Posts Tagged ‘Society’

[Photo Source : NASA]

Freeman Dyson is a professor emeritus of Physics at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton. Prof Freeman has always been one of my heroes and i regard him as one of the coolest physicists alive today.  I was introduced to him and his work through “What Do You Care What Other People Think” by Richard Feynman years ago.

He thinks ahead of the present generation and is also conspicuously agnostic which i dare say goes against the mainstream in science today, where being politically correct is one problem. These two things lead to very contrasting views on the man. Many in the scientific community, mostly due to the latter thing about him refer to him as a dreamer and many others portray him as a dreamer mad scientist for ideas such Dyson Spheres, Dyson Trees etc, ideas that are too fantastic for most people to digest.

Dyson had also been involved in the fantastic idea of the Project Orion, on which i have dedicated quite a few previous posts. Again many regard the idea of using nuclear fuel to power space ships as absurd, but i have always believed that it is a wonderful idea and i have also tried to write why. Many people think that Dyson has only been involved in such fantasy science, however one must note that he has made many important contributions to quantum physics and mathematics also or “mainstream science”, I have always believed that Freeman Dyson deserved the Nobel prize for QED along with his fellow researchers, he probably missed out due to the three limit on the number of people getting the prize at once. During a discussion with Robert Bradbury, he wholeheartedly agreed with my thinking! A quick search on Google scholar for him indicates about 1600 publications that have his name on the main text. And one must remember that Dyson never took a PhD, probably the only only one to reach IAS without one. Though i am not sure about that.

Below is an excerpt from an essay by Dyson that discusses the need for heretics or people thinking “out of the box” and how the progress in the society is based on such thinking, even if it is utterly and totally wrong! This essay is a little old, but i decided to post it anyway!

The excerpt is originally from his book: A Many-Colored Glass – Reflections on the place of life in the Universe. A second source is here.


In the modern world, science and society often interact in a perverse way. We live in a technological society, and technology causes political problems. The politicians and the public expect science to provide answers to the problems. Scientific experts are paid and encouraged to provide answers. The public does not have much use for a scientist who says, “Sorry, but we don’t know”. The public prefers to listen to scientists who give confident answers to questions and make confident predictions of what will happen as a result of human activities. So it happens that the experts who talk publicly about politically contentious questions tend to speak more clearly than they think. They make confident predictions about the future, and end up believing their own predictions. Their predictions become dogmas which they do not question. The public is led to believe that the fashionable scientific dogmas are true, and it may sometimes happen that they are wrong. That is why heretics who question the dogmas are needed.

As a scientist I do not have much faith in predictions. Science is organized unpredictability. The best scientists like to arrange things in an experiment to be as unpredictable as possible, and then they do the experiment to see what will happen. You might say that if something is predictable then it is not science. When I make predictions, I am not speaking as a scientist. I am speaking as a story-teller, and my predictions are science-fiction rather than science. The predictions of science-fiction writers are notoriously inaccurate. Their purpose is to imagine what might happen rather than to describe what will happen. I will be telling stories that challenge the prevailing dogmas of today. The prevailing dogmas may be right, but they still need to be challenged. I am proud to be a heretic. The world always needs heretics to challenge the prevailing orthodoxies. Since I am heretic, I am accustomed to being in the minority. If I could persuade everyone to agree with me, I would not be a heretic.

We are lucky that we can be heretics today without any danger of being burned at the stake. But unfortunately I am an old heretic. Old heretics do not cut much ice. When you hear an old heretic talking, you can always say, “Too bad he has lost his marbles”, and pass on. What the world needs is young heretics. I am hoping that one or two of the people who read this piece may fill that role.

Two years ago, I was at Cornell University celebrating the life of Tommy Gold, a famous astronomer who died at a ripe old age. He was famous as a heretic, promoting unpopular ideas that usually turned out to be right. Long ago I was a guinea-pig in Tommy’s experiments on human hearing. He had a heretical idea that the human ear discriminates pitch by means of a set of tuned resonators with active electromechanical feedback. He published a paper explaining how the ear must work, [Gold, 1948]. He described how the vibrations of the inner ear must be converted into electrical signals which feed back into the mechanical motion, reinforcing the vibrations and increasing the sharpness of the resonance. The experts in auditory physiology ignored his work because he did not have a degree in physiology. Many years later, the experts discovered the two kinds of hair-cells in the inner ear that actually do the feedback as Tommy had predicted, one kind of hair-cell acting as electrical sensors and the other kind acting as mechanical drivers. It took the experts forty years to admit that he was right. Of course, I knew that he was right, because I had helped him do the experiments.

Later in his life, Tommy Gold promoted another heretical idea, that the oil and natural gas in the ground come up from deep in the mantle of the earth and have nothing to do with biology. Again the experts are sure that he is wrong, and he did not live long enough to change their minds. Just a few weeks before he died, some chemists at the Carnegie Institution in Washington did a beautiful experiment in a diamond anvil cell, [Scott et al., 2004]. They mixed together tiny quantities of three things that we know exist in the mantle of the earth, and observed them at the pressure and temperature appropriate to the mantle about two hundred kilometers down. The three things were calcium carbonate which is sedimentary rock, iron oxide which is a component of igneous rock, and water. These three things are certainly present when a slab of subducted ocean floor descends from a deep ocean trench into the mantle. The experiment showed that they react quickly to produce lots of methane, which is natural gas. Knowing the result of the experiment, we can be sure that big quantities of natural gas exist in the mantle two hundred kilometers down. We do not know how much of this natural gas pushes its way up through cracks and channels in the overlying rock to form the shallow reservoirs of natural gas that we are now burning. If the gas moves up rapidly enough, it will arrive intact in the cooler regions where the reservoirs are found. If it moves too slowly through the hot region, the methane may be reconverted to carbonate rock and water. The Carnegie Institute experiment shows that there is at least a possibility that Tommy Gold was right and the natural gas reservoirs are fed from deep below. The chemists sent an E-mail to Tommy Gold to tell him their result, and got back a message that he had died three days earlier. Now that he is dead, we need more heretics to take his place.

Thought provoking indeed!

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