Dyson: 1940s scientific revolutions see wide range of results

Laurence Léveillé | Staff Writer

Eric Shea | Staff Photographer
Theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson, professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, lectures on radical revolutions in the tools of science Wednesday morning in the Amphitheater.

Radicalism in science is essential to move forward. In the span of two years, four scientific revolutions proved that to be true.

Those four revolutions were in space, nuclear energy, genomics and computing.

“Scientific discoveries come from people thinking thoughts that have never been thought before or people using experimental tools that have not been used before,” said theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson at Wednesday’s morning lecture in the Amphitheater.

Dyson, professor emeritus at the Institute of Advanced Study, shared his experience living through the four radical revolutions that occurred from 1944 to 1945 as the third speaker of Week Eight, themed “Radicalism.”

The beauty of revolutions, Dyson said, is that those who take part in them do not know they have failed until years later. But those failures are also essential to revolutions.

Each of the four revolutions had a different success rate. Computing has flourished beyond expectations; genomes and space have had a mix of successes and failures; and nuclear energy flopped.

Dyson himself was directly involved in the space and nuclear energy revolutions.

He said the real hero behind the space revolution was Wernher von Braun in 1944 — he had developed the first spacecraft.

“It was wonderful to hear these rockets coming down, to know that somebody had the good gumption to build a spacecraft that worked,” Dyson said.

In a sense, von Braun was helping disarm Germany by using resources needed for airplanes to create rockets, Dyson said.

The Space Age had officially begun after the Russians launched Sputnik. At that time, Dyson became involved with the space revolution. He said he helped design a nuclear spacecraft known as Orion to move through the solar system.

Much like von Braun’s rockets, Orion was a way of disarming unilaterally.

“It used nuclear bombs for a sensible objective,” Dyson said. “The whole idea is you used up the nuclear stockpile to drive a spaceship, so you achieved two objectives at the same time: to explore the solar system and to get rid of the bombs.”

But the plan did not work due to political obstacles, such as competing with von Braun’s chemical rockets.

In 1963, the United States and Russia were in negotiations known as the Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, which forbade nuclear tests in the atmosphere and space. Based on the treaty, Dyson said, Orion was done. When he had to make a choice between the ban and Orion, Dyson picked the test ban.

A complete test ban was never implemented. Had there been one, Dyson said, it would have prevented the expansion of nuclear programs.

The success behind the space revolution is in the unmanned missions, Dyson said. Manned missions, on the other hand, have been a failure. The last manned mission was when the U.S. sent a man to the moon.

Scientists learned many lessons in regard to the nuclear energy revolution.

“First of all,” Dyson said, “it’s a mistake to be too big to fail.”

Dyson shared several examples of nuclear disasters that have occurred as a result of miscommunication due to people’s belief that they are unable to fail.

In large companies, there are two types of people: the engineers, who know what is happening on site; and the managers, who understand the politics but do not know the happenings on site.

When the Challenger shuttle disintegrated during its launch, both the engineers and the managers were asked what the chances were for the shuttle to blow up. While the engineers said there was a 1-in-100 chance, the managers said 1-in-100,000.

The managers truly believed the shuttle was safe, while the engineers knew the reality. But the two groups never discussed it.

“For the managers, it was an article of faith. The shuttle was too big too fail,” he said. “Its whole existence depended on being safe. Politics made it absolutely essential, so that’s what they believed.”

Another incident occurred on the Ocean Ranger, an oil platform that capsized in the Atlantic, off the coast of Canada. The two groups of people included tool pushers and the mariners. The tool pushers were put in charge.

During a big storm, the control system was damaged by seawater, so it had to be operated manually. The mariners were the only ones who knew how, but the tool pushers were the ones that did, causing the Ocean Ranger to flip over. Everyone drowned.

Many believe World War II ended because of the nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but Dyson explained what actually happened. The Japanese Supreme Council made the decision to surrender, because the Soviet Union had invaded Manchuria and Sakhalin. The decision was made before the second bomb dropped.

In Japanese culture, troops do not surrender and fight until the last man. To convince them to surrender, the emperor relied on history. In 1895, his grandfather had accepted dishonor for the sake of Japan’s survival, Dyson said.

The genomics revolution was both a success and a failure. It has been a success in science, but it has not yet achieved the goals that were expected. Scientists thought genomics would lead to the cure for diseases.

“Genomics revolution — I tried to put a stop to that,” Dyson said.

Before Francis Crick became famous, he and Dyson knew each other, because they both worked for the British military. Both were depressed.

“We both thought we’d spent the best years of our lives working for the military. We were finished,” Dyson said.  “Crick was very sad. He was in worse shape than I was.”

Crick had been working for the military for six years. Before he began, he had studied physics, but he felt he had forgotten everything he had learned. He decided he would become a biologist instead of pursuing physics.

“And I said, ‘Well, biology will be exciting later, but too late for you,’ ” Dyson said. “Anyway, he did not take my advice.”

Seven years later, Crick discovered the structure of DNA and proved Dyson wrong, he said.

Though the discovery was successful, it was also misleading, because it turned out to be simpler structure than people expected. When the genomic revolution first began, they believed the genetic apparatus would be complex.

But scientists do not understand the language of the genome. All that is known is that it organizes living creatures, Dyson said.

“Somehow or other, nature devised this language to describe living creatures in an amazingly economical way,” he said.

People can understand a gene, which is a small piece of DNA, but they are a small portion of the genome. Information has been collected, but it is not understood.

