things to reconcile science and humanity. "Weapons and Hope" (1984) is his meditation on the meaning and danger of nuclear weapons that won a National Book Critics Circle Award. Dyson's books display such masterly control of complex matters that smart young people read him and want to be scientists; older citizens finish his books and feel smart.

Yet even while probing and sifting, Dyson is always whimsically gazing into the beyond. As a boy he sketched plans for English rocket ships that could explore the stars, and then, in midlife, he helped design an American spacecraft to be powered by exploding atomic bombs - a secret Air Force project known as Orion. Dyson remains an armchair astronaut who speculates with glee about the coming of cheap space travel, when families can leave an overcrowded earth to homestead on asteroids and comets, swooping around the universe via solar sail craft. Dyson is convinced that our current "age of computers" will soon give way to "the age of domesticated biotechnology." Bio-tech, he writes in his book, "Infinite in All Directions" (1988), "offers us the chance to imitate nature's speed and flexibility," and he imagines the furniture and art that people will "grow" for themselves, the pet dinosaurs they will "grow" for their children, along with an idiosyncratic menagerie of genetically engineered cousins of the carbon-eating tree: termites to consume derelict automobiles, a potato capable of flourishing on the dry red surfaces of Mars, a collision-avoiding car.

These ideas attract derision similar to Dyson's essays on climate change, but he is an undeterred octogenarian futurist. "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." Formed in a heretical and broad-thinking tradition of British public intellectuals, Dyson left behind a brooding England still stricken by two bloody world wars to become an optimistic American immigrant with tremendous faith in the creative imagination's ability to invent technologies that would overcome any predicament. And according to the physicist and former Caltech president Marvin Goldberger, Dyson is himself the living embodiment of that kind of ingenuity. "You point Freeman at a problem and he'll solve it," Goldberger says. "He's extraordinarily powerful." Dyson seems to see the world as an interdisciplinary set of problems out there for him to evaluate. Climate change is the big scientific issue of our time, so naturally he finds it irresistible. But to Dyson this is really only one more charged conundrum attracting his interest just as nuclear weapons and rural poverty have. That is to say, he is a great problem-solver who is not convinced that climate change is a great problem.

Dyson is well aware that "most consider me wrong about global warming." That educated Americans tend to agree with the conclusion about global warming reached earlier this month at the International Scientific Conference on Climate Change in Copenhagen ("inaction is inexcusable") only increases Dyson's resistance. Dyson may be an Obama-loving, Bush-loathing liberal who has spent his life opposing American wars and fighting for the protection of natural resources, but he brooks no ideology and has a withering aversion to scientific consensus. The Nobel physics laureate Steven Weinberg admires Dyson's physics - he says he thinks the Nobel committee fleeced him by not awarding his work on quantum electrodynamics with the prize - but Weinberg parts ways with his sensibility: "I have the sense that when consensus is forming like ice hardening on a lake, Dyson will do his best to chip at the ice."

Dyson says he doesn't want his legacy to be defined by climate change, but his dissension from the orthodoxy of global warming is significant because of his stature and his devotion to the integrity of science. Dyson has said he believes that the truths of science are so profoundly concealed that the only thing we can really be sure of is that much of what we expect to happen won't come to pass. In "Infinite in All Directions," he writes that nature's laws "make the universe as interesting as possible." This also happens to be a fine description of Dyson’s own relationship to science. In the words of Avishai Margalit, a philosopher at the Institute for Advanced Study, "He's a consistent reminder of another possibility." When Dyson joins the public conversation about climate change by expressing concern about the "enormous gaps in our knowledge, the sparseness of our observations and the superficiality of our theories," these reservations come from a place of experience. Whatever else he is, Dyson is the good scientist; he asks the hard questions. He could also be a lonely prophet. Or, as he acknowledges, he could be dead wrong.

IT WAS FOUR YEARS AGO that Dyson began publicly stating his doubts about climate change. Speaking at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future at Boston University, Dyson announced that "all the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated." Since then he has only heated up his misgivings, declaring in a 2007 interview with Salon.com that "the fact that the climate is getting warmer doesn't scare me at all" and writing in an essay for The New York Review of Books, the left-leaning publication that is to gravitas what the Beagle was to Darwin, that climate change has become an "obsession" - the primary article of faith for "a worldwide secular religion" known as environmentalism. Among those he considers true believers, Dyson has been particularly dismissive of Al Gore, whom Dyson calls climate change's "chief propagandist," and James Hansen, the head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and an adviser to Gore's film, "An Inconvenient Truth." Dyson accuses them of relying too heavily on computer-generated climate models that foresee a Grand Guignol of imminent world devastation as icecaps melt, oceans rise and storms and plagues sweep the earth, and he blames the pair's "lousy science" for "distracting public attention" from "more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet."

