In this sequel to The Scientist as Rebel (2006), Freeman Dyson—whom The Times of London calls “one of the world’s most original minds”—celebrates openness to unconventional ideas and “the spirit of joyful dreaming” in which he believes that science should be pursued. Throughout these essays, which range from the creation of the Royal Society in the seventeenth century to the scientific inquiries of the Romantic generation to recent books by Daniel Kahneman and Malcolm Gladwell, he seeks to “break down the barriers that separate science from other sources of human wisdom.”
Dyson discusses twentieth-century giants of physics such as Richard Feynman, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Paul Dirac, and Steven Weinberg, many of whom he knew personally, as well as Winston Churchill’s pursuit of nuclear weapons for Britain and Wernher von Braun’s pursuit of rockets for space travel. And he takes a provocative, often politically incorrect approach to some of today’s most controversial scientific issues: global warming, the current calculations of which he thinks are probably wrong; the future of biotechnology, which he expects to dominate our lives in the next half-century as the tools to design new living creatures become available to everyone; and the flood of information in the digital age. Dyson offers fresh perspectives on the history, the philosophy, and the practice of scientific inquiry—and even on the blunders, the wild guesses and wrong theories that are also part of our struggle to understand the wonders of the natural world.
Physicist Dyson (A Many-Colored Glass), now retired from Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, demonstrates his intellectual breadth, wit, and iconoclasm in this collection of book reviews (one previously unpublished and 19 previously published in the New York Review of Books). The books he reviews focus on the nature, history, and philosophy of science; important scientists from Newton and Darwin to Einstein and Oppenheimer; and principles of warfare. Throughout, Dyson interweaves literature, politics, and public policy with science, bringing his seemingly inexhaustible personal experiences into every review at times, perhaps, to excess. He certainly is not afraid of being opinionated and provocative, such as when he declares that "environmentalism has replaced socialism as the leading secular religion," or when he asserts, "If American children could learn more mathematics and French children less, both countries would benefit." Dyson is well aware that many of his positions fall outside of the mainstream or are likely to provoke discussion; as he notes after commenting on Paul Dirac's role in shaping the debate about quantum mechanics, "I am, as usual, in the minority." Although Dyson has no great flair for language, at times producing clumsy sentences and piling up paragraphs without any obvious transitions, his insights, passion, and knowledge make this collection well worth savoring.