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Freeman Dyson

[photo credit]
American physicist

[YouTube interview Part1]  [YouTube interview Part2]

[official website]   [Wikipedia]

[essay by, 2007]   [interview with, 2007]   [article by, 2008]

[profile of, 2009]

Freeman Dyson is a scientist of enormous stature. For more than four decades, he taught theoretical physics at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study - described by the New York Times as "the most rarefied community of scholars" in the US.

In a recent 8,000-word profile, the Times says Dyson is "a scientist whose intelligence is revered by other scientists." One colleague describes him as "infinitely smart." Another says: "You point Freeman at a problem and he’ll solve it. He’s extraordinarily powerful.”

Dyson is also a longstanding member of JASON - "a small government-financed group of the country’s finest scientists" that evaluates matters of an often classified nature. At JASON meetings, in which everyone present is considered brilliant, reports the Times, someone will idly pose a math question and Dyson will quickly provide an answer, pointing out that "the smallest such number is 18 digits long."

In the words of one of Dyson's colleagues, "When this happened one day at lunch, the table fell silent; nobody had the slightest idea how Freeman could have known such a fact or...could have derived it in his head in about two seconds.”

Dyson, who has written several books and received numerous awards (including 21 honorary degrees), is a big-picture thinker. The Times says he's known for his "interpretive clarity" and his "penetrating ability to grasp the method and significance of what many kinds of scientists do."

Now 85, Dyson has lived in the same house for more than 50 years and has been married to the same woman for equally as long. His car bears an Obama bumper sticker.

For the past four years, he has also challenged prevailing ideas about climate change. In a nutshell, he thinks the computer-generated models being used to predict long-term climate consequences are flawed because scientists have too little information about many of the variables that must be taken into account.

In 2007, Dyson reminded a Salon writer: "I was in the business of studying climate change at least 30 years ago before it became fashionable." Having seen many faddish notions come and go, Dyson is distressed that many environmentalists now believe "global warming is the greatest threat to the ecology of our planet."

Although the  public thinks that "anyone who is skeptical about the dangers of global warming is an enemy of the environment," he feels the opposite is true.

"Many of the skeptics are passionate environmentalists," he insists. But they believe old-fashioned pollution and nuclear weapons are bigger concerns.

Based on Dyson's understanding of where the science of biotechnology is headed, he feels that "in 50 years, this whole problem of fossil fuels will evaporate." Just as computer technology has transformed the world in recent decades, he foresees a future in which biologists are able to manipulate the fuel-producing - and carbon dioxide processing -  properties of trees.

"We'll have an ample supply of fuel without having to dig it out of the ground," he insists. "Fifty years is long enough for that kind of technology to take over the world, and 50 years is short enough so that the climate won't have changed very much in the meantime."

Dyson may or may not be correct about global warming. But as he himself points out, his arguments deserve to be heard. Silencing our finest minds won't lead to a better future.

[last edit: May 2009]

  quotes from Freeman Dyson:
  • In the history of science it has often happened that the majority was wrong and refused to listen to a minority that later turned out to be right. [article by, 2008]

  • Climate change is part of the normal order of things, and we know it was happening before humans came. [interview with, 2007]

  • Just because you see pictures of glaciers falling into the ocean doesn't mean anything bad is happening. This is something that happens all the time. It's part of the natural cycle of things. [interview with, 2007]

  • It makes very little sense to believe the output of the climate models. [YouTube interview Part1]

  • Vegetation is really controlling what happens...whereas the emphasis in the climate models has always been on the atmosphere. [YouTube interview Part1]

  • There is no doubt that parts of the world are getting warmer, but the warming is not global. [essay by, 2007]

  • The idea that global warming is the most important problem facing the world is total nonsense and is doing a lot of harm. It distracts people's attention from much more serious problems. [interview with, 2007]

  • The average ground temperature of the Earth is impossible to measure since most of the Earth is ocean...So this average ground temperature is a fiction. [YouTube interview Part2]

  • When I listen to the public debates about climate change, I am impressed by the enormous gaps in our knowledge, the sparseness of our observations and the superficiality of our theories. [essay by, 2007]

  • We simply don't know yet what's going to happen to the carbon in the atmosphere. [YouTube interview Part1]

  • Computer models of the climate....[are] a very dubious business if you don't have good inputs. [YouTube interview Part1]

  • We do not know how much of the environmental change is due to human activities and how much [is due] to long-term natural processes over which we have no control. [essay by, 2007]

  • It is not surprising that honest and well-informed experts can disagree about facts. But beyond the disagreement about facts, there is another deeper disagreement about values. [essay by, 2007]