A particularly distressed member of that public was Dyson's own wife, Imme, who, after seeing the film in a local theater with Dyson when it was released in 2006, looked at her husband out on the sidewalk and, with visions of drowning polar bears still in her eyes, reproached him: "Everything you told me is wrong!" she cried.

"The polar bears will be fine," he assured her.

Not long ago Dyson sat in his institute office, a chamber so neat it reminds Dyson’s friend, the writer John McPhee, of a Japanese living room. On shelves beside Dyson were books about stellar evolution, viruses, thermodynamics and terrorism. "The climate-studies people who work with models always tend to overestimate their models," Dyson was saying. "They come to believe models are real and forget they are only models." Dyson speaks in calm, clear tones that carry simultaneous evidence of his English childhood, the move to the United States after completing his university studies at Cambridge and more than 50 years of marriage to the German-born Imme, but his opinions can be barbed, especially when a conversation turns to climate change. Climate models, he says, take into account atmospheric motion and water levels but have no feeling for the chemistry and biology of sky, soil and trees. "The biologists have essentially been pushed aside," he continues. "Al Gore's just an opportunist. The person who is really responsible for this overestimate of global warming is Jim Hansen. He consistently exaggerates all the dangers."

Dyson agrees with the prevailing view that there are rapidly rising carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere caused by human activity. To the planet, he suggests, the rising carbon may well be a MacGuffin, a striking yet ultimately benign occurrence in what Dyson says is still "a relatively cool period in the earth's history." The warming, he says, is not global but local, "making cold places warmer rather than making hot places hotter." Far from expecting any drastic harmful consequences from these increased temperatures, he says the carbon may well be salubrious - a sign that "the climate is actually improving rather than getting worse," because carbon acts as an ideal fertilizer promoting forest growth and crop yields. "Most of the evolution of life occurred on a planet substantially warmer than it is now," he contends, "and substantially richer in carbon dioxide." Dyson calls ocean acidification, which many scientists say is destroying the saltwater food chain, a genuine but probably exaggerated problem. Sea levels, he says, are rising steadily, but why this is and what dangers it might portend "cannot be predicted until we know much more about its causes."

For Hansen, the dark agent of the looming environmental apocalypse is carbon dioxide contained in coal smoke. Coal, he has written, "is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet." Hansen has referred to railroad cars transporting coal as "death trains." Dyson, on the other hand, told me in conversations and e-mail messages that "Jim Hansen's crusade against coal overstates the harm carbon dioxide can do." Dyson well remembers the lethal black London coal fog of his youth when, after a day of visiting the city, he would return to his hometown of Winchester with his white shirt collar turned black. Coal, Dyson says, contains "real pollutants" like soot, sulphur and nitrogen oxides, "really nasty stuff that makes people sick and looks ugly." These are "rightly considered a moral evil," he says, but they "can be reduced to low levels by scrubbers at an affordable cost." He says Hansen "exploits" the toxic elements of burning coal as a way of condemning the carbon dioxide it releases, "which cannot be reduced at an affordable cost, but does not do any substantial harm."

Science is not a matter of opinion; it is a question of data. Climate change is an issue for which Dyson is asking for more evidence, and leading climate scientists are replying by saying if we wait for sufficient proof to satisfy you, it may be too late. That is the position of a more moderate expert on climate change, William Chameides, dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences at Duke University, who says, "I don't think it's time to panic," 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. One of Dyson's more significant surmises is that a warming climate could be forestalling a new ice age. Is he wrong? No one can say for sure. 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.

Embedded in all of Dyson's strong opinions about public policy is a dual spirit of social activism and uneasiness about class dating all the way back to Winchester, where he was raised in the 1920s and '30s by his father, George Dyson, the son of a Yorkshire blacksmith. George was the music instructor at Winchester College, an old and prestigious secondary school, and a composer. Dyson's mother, Mildred Atkey, came from a more prosperous Wimbledon family that had its own tennis court. Together they raised Dyson and his sister, Alice, in what Dyson calls a "watered-down Church of England Christianity" that regarded religion as a guide to living rather than any system of belief. The emphasis on tolerance, charity and community - and the free time afforded by the luxury of four servants - led Mildred to organize a club for teenage girls and a birth-control clinic. These institutions meshed uneasily with her patrician Victorian sensibilities. The girls were never, Dyson says, "considered equals," and Mildred told him with amusement about the young mother who walked in carrying a red-headed infant. "What a beautiful baby," Mildred reported saying. "Does he take after his father?"

