Heresy With a Smile

A&L links to Freeman Dyson’s “Heretical Thoughts About Science and Society“; Edge excerpts sections of Many Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe. While this demonstrates neither an obnoxious nor vain spirit, he does wryly demonstrate how terribly wrong scientists can be – what with being human and all. (A good instance would be the patronizing sympathy he felt for Crick, thinking that WWII had destroyed his chance to do good science and that going into biology would be a dead end.) But, he argues, heresy is necessary – an attitude that may not sit well with some of the characters whose vanity John Jay describes with such a sharp edge. Dyson is self-deprecating:

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.

Of course, one of his heresies is toward the great religion of this decade – global warming.

But, fortunately, no one has been yet stoned for being a “global warming denier.”

Update: Dyson makes several points about global warming, about which he is certainly heretical, and the roles of scientists. Below the jump at a couple more excerpts of the excerpts, but some of you are likely to find the whole enjoyable.

My brother-in-law has spent decades preaching the gospel of no-till. I seldom talk to him, but my sister tells me he is finding more and more of the world receptive. (Lately he has been going to annual conferences in the Ukraine where other no-till apostles from around the world discuss its virtues at a conference organized by a large farming group.) Dyson describes its potential:

The point of this calculation is the very favorable rate of exchange between carbon in the atmosphere and carbon in the soil. To stop the carbon in the atmosphere from increasing, we only need to grow the biomass in the soil by a hundredth of an inch per year. Good topsoil contains about ten percent biomass, [Schlesinger, 1977], so a hundredth of an inch of biomass growth means about a tenth of an inch of topsoil. Changes in farming practices such as no-till farming, avoiding the use of the plow, cause biomass to grow at least as fast as this. If we plant crops without plowing the soil, more of the biomass goes into roots which stay in the soil, and less returns to the atmosphere. If we use genetic engineering to put more biomass into roots, we can probably achieve much more rapid growth of topsoil. I conclude from this calculation that the problem of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a problem of land management, not a problem of meteorology. No computer model of atmosphere and ocean can hope to predict the way we shall manage our land.

And his advice to young scientists:

I am telling the next generation of young students, who will still be alive in the second half of our century, that misfortunes are on the way. Their precious Ph.D., or whichever degree they went through long years of hard work to acquire, may be worth less than they think. Their specialized training may become obsolete. They may find themselves over-qualified for the available jobs. They may be declared redundant. The country and the culture to which they belong may move far away from the mainstream. But these misfortunes are also opportunities. It is always open to them to join the heretics and find another way to make a living. With or without a Ph.D., there are big and important problems for them to solve.

I will not attempt to summarize the lessons that my readers should learn from these heresies. The main lesson that I would like them to take home is that the long-range future is not predetermined. The future is in their hands. The rules of the world-historical game change from decade to decade in unpredictable ways. All our fashionable worries and all our prevailing dogmas will probably be obsolete in fifty years. My heresies will probably also be obsolete. It is up to them to find new heresies to guide our way to a more hopeful future.

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