“Information has become cheap, understanding has become expensive,” he said. “It’s true in history; it’s true in art; it’s true in literature; it’s true in politics.”

Dyson discussed the computing revolution, which was a success that surpassed expectations. When Dyson was at Princeton, John von Neumann led a project to build the first software-controlled computer.

Meteorologists were using computers, because they were used mainly to study climate. By night, other individuals were using them to design hydrogen bombs, Dyson said.

When von Neumann first developed the computer, it was intended for the use of experts. He also thought computers would become bigger and more expensive over time.

According to legend, Dyson said, when von Neumann was asked how many computers would be needed in the U.S., he said 18 — one for each government department.

But computers turned out to be smaller, cheaper and more user-friendly.

“That’s why it became so successful,” Dyson said. “It was this miniaturizing which enabled computers to take over the world.”

Computers have enabled amateurs to do what only professionals were able to do 10 years ago, he said. As a result, they have empowered people to do a variety of things.

Dyson predicts the next radical change will be in neurology, which is the study of nerves and brains. People currently do not know fully how the brain works, but the tools for observing and studying it are being developed, he said.

David Haussler and his colleagues at the University of California, Santa Cruz, discovered the Human Accelerated Region 1, or HAR1, in 2006. The team discovered that the HAR1 in human DNA differs from that of chickens, mice, rats, dogs and chimpanzees, Dyson said.

Another piece of DNA, known as HAR2, was also found in the human wrist, he said, which is another difference that separates humans and apes.

“To understand how the brain and the hand evolved will certainly be a key step in the understanding of human nature,” Dyson said. “And I look forward to that being the big event of the next century.”


Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity.

Q: I am going to begin with a question that I will tell the audience, that I shared with you before. I am very intrigued with the fact that you won the Templeton Prize for progress in religion. I’m, of course, glad to know there is progress in religion, but I would be pleased to hear you say just a word about that prize and why you believe you received that prize.

A: Well, I never understood why I got it. (Laughter.) I’m not a religious person, and I never did much in the way of studying religion. All I did was occasionally to say a few kind words about religion in various books that I published, so I suppose they had that in mind, but I always imagined that it was, in fact, it was a clerical error.

Q: Every cleric will appreciate that. Next question which comes from the audience: What would you say about climate change?

A: So that’s a big subject, but I would say about climate change is that we don’t understand it. I have many friends who are climate experts. There are two groups of climate experts: there are those who look at the real world, and there are those who work on computer models. And unfortunately, the computer-model people generally talk the loudest and get most of the attention. The computer models are not models of the real world. They are models of fluid dynamics of the atmosphere and ocean, but the real world, of course, is much more complicated. It includes living creatures and all sorts of complicated things like clouds and thunderstorms — things we don’t understand in detail. I think climate science is a good subject. It’s making slow progress. Unfortunately, the people who talk the loudest claim to know the most, and they claim to know much more than they do, so I disagree with the prevailing dogmas that say we understand what’s happening to the climate. I don’t think we do, and I would say that we should be careful, don’t take any drastic steps, try to understand what’s going on before we spend a huge amount of money.

Q: This is a very interesting question: Was the computer revolution the most successful, because it was least open to political control?

A: That’s a good question, and I think, probably — you’re right that it was, from the beginning, out in the open. It was not only politically independent, but also economically independent. Von Neumann started out the project at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton quite consciously, because he did not want to take out patents. If he worked for an industrial company, he would have had to take out patents on the technology. He didn’t want to do that. He wanted to have everything open from the beginning, so that’s why he put it at the Institute for Advanced Study — so we did not have a patent policy, and he was able to publish everything freely. That put it off to a good start. There are some patents in the field, but they are not crippling, and the government, of course, also has a share in the technology, but does not control it. I think that’s true. Certainly nuclear has always been hampered by political controls.

Q: The next question is about nuclear power: Do you ever seen nuclear power being a safe and clean power source in the future?

A: The answer is yes. I think it could be, and I think it has every chance of happening in time, but it has to be slow, and it has to be done on a small scale first. We have to be allowed to have the mistakes. We should build nuclear facilities that are small enough to fail and allow them to fail. You can only learn from accidents by having accidents, and that’s what we need, but the accidents have to be small, so I would say yes, but it will take a long time.

Q: This is about your children’s projects. The questioner says, “Tell us about your children’s projects, please, and your influence on their direction.”

A: Oh, well, I didn’t have much influence. I had six kids, and they mostly became doctors, because my wife carries medical genes. My wife belongs to a long family tradition of doctors in Germany, and somehow or other, that skipped a generation, but it showed up in my kids.

Q: Radical reform is rare, you have said, just this morning. Could it happen again? What is your vision?

A: I hope it will happen. I think this country desperately needs some sort of leveling process to share the wealth more equitably. Since I came to this country in 1947, at that time, the wartime ethic still prevailed. It was still a country that felt itself very much one community. People went hitchhiking everywhere. They trusted one another. There were race divisions, but there were not so much division between the rich and poor as there are today. The country has become more and more unequal in the last 50 years. That has to stop. That has to be reversed. At the same time, of course, wonderful things are happening in China. I think that probably the most important thing that is happening in this century is China becoming rich, and we may like that or we may not like it, but it’s happening. China is now half rich, and it will, in time, become as rich as we are. Wonderful, I say, wonderful! That’s going to mean a whole new world in all sorts of ways. The balance of wealth and population will make a radical shift. This country, I hope, will continue to be important, but will not be dominant. That, too, is something we have to get used to.

—Transcribed by Jennifer Shore

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