"Oh, I couldn't tell you, Mum," came the reply. "He kept his hat on."

Winchester is a medieval town in which, Dyson writes, he felt that everyone was looking backward, mourning all the young men lost to one world war while silently anticipating his own generation’s impending demise. He renounced the nostalgia, the servants, the hard-line social castes. But what he liked about growing up in England was the landscape. The country's successful alteration of wilderness and swamp had created a completely new green ecology, allowing plants, animals and humans to thrive in "a community of species." Dyson has always been strongly opposed to the idea that there is any such thing as an optimal ecosystem - "life is always changing" - and he abhors the notion that men and women are something apart from nature, that "we must apologize for being human." Humans, he says, have a duty to restructure nature for their survival.

All this may explain why the same man could write "we live on a shrinking and vulnerable planet which our lack of foresight is rapidly turning into a slum" and yet gently chide the sort of Americans who march against coal in Washington. Dyson has great affection for coal 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. ("Many of these people are my friends," he will also tell you.) To Dyson, "the move of the populations of China and India from poverty to middle-class prosperity should be the great historic achievement of the century. Without coal it cannot happen." That said, Dyson sees coal as the interim kindling of progress. In "roughly 50 years," he predicts, solar energy will become cheap and abundant, and "there are many good reasons for preferring it to coal."

THE WORDS COLLEAGUES COMMONLY use to describe Dyson include "unassuming" and "modest," and he seems the very embodiment of Newton's belief that a man should strive for simplicity and avoid confusion in life. Dyson has been in residence at the institute since 1953, a time when Albert Einstein shared his habit of walking to work there, which Dyson still does seven days a week, to write on a computer and solve any problems that come across his desk with paper and pencil. (In his prime, legend held that he never used the eraser.) He and Imme have spent 51 happy years together in the same house, a white clapboard just over the garden fence from the stucco affair once inhabited by their former neighbors, the Oppenheimers. On some Sundays the Dysons pile into a car still decorated with an Obama bumper sticker and drive to running races, at which Dyson can be found at the finish line loudly cheering for the 72-year-old Imme, a master's marathon champion. On many other weekends, they visit some of their 16 grandchildren. During the holiday season the Dysons routinely attend five parties a week, cocktail-soiree sprints at which guests tend to find him open-minded and shy: when friends’ wives give him a hug, he blushes. One of Dyson's daughters, the Internet vizier Esther Dyson, says her father raised her without a television so she would read more, and has always been "just as interested in talking to" the latest graduate student to make the pilgrimage to Princeton "as he is the famous person at the next table." Oliver Sacks says that Dyson has "a genius for friendship."

But the truth is that Dyson is an elusive particle. To Edward Witten it is clear that Dyson has little use for string theory, the cutting-edge "theory of everything" that links quantum mechanics and relativity in an effort to describe no less than the nature of all things. Even so, Witten admits that there is a fever-dream quality to his conversations with Dyson: "I don't always know what he disagrees with entirely. His attitudes are complicated. There are many layers." Other people can be similarly intrigued and baffled. When I began spending time with Dyson and asked who his close friends are, the only name he mentioned was John McPhee's, which surprised McPhee since he said he doesn't often speak with Dyson even though McPhee teaches nearby at Princeton University. All six of Dyson's children describe him as a loving, intensely devoted father and yet also suggest that this is a parent with, in the words of his son, George, core parts of him that have always seemed "remote." William Press said he finds Dyson to be both a "deep" and "magnificently laudable person" and also mysterious and inscrutable, a man with contrarian opinions that Press suspects may be motivated by "a darker side he's determined the world isn’t going to see." When I asked Sacks what he thought about all this, he said that "a favorite word of Freeman's about doing science and being creative is the word 'subversive.' He feels it's rather important not only to be not orthodox, but to be subversive, and he's done that all his life."

Dyson says it's only principle that leads him to question global warming: "According to the global-warming people, I say what I say because I'm paid by the oil industry. Of course I'm not, but that's part of their rhetoric. If you doubt it, you're a bad person, a tool of the oil or coal industry." Global warming, he added, "has become a party line."

