Saturday, November 27, 2010

Cosmic Dyson

My neighbor in Eugene recommended this Atlantic article on Freeman Dyson, and now I'm recommending it to you :-)

... “It is said that the mental processes of a mathematical prodigy differ in no essential respect from those of ordinary folks who can handle more modest problems,” George Dyson had written—not Freeman’s tree-dwelling son, but Sir George Dyson, Freeman’s father, a composer and the director of the Royal College of Music. “The prodigy’s gift is the power of incessant concentration on more and more complicated mental calculations, until his brain can instantly recall the end products of the thousands of factors with which his mind has been busy.”

The prodigy in question, Freeman Dyson, now middle-aged, stared ahead, his incessant concentration on the road unbroken. He seemed mesmerized by the oncoming pavement, or by some idea or formulation glimpsed in the immateriality beyond the pavement. I asked him whether as a boy he had speculated much about his gift. Had he asked himself why he had this special power? Why he was so bright?

Dyson is almost infallibly a modest and self-effacing man, but tonight his eyes were blank with fatigue, and his answer was uncharacteristic.

“That’s not how the question phrases itself,” he said. “The question is: why is everyone else so stupid?”


... His second book, Darwin Among the Machines, is a history of the luminaries of the information revolution, and as such signals a turn back toward the world of his father. His third, Project Orion, is a history of his father’s spacecraft. His next, Turing’s Cathedral, he conceives as “a creation myth for the digital universe.”

This July in Dick’s Tavern, George [Dyson -- the author, and Freeman's son] was hard at work finishing Turing’s Cathedral, trying to meet an August deadline for delivery of the manuscript. Mounted on the tavern wall, running the length of the bar, was the skeletal frame for one of his Aleut-style kayaks, 25 feet long, with three manholes for paddlers. Beneath this unfinished vessel, the pages of Turing’s Cathedral were laid out in neat stacks along the bar surface, about two chapters per bar stool. The inspiration for the book seems to have come in 1961, when George was 8 and he and a small band of comrades—the sons of field theorists at the Institute for Advanced Study—stumbled upon an old barn on the institute’s campus. Stored inside, along with old farm equipment, were the relics of the antediluvian electronic computer on which John von Neumann conducted his pioneering experiments in artificial intelligence. In Darwin Among the Machines, in a chapter called “Rats in a Cathedral,” George describes how he and his buddies, with wrenches and screwdrivers, lobotomized von Neumann’s machinery. “We blindly dissected the fossilized traces of electromechanical logic out of which the age of digital computers first took form.”

... FREEMAN DYSON is a national and international treasure. His career demonstrates how a Nobel-caliber mind, in avoiding the typical laureate’s dogged obsession with a single problem, can fertilize many fields, in his case particle physics and astrophysics, biology and exobiology, mathematics, metaphysics, the history of science, religion, disarmament theory, literature, and even medicine, as Dyson was a co-inventor of the TRIGA reactor, which produces medical isotopes.

Dyson, clearly a busy man, was extraordinarily generous with his time with me at an early stage of my career. His allowing me to be present at an intimate family affair—his reunion with George—provided the climax and denouement for my best and most successful book. In the field, Dyson was an amusing and never-boring companion. Never have I had a relationship of such asymmetrical understanding. Dyson always got the drift of my ideas and sentences before I was three or four words into them, but the converse was not true. When the physicist spoke of his own pet subjects—quantum electrodynamics, say, or certain characteristics of the event horizon in the vicinity of black holes—I had no idea what he was talking about. Dyson is a discoverer of, and fluent in, the mathematics by which the fundamental laws of the universe operate, and in that language I am illiterate.

Long ago I asked Ted Taylor, the chief of Project Orion, what quality distinguished Dyson from the other Orion men. “Freeman’s gift?” said Taylor. “It’s cosmic. He is able to see more interconnections between more things than almost anybody. He sees the interrelationships, whether it’s in some microscopic physical process or in a big complicated machine like Orion. He has been, from the time he was in his teens, capable of understanding essentially anything that he’s interested in. He’s the most intelligent person I know.”

This is how Dyson strikes me too. But the operative word for me is cosmic. The word terrestrial would not apply. In taking the measure of the universe, Dyson fails only in his appraisal of the small, spherical piece of the cosmos under his feet. Or so it seems to me. For whatever reason, he is emotionally incapable of seeing the true colors of the rampant ingenuity of our species and calculating where our cleverness, as opposed to our wisdom, is taking us.

Kenneth Brower, a longtime contributor to The Atlantic, is the author of 13 books, including The Starship and the Canoe (1978), a dual portrait of Freeman and George Dyson.

3 comments:

KenC said...

That is truly an insightful response. Although it makes me wonder just who has been lobotomized.

KenC said...

That is truly an insightful response. Although it makes me wonder just who has been lobotomized.

dyson digital slim said...

Well I

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