Dyson: Without failures, there can be no revolutions

Guest Column by Freeman J. Dyson.

I am not a radical, but I lived through radical changes. Radical changes are exciting for the old and intoxicating for the young. I was lucky to be in Washington in the summer of 1963 when a quarter of a million black Americans marched for freedom and justice. I marched with them to the Lincoln Memorial and heard Martin Luther King uplifting them with his “I Have a Dream” speech, talking like an Old Testament prophet.

Also uplifting them were groups of young marchers carrying banners saying where they came from. The marchers from the really tough places — Birmingham, Ala., and Albany, Ga. — where the battles for civil rights had been raging, were very young, hardly more than children. In the toughest places, people with family responsibilities could not afford to take chances. From those places, only young people came. Most of them had never been away from their homes before. They had been fighting lonely battles. They had never known that they had so many friends. They looked like the hope of the future as they danced and sang their freedom songs with bright faces and sparkling eyes.

That radical moment succeeded in bringing about radical change. Two years later, President Lyndon Johnson persuaded Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act that forever changed the politics of the Southern states. Since that time, there has been stagnation and back-sliding, but the old regime of legal discrimination and intimidation was permanently demolished. Radical reform is rare, but it happened once in 1965, and it can happen again.

I am a scientist, and I had the luck to begin my professional life when World War II ended and four radical scientific revolutions happened simultaneously. The four revolutions were space, genomics, nuclear energy and computing. The space and genomics revolutions had started one year earlier. In 1944 in London, Werner von Braun’s rockets, the first spacecraft, exploded around us, and in New York, Oswald Avery demonstrated that genomes were made of DNA by a beautiful experiment with bacteria. In 1945 in Hiroshima, the nuclear revolution arrived with the bomb, and in Philadelphia, the computing revolution arrived with the ENIAC, the first electronic computer. Four revolutions within two years.

Looking back 67 years later, we can count up the score. Out of four revolutions, one was a flop, one was a huge success, and two were half-and-half. That is not a bad score for scientific gambling. Nuclear was a flop, because nuclear energy never fulfilled our dreams of a cheap, safe and clean source of power. Computing was a success far beyond our dreams, becoming cheap, small and user-friendly and empowering ordinary people all over the world. Space was half-and-half, with unmanned missions a big success for science and manned missions a big flop for human adventure. Genomics was also half-and-half, a big success for science and a big flop for medicine. Space and genomics are wonderful tools for science, but not doing much for human welfare.

I played a modest part in two of the revolutions: nuclear and space. I helped to design a safe nuclear reactor to produce radioactive isotopes for medical diagnosis, and an unsafe nuclear spacecraft to zoom around the solar system. Looking backward, I can see that I made poor choices, working on revolutions that failed. They were exciting ventures, and I do not regret the years that I spent working on them. The beautiful thing about revolutions is that you do not know they have failed until afterward. In science, as in the natural evolution of life, failures are an essential part of progress. Without failures, there can be no revolutions. Without dodoes, there can be no birds of paradise. Our nuclear spacecraft was a dodo, but it looked to us like a bird of paradise.

What of the future? I see the next radical revolution already beginning in neurology, the science of nerves and brains. At present, we still have no idea how brains work, but the tools for observing and studying brains in detail are being developed. I choose the date 2006 for the start of the neurology revolution. That was when David Haussler and his colleagues at University of California, Santa Cruz, discovered Human Accelerated Region 1, known for short as HAR1. Haussler compared the genomes of six species: chicken, mouse, rat, dog, chimpanzee and human. He found the little piece of DNA that he called HAR1, which is the same in all the species from chicken to chimp and strongly different in humans. So it did something essential for 300 million years, all the time since the common ancestor of chickens and chimps, and then changed drastically in 6 million years between apes and humans. It is not a gene. It is a bit of DNA talking a language that we have not begun to understand. It is active in unborn babies during the second trimester of pregnancy when the essential structures of brains are being organized. It is active in the cortex of the brain. The big cortex is the main thing that makes humans different from apes. To understand how the cortex evolved will be a key step in the understanding of human nature.

My speculations about the future are likely to be as wrong today as they were wrong in the past. The real future will bring more weird and radical surprises than I can imagine.