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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Reading List: The Scientist as Rebel

Dyson, Freeman J. The Scientist as Rebel. New York: New York Review Books, 2006. ISBN 1-59017-216-7.
Freeman Dyson is one of the most consistently original thinkers of our time. This book, a collection of his writings between 1964 and 2006, amply demonstrates the breadth and depth of his imagination. Twelve long book reviews from The New York Review of Books allow Dyson, after doing his duty to the book and author, to depart on his own exploration of the subject matter. One of these reviews, of Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos, is where Dyson first asked whether it was possible, using any apparatus permitted by the laws of physics and the properties of our universe, to ever detect a single graviton and, if not, whether quantum gravity has any physical meaning. It was this remark which led to the Rothman and Boughn paper, “Can Gravitons be Detected?” in which is proposed what may be the most outrageous scientific apparatus ever suggested.

Three chapters of Dyson's 1984 book Weapons and Hope (now out of print) appear here, along with other essays, forewords to books, and speeches on topics as varied as history, poetry, great scientists, war and peace, colonising the galaxy comet by comet, nanotechnology, biological engineering, the post-human future, religion, the paranormal, and more. Dyson's views on religion will send the Dawkins crowd around the bend, and his open-minded attitude toward the paranormal (in particular, chapter 27) will similarly derange dogmatic sceptics (he even recommends Rupert Sheldrake's Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home). Chapters written some time ago are accompanied by postscripts updating them to 2006.

This is a collection of gems with nary a clinker in the lot. Anybody who rejoices in visionary thinking and superb writing will find much of both. The chapters are almost completely independent of one another and can be read in any order, so you can open the book at random and be sure to delight in what you find.

Posted at June 26, 2007 00:35