What may trouble Dyson most about climate change are the experts. Experts are, he thinks, too often crippled by the conventional wisdom they create, leading to the belief that "they know it all." The men he most admires tend to be what he calls "amateurs," inventive spirits of uncredentialed brilliance like Bernhard Schmidt, an eccentric one-armed alcoholic telescope-lens designer; Milton Humason, a janitor at Mount Wilson Observatory in California whose native scientific aptitude was such that he was promoted to staff astronomer; and especially Darwin, who, Dyson says, "was really an amateur and beat the professionals at their own game." It's a point of pride with Dyson that in 1951 he became a member of the physics faculty at Cornell and then, two years later, moved on to the Institute for Advanced Study, where he became an influential man, a pragmatist providing solutions to the military and Congress, and also the 2000 winner of the $1 million Templeton Prize for broadening the understanding of science and religion, an award previously given to Mother Teresa and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn - all without ever earning a Ph.D. Dyson may, in fact, be the ultimate outsider-insider, "the world's most civil heretic," as the classical composer Paul Moravec, the artistic consultant at the institute, says of him.

Climate-change specialists often speak of global warming as a matter of moral conscience. Dyson says he thinks they sound presumptuous. As he warned that day four years ago at Boston University, the history of science is filled with those "who make confident predictions about the future and end up believing their predictions," and he cites examples of things people anticipated to the point of terrified certainty that never actually occurred, ranging from hellfire, to Hitler's atomic bomb, to the Y2K millennium bug. "It's always possible Hansen could turn out to be right," he says of the climate scientist. "If what he says were obviously wrong, he wouldn't have achieved what he has. But Hansen has turned his science into ideology. He's a very persuasive fellow and has the air of knowing everything. He has all the credentials. I have none. I don't have a Ph.D. He's published hundreds of papers on climate. I haven't. By the public standard he's qualified to talk and I'm not. But I do because I think I'm right. I think I have a broad view of the subject, which Hansen does not. I think it's true my career doesn't depend on it, whereas his does. I never claim to be an expert on climate. I think it's more a matter of judgement than knowledge."

Reached by telephone, Hansen sounds annoyed as he says, "There are bigger fish to fry than Freeman Dyson," who "doesn't know what he's talking about." In an e-mail message, he adds that his own concern about global warming is not based only on models, and that while he respects the "open-mindedness" of Dyson, "if he is going to wander into something with major consequences for humanity and other life on the planet, then he should first do his homework - which he obviously has not done on global warming."

When Dyson hears about this, he looks, if possible, like a person taking the longer view. He is a short, sinewy man with strawlike filaments of excitable gray hair that make him resemble an upside-down broom. Every day he dresses with the same frowzy Oxbridge formality in L. L. Bean khaki trousers (his daughter Mia is a minister in Maine), a tweed sport coat, a necktie (most often one made for him, he says, by another daughter, Emily, many years ago "in the age of primary colors") and wool sweater-vests. On cold days he wears a second vest, one right over the other, and the effect is like a window with two sets of curtains. His smile is the real window, a delighted beam that appears to float free from his face, strangely dynamic with its electric ears and quantum nose, and his laugh is so hearty it shakes him. The smile and laughter have the effect of softening Dyson's formality, transforming him into a sage and friendly elf, and also reminding those he talks with that he has spent a lifetime immersed in efforts to find what he considers humane solutions to dire problems, whose controversial gloss never seems to agitate him. His eyes are murky gray, and whatever he’s thinking beyond what he says, the eyes never betray.

A FORMATIVE MOMENT in Dyson's life that pushed him in an apostatical direction happened in 1932, when, at age 8, he was sent off to boarding school at Twyford. By then he was a prodigy "already obsessed" with mathematics. (His older sister Alice, a retired social worker still living in Winchester, remembers how her brother "used to lie on the nursery floor working out how many atoms there were in the sun. He was perhaps 4.") At Twyford - like George Orwell, who was flogged, starved and humiliated by masters and bigger boys at St. Cyprian's - Dyson says he felt brutalized by a whip-wielding headmaster who offered no science classes, favoring Latin, and by a clique of athletes who liked to rub sandpaper on the faces of the smaller children. "In those days it was unthinkable that parents would come to see what was going on," Dyson says. "My parents lived only three miles away. They never came to visit. It wasn't done." Dyson took comfort in climbing tall trees, reading "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz," which gave him a first sense of America as a more "exciting place where all sorts of weird things could happen," and Jules Verne’s comic science-fiction descriptions of more "crazy Americans" bound for the moon. His primary consolation, however, was the science society he founded with a few friends. Dyson would later reflect that from then on he saw science as "a territory of freedom and friendship in the midst of tyranny and hatred."

