journalism, science

Freeman Dyson and the Great Big World

Freeman Dyson is a global warming skeptic. This should not come as a surprise.

the cover of the new york times magazine with portrait of dysonLast Sunday, the New York Times Magazine featured a profile of the physicist, now in his 80s, as its cover story. He’s been ensconced at the Institute for Advanced Study for the last several decades.

I liked the piece. There are some questions, which I’ve heard a couple of editors express, about why he merited such a long profile, and the cover, no less. But that’s really a question of editorial inclinations.

The great strength of the article is the sensitive portrayal of Dyson himself. He is a character, a charming and sweet man whose life experience reads like fiction. Nicholas Dawidoff, who wrote the piece, describes Dyson’s smile, and his laugh, “so hearty it shakes him,” which is absolutely true. The global warming controversy seems secondary, though I’d guess it was originally the big reason this story was picked up by the magazine. Ultimately, we have this story of a man who is happy with his life, and has always done whatever suited him, rather than whatever the establishment expected. After all, he did switch from being an Englishman to being an American, and from mathematics to physics to activism and writing.

I interviewed Dyson almost nine years ago, in April 2001. As the years pass, I keep thinking how fortunate I am that my first in-depth, sit-down interview with anyone was with him.

You can see a kind of blueprint for the magazine story in my interview, from the series of Dyson’s greatest hits of applied scientific craziness (Project Orion, the so-called Dyson sphere, major genetic re-engineering), to his deep sense of humanity and obligation to the less fortunate.

I was also introduced to Dyson’s skepticism in that interview. He criticized people who were wary of genetically modified foods. He applauded gentrification. He recounted a story about NASA’s emphasis on public relations over science. He dismissed sustainability, “because what does it mean?” As far as Dyson was concerned, “sustainability” was—and, one could contend, still is—vague enough to mean whatever its promoters want.

You can download my interview, conducted for the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science, as a PDF here.

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At the bottom of my web site, in the footer section, there is a phrase: “It is a great big world.” After my interview with Dyson, as I was about to leave, Dyson told me about flying to China, and sitting next to a boy who spent most of the trip staring out the window. At one point, the boy turned to him, and said, “It’s a great big world!.” Indeed, it is. Easy to forget.

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2 thoughts on “Freeman Dyson and the Great Big World

  1. Pat Joseph says:

    Nice post, Tim. Have you seen Mooney’s reaction to this story? I’m kinda surprised. In a way, it seems to support the contention of those who say that a certain heterodoxy has formed around the issue and that anyone who questions it is branded a heretic.

  2. Thanks, Pat. I read the Chris Mooney response after you mentioned it. I also looked at this indignant response from Joseph Romm.

    No surprises, in a way, though ferocious in their tone.

    Actually, one surprise. I was surprised at the casual belittling of the writer Nicholas Dawidoff, who is, if you’d believe these guys and other bloggers, a mere baseball writer. Well, what’s wrong with that, first of all? Mooney jokingly says there must be a link between loving baseball and sympathizing with climate skeptics. I guess Stephen Jay Gould, who has a whole collection of baseball writing, died before the vociferous climate debates of recent years, so we aren’t sure where he would stand.

    Mooney says this is a good example of the disaster that ensues when editors work with reporters who don’t have “scientific backgrounds.” I initially read that to mean journalists with scientific training. But I haven’t yet found evidence that Mooney has had similar training. I’m fairly certain Elizabeth Kolbert also doesn’t have a scientific background.

    One of the books that’s been sitting on my shelf for a long time is The Fly Swatter, a biography of the economist Alexander Gerschenkron, by Nicholas Dawidoff. (Gerschenkron is Dawidoff’s grandfather). The milieu is the mid-twentieth century world of academics and intellectuals, when professors mingled with celebrities and an outsize proportion of this population was made up of people who’d fled the Bolsheviks, the Nazis, or in Gerschenkron’s case, both. Dyson’s glory days would have coincided, which I find a nice thematic link.

    In any case, while I’m no climate skeptic, I love how much Dyson and this story are confounding people (and I’m sure Gerry Marzorati and Alex Star and the rest of the NYT Magazine are loving it, too). They want to dismiss Dyson as a crackpot while also praising his brilliance! That’s hard to do! What did Fitzgerald say about opposing ideas?

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