Field of Science

A review of Freeman Dyson's "Dreams of Earth and Sky"

Freeman Dyson is one of the most brilliant and wide-ranging thinkers of his time; the rare example of a truly outstanding scientist who is also a truly eloquent writer. This volume gathers together book reviews that he has written for the New York Review of books since 2004. The essays cover a range of topics as diverse as Dyson's interests and knowledge - from biotech to philosophy to theoretical physics.

Book reviews in the New York Review of Books are more than just simple descriptive reviews: they are also opportunities for authors to hold forth on their own views of the world. Thus Dyson's reviews are all accompanied by substantial personal commentary.

Every review benefits from his own vast experience with research as well as his unique friendship with many of science's best known personalities like Richard Feynman, Hans Bethe, Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller. Thus for instance Dyson adds his own touching reminiscences of Feynman and Oppenheimer in reviewing Jim Ottaviani's "Feynman" and Ray Monk's biography of Oppenheimer. Also in a review of Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking Fast and Slow", he uses his own unique experience as a statistician doing bomber studies during World War 2 to display the frailties of human thinking and bureaucracy.

In other cases Dyson uses specific books to inform us of his own original views on topics like biotechnology or cosmology. For instance in a review of Brian Greene's "The Elegant Universe" he speculates whether it might be impossible to detect a graviton particle using existing technology. In the first review titled "Our Biotech Future" he predicts that the domestication of biotechnology will be as significant a feature of the 21st century as computer technology was of the 20th.

Dyson also reveals himself to be no shrinking violet when it comes to controversy, although he does so with thoughtful and unfailing courtesy. His views on global warming have become well known, and his criticism of the field is balanced and moderate. And in reviewing Margaret Wertheim's book on scientific cranks "Physics on the Fringe", he also asks us not to dismiss all such cranks since some of them may turn out to have groundbreaking ideas.

You don't need to agree with all of Dyson's views in order to find them stimulating and thought-provoking, since that's what science is supposed to be about in its best tradition (as Dyson himself has said, "I would rather be wrong than uninteresting"). Even for readers who may have read these reviews the volume provides a ready reference of Dyson's views in one place as well as a glimpse into interesting literature worth reading. For those who have never read them they provide a window into one of the most original, literate and sensitive minds of its time.

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