Four years later he entered Winchester College, well known for academic rigor, and he thrived. On his own in the school library, he read mathematical works in French and German and, at age 13, taught himself calculus from an Encyclopedia Britannica entry. "I remember thinking, Is that it?" he says. "People had been telling me how hard it was." Another day in the library he discovered "Daedalus, or Science and the Future," by the biologist J. B. S. Haldane, who said that "the thing that has not been is the thing that shall be; that no beliefs, no values, no institutions are safe," an appealing outlook to Dyson, who had found his muse. "Haldane was even more of a heretic than I am," he says. "He really loved to make people angry." It wasn’t all science. On trips into London he spent entire days in bookstores where William Blake "got hold of me. What I really liked was he was a really rebellious spirit who always said the opposite of what everybody else believed."

That defiant sensibility hardened further when the second war with Germany began. Dyson says he can "remember so vividly lying in bed at age 15, absolutely enjoying hearing the bombs go off with a wonderful crunching noise. I said, 'That's the sound of the British Empire crumbling.' I had a sense that the British Empire was evil. The fact that I might get hit didn't register at all. I think that’s a natural state of mind for a 15-year-old. I somehow got over it." At Cambridge, Dyson attended all the advanced mathematics lectures and climbed roofs at night during blackouts. By the end of the school year in 1943, which Dyson celebrated by pushing his wheelchairbound classmate, Oscar Hahn, the 55 miles home to London in one 17-hour day, Dyson was fully formed as a person of strong, frequently rebellious beliefs, someone who would always go his own way.

During World War II, Dyson worked for the Royal Air Force at Bomber Command, calculating the most effective ways to deploy pilots, some of whom he knew would die. Dyson says he was "sickened" and "depressed" that many more planes were going down than needed to because military leadership relied on misguided institutional mythologies rather than statistical studies. Even more upsetting, 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."

Then came two blinding flashes of light. Dyson's reaction to Hiroshima and Nagasaki was complicated. Like many physicists, Dyson has always loved explosions, and, of course, uncovering the secrets of nature is the first motivation of science. When he was interviewed for the 1980 documentary "The Day After Trinity," Dyson addressed the seduction: "I felt it myself, the glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist. To feel it's there in your hands. To release the energy that fuels the stars. To let it do your bidding. And to perform these miracles, to lift a million tons of rock into the sky, it is something that gives people an illusion of illimitable power, and it is in some ways responsible for all our troubles, I would say, this what you might call 'technical arrogance' that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds."

Eventually, Dyson would be sure nuclear weapons were the worst evil. But in 1945, drawn to these irreducible components of life, Dyson left mathematics and took up physics. Still, he did not want to be another dusty Englishman toiling alone in a dim Cambridge laboratory. Since childhood, some part of him had always known that the "Americans held the future in their hands and that the smart thing for me to do would be to join them." That the United States was now the country of Einstein and Oppenheimer was reason enough to go, but Dyson's sister Alice says that "he escaped to America so he could make his own life," removed from the shadow of his now famous musical father. "I know how he felt," says Oliver Sacks, who came to New York not long after medical school. "I was the fifth Dr. Sacks in my family. I felt it was time to get out and find a place of my own."

In 1947, Dyson enrolled as a doctoral candidate at Cornell, studying with Hans Bethe, who had the reputation of being the greatest problem-solver in physics. Alice Dyson says that once in Ithaca, her brother "became so much more human," and Dyson does not disagree. "I really felt it was quite amazing how accepted I was," he says. "In 1963, I'd only been a U.S. citizen for about five years, and I was testifying to the Senate, representing the Federation of American Scientists in favor of the nuclear-test-ban treaty."

After sizing him up over a few meals, Bethe gave Dyson a problem and told him to come back in six months. "You just sit down and do it," Dyson told me. "It's probably the hardest work you'll do in your life. Without having done that, you've never understood what science is all about." This smaller problem was part of a much larger one inherited from Einstein, among others, involving the need for a theory to describe the behavior of atoms and electrons emitting and absorbing light. Put another way, it was the question of how to move physics forward, creating agreement among the disparate laws of atomic structure, radiation, solid-state physics, plasma physics, maser and laser technology, optical and microwave spectroscopy, electronics and chemistry. Many were working on achieving this broad rapport, including Julian Schwinger at Harvard University; a Japanese physicist named Shinichiro Tomonaga, whose calculations arrived in America from war-depleted Kyoto on cheap brown paper; and Feynman, also at Cornell, a man so brilliant he did complex calculations in his head. Initially, Bethe asked Dyson to make some difficult measurements involving electrons. But soon enough Dyson went further.

The breakthrough came on summer trips Dyson made in 1948, traveling around America by Greyhound bus and also, for four days, in a car with Feynman. Feynman was driving to Albuquerque, and Dyson joined him just for the pleasure of riding alongside "a unique person who had such an amazing combination of gifts." The irrepressible Feynman and the "quiet and dignified English fellow," as Feynman described Dyson, picked up gypsy hitchhikers; took shelter from an Oklahoma flood in the only available hotel they could find, a brothel, where Feynman pretended to sleep and heard Dyson relieve himself in their room sink rather than risk the common bathroom in the hall; spoke of Feynman's realization that he had enjoyed military work on the Manhattan Project too much and therefore could do it no more; and talked about Feynman's ideas in a way that made Dyson forever understand what the nature of true genius is. Dyson wanted to unify one big theory; Feynman was out to unify all of physics. Inspired by this and by a mesmerizing sermon on nonviolence that Dyson happened to hear a traveling divinity student deliver in Berkeley, Dyson sat aboard his final Greyhound of the summer, heading East. He had no pencil or paper. He was thinking very hard. On a bumpy stretch of highway, long after dark, somewhere out in the middle of Nebraska, Dyson says, "Suddenly the physics problem became clear." What Feynman, Schwinger and Tomonaga were doing was stylistically different, but it was all "fundamentally the same."

Dyson is always effacing when discussing his work - he has variously called himself a tinkerer, a clean-up man and a bridge builder who merely supplied the cantilevers linking other men's ideas. Bethe thought more highly of him. "He is the best I have ever had or observed," Bethe wrote in a letter to Oppenheimer, who invited Dyson to the institute for an initial fellowship. There, with Einstein indifferent to him and the chain-smoking Oppenheimer openly doubting Dyson's physics, Dyson wrote his renowned paper "The Radiation Theories of Tomonaga, Schwinger and Feynman." Oppenheimer sent Dyson a note: "Nolo contendere - R.O." If you could do that in a year, who needed a Ph.D.? The institute was perfect for him. He could work all morning and, as he wrote to his parents, in the afternoons go for walks in the woods to see "strange new birds, insects and plants." It was, Dyson says, the happiest sustained moment in his life. It was also the last great discovery he would make in physics.

Other physicists quietly express disappointment that Dyson didn't do more to advance the field, that he wasted his promise. "He did some things in physics after the heroic work in 1949, but not as much as I would have expected for someone so off-the-scale smart," one physicist says. From others there are behind-the-study-door speculations that perhaps Dyson lacked the necessary "killer instinct"; or that he was discouraged by Enrico Fermi, who told him that his further work on quantum electrodynamics was unpromising; or "that he never felt he could approach Feynman's brilliance." Dyson shakes his head. "I've always enjoyed what I was doing quite independently of whether it was important or not," he says. "I think it's almost true without exception if you want to win a Nobel Prize, you should have a long attention span, get ahold of some deep and important problem and stay with it for 10 years. That wasn't my style."

DYSON HAD ALWAYS wanted "a big family." In 1950, after knowing the brilliant mathematician Verena Huber for three weeks, Dyson proposed. They married, Esther and George were born, but the union didn’t last. "She was more interested in mathematics than in raising kids," he says. By 1958, Dyson had married Imme - he has the brains, she has the legs, the Dysons like to joke - and they settled "in this snobbish little town," as he calls Princeton. They had four more daughters. All six Dysons describe eventful child­hoods with people like Feynman coming by for meals. Their father, meanwhile, was always preaching the virtues of boredom: "Being bored is the only time you are creative" was his thinking. George recalls groups of physicists closing doors and saying, "No children." Through the keyhole George would hear words that gave him thermonuclear nightmares. All of them remember Dyson coming home, arms filled with bouquets of new appliances to make Imme's life easier: an automatic ironing machine; a snowblower; one of the first microwave ovens in Princeton.

Beginning in the late '50s, Dyson spent months in California, on the La Jolla campus of General Atomics, a peacetime Los Alamos, where scientists were seeking progressive uses for nuclear energy. After a challenge from Edward Teller to build a completely safe reactor, Dyson and Ted Taylor patented the Triga, a small isotope machine that is still used for medical diagnostics in hospitals. Then came the Orion rocket, designed so successions of atomic bombs would explode against the spaceship's massive pusher plate, propelling astronauts toward the moon and beyond. "For me, Orion meant opening up the whole solar system to life," he says. "It could have changed history." Dyson says he "thought of Orion as the solution to a problem. With one trip we'd have got rid of 2,000 bombs." But instead, he lent his support to the nuclear-test-ban treaty with the U.S.S.R., which killed Orion. "This was much more serious than Orion ever would be," he said later. Dyson's powers of concentration were so formidable in those years that George remembers sitting with his father and "he'd just disappear."

One idea pulsing through his mind was a thought experiment that he published in the journal Science in 1959 that described massive energy-collecting shells that could encircle a star and capture solar energy. This was Dyson's initial response to his insight that earthbound reserves of fossil fuels were limited. The structures are known as Dyson Spheres to science-fiction authors like Larry Niven and by the writers of an episode of "Star Trek" - the only engineers so far to succeed in building one.

This was an early indication of Dyson's growing interest in what one day would be called climate studies. In 1976, Dyson began making regular trips to the Institute for Energy Analysis in Oak Ridge, Tenn., where the director, Alvin Weinberg, was in the business of investigating alternative sources of power. Charles David Keeling's pioneering measurements at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, showed rapidly increasing carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere; and in Tennessee, Dyson joined a group of meteorologists and biologists trying to understand the effects of carbon on the Earth and air. He was now becoming a climate expert. Eventually Dyson published a paper titled "Can We Control the Carbon Dioxide in the Atmosphere?" His answer was yes, and he added that any emergency could be temporarily thwarted with a "arbon bank" of "fast-growing trees." He calculated how many trees it would take to remove all carbon from the atmosphere. The number, he says, was a trillion, which was "in principle quite feasible." Dyson says the paper is "what I'd like people to judge me by. I still think everything it says is true."

Eventually he would embrace another idea: the notorious carbon-eating trees, which would be genetically engineered to absorb more carbon than normal trees. Of them, he admits: "I suppose it sounds like science fiction. Genetic engineering is politically unpopular in the moment."

In the 1970s, Dyson participated in other climate studies conducted by Jason, a small government-financed group of the country's finest scientists, whose members gather each summer near San Diego to work on (often) classified (usually) scientific dilemmas of (frequently) military interest to the government. Dyson has, as he admits, a restless nature, and by the time many scientists were thinking about climate, Dyson was on to other problems. Often on his mind were proposals submitted by the government to Jason. "Mainly we kill stupid projects," he says.

Some scientists refuse military work on the grounds that involvement in killing is sin. Dyson was opposed to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, but not to generals. He had seen in England how a military more enlightened by quantitative analysis could have better protected its men and saved the lives of civilians. "I always felt the worse the situation was, the more important it was to keep talking to the military," he says. Over the years he says he pushed the rejection of the idea of dropping atomic bombs on North Vietnam and solved problems in adaptive optics for telescopes. Lately he has been "trying to help the intelligence people be aware of what the bad guys may be doing with biology." Dyson thinks of himself as "fighting for peace," and Joel Lebowitz, a Rutgers physicist who has known Dyson for 50 years, says Dyson lives up to that: "He works for Jason and he's out there demonstrating against the Iraq war."

At Jason, taking problems to Dyson is something of a parlor trick. A group of scientists will be sitting around the cafeteria, and one will idly wonder if there is an integer where, if you take its last digit and move it to the front, turning, say, 112 to 211, it’s possible to exactly double the value. Dyson will immediately say, "Oh, that's not difficult," allow two short beats to pass and then add, "but of course the smallest such number is 18 digits long." When this happened one day at lunch, William Press remembers, "the table fell silent; nobody had the slightest idea how Freeman could have known such a fact or, even more terrifying, could have derived it in his head in about two seconds." The meal then ended with men who tend to be described with words like "brilliant," "Nobel" and "MacArthur" quietly retreating to their offices to work out what Dyson just knew.

These days, most of what consumes Dyson is his writing. In a recent article, he addressed the issue of reductionist thinking obliquely, as a question of perspective. Birds, he wrote, "fly high in the air and survey broad vistas." Frogs like him "live in the mud below and see only the flowers that grow nearby." Whether the topic is government work, string theory or climate change, Dyson seems opposed to science making enormous gestures. The physicist Douglas Eardley, who works with Dyson at Jason, says: "He's always against the big monolithic projects, the Battlestar Galacticas. He prefers spunky little Mars rovers." Dyson has been hostile to the Star Wars missile-defense system, the Space Station, the Hubble telescope and the superconducting super collider, which he says he opposed because "it's just out of proportion." Steven Weinberg, the Nobel physics laureate who often disagrees with Dyson on these matters, says: "Some things simply have to be done in a large way. They're very expensive. That's big science. Get over it."

Around the Institute for Advanced Study, that intellectual Arcadia where the blackboards have signs on them that say Do Not Erase, Dyson is quietly admired for candidly expressing his doubts about string theory's aspiration to represent all forces and matter in one coherent system. "I think Freeman wishes the string theorists well," Avishai Margalit, the philosopher, says. "I don't think he wishes them luck. He's interested in diversity, and that's his worldview. To me he is a towering figure although he is tiny - almost a saintly model of how to get old. The main thing he retains is playfulness. Einstein had it. Playfulness and curiosity. He also stands for this unique trait, which is wisdom. Brightness here is common. He is wise. He integrated, not in a theory, but in his life, all his dreams of things."

IMME DYSON REPORTS that her husband "recently stopped climbing trees." Dyson himself says he's resigned to never finishing "Anna Karenina." Otherwise he still lives his days at mortality-ignoring cadence, aided by NoDoz, a habit he first acquired during his R.A.F. days. He travels widely, giving talks at churches and colleges, reminding people how dangerous nuclear weapons are. ("I think people got used to them and think if you leave them alone, they won't do you any harm," he says. "I always am scared. I think everybody ought to be.") He has visited both the Galápagos Islands and the campus of Google and attended "Doctor Atomic," the John Adams opera about Oppenheimer, which disappointed him. More fulfilling was the board meeting of a foundation promoting solar energy in China. Another winter day found him answering questions from physics majors at a Christian college in Oklahoma. ("Scientists should understand the human anguish of religious people," he says.)

Lately Dyson has been lamenting that he and Imme "don't see so much of each other. We're always rushing around." But one evening last month they sat down in a living room filled with Imme’s running trophies and photographs of their children to watch "An Inconvenient Truth" again. There was a print of Einstein above the television. And then there was Al Gore below him, telling of the late Roger Revelle, a Harvard scientist who first alerted the undergraduate Gore to how severe the climate's problems would become. Gore warned of the melting snows of Kilimanjaro, the vanishing glaciers of Peru and "off the charts" carbon levels in the air. "The so-called skeptics" say this "seems perfectly O.K.," Gore said, and Imme looked at her husband. She is even slighter than he is, a pretty wood sprite in running shoes. "How far do you allow the oceans to rise before you say, This is no good?" she asked Dyson.

"When I see clear evidence of harm," he said.

"Then it's too late," she replied. "Shouldn't we not add to what nature's doing?"

"The costs of what Gore tells us to do would be extremely large," Dyson said. "By restricting CO2 you make life more expensive and hurt the poor. I'm concerned about the Chinese."

"They're the biggest polluters," Imme replied.

"They're also changing their standard of living the most, going from poor to middle class. To me that’s very precious."

The film continued with Gore predicting violent hurricanes, typhoons and tornados. "How in God's name could that happen here?" Gore said, talking about Hurricane Katrina. "Nature's been going crazy."

"That is of course just nonsense," Dyson said calmly. "With Katrina, all the damage was due to the fact that nobody had taken the trouble to build adequate dikes. To point to Katrina and make any clear connection to global warming is very misleading."

Now came Arctic scenes, with Gore telling of disappearing ice, drunken trees and drowning polar bears. "Most of the time in history the Arctic has been free of ice," Dyson said. "A year ago when we went to Greenland where warming is the strongest, the people loved it."

"They were so proud," Imme agreed. "They could grow their own cabbage."

The film ended. "I think Gore does a brilliant job," Dyson said. "For most people I'd think this would be quite effective. But I knew Roger Revelle. He was definitely a skeptic. He's not alive to defend himself."

"All my friends say how smart and farsighted Al Gore is," she said.

"He certainly is a good preacher," Dyson replied. "Forty years ago it was fashionable to worry about the coming ice age. Better to attack the real problems like the extinction of species and overfishing. There are so many practical measures we could take."

"I'm still perfectly happy if you buy me a Prius!" Imme said.

"It's toys for the rich," her husband smiled, and then they were arguing about windmills.

Disturbing the Universe


Freeman J. Dyson

ISBN-10: 0465016774
ISBN-13: 978-0465016778

A birthday celebration today-- Freeman Dyson...#85

Andrei Sakharov vs Edward Teller

Day After Trinity: Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb

Fermilab's "Golden Book Collection"

Hans Bethe...physicist's physicist

The Terror and Attraction of Science, Put to Song

"The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer"

James Hansen's rebuttal to "New York Times" article