Freeman Dyson and the closing of the science-fictional mind
Arthur C. Clarke famously argued that our politicians should read science fiction, instead of westerns and detective stories, and Isaac Asimov, as we’ve seen, thought that an early interest in good science fiction was the best predictor of children who would become the great scientists of tomorrow. As I look around the world today, though, I worry that we’re suffering from a lack of science-fictional thinking. And it isn’t just the fact that America can no longer go into space. It’s that our dreams have grown smaller, and the most ambitious visions are greeted with a dismissive tweet. George W. Bush’s proposal to go to Mars was admittedly hard to take seriously, given its complete lack of specifics, but when the timeline of DARPA’s 100-year Starship Study makes it clear that nobody expects to go to the stars within the next century, I have to wonder what happened to the national will that put a man on the moon using computers like this. And my greatest fear is that we’ve lost the ability to even talk about such issues in suitably cosmic terms.
These days, only a handful of public intellectuals seem willing to talk about the future in ways designed to expand our sense of the possible. One is Ray Kurzweil, whose concept of the singularity, perhaps the most exciting—and lunatic—of all forms of futurism, has finally crossed over into the mainstream. Another is Freeman Dyson, the legendary physicist and mathematician who made several practical, lasting contributions to speculative fiction, notably the concept of the Dyson sphere, almost in passing. Both men are geniuses, and both are willing to take outlandish positions. As a result, both often seem faintly ridiculous themselves. Kurzweil, with his line of longevity supplements and obsession with the idea of his own immortality, can occasionally come off as a snake oil salesman, while Dyson has been roundly attacked as a global warming skeptic. And although Dyson’s arguments deserve to be taken seriously, there doesn’t seem to be a place for them in the mainstream dialogue on climate change, which reflects less on his ideas themselves than on the limitations we’ve subconsciously imposed on the debate.
Dyson’s treatment in the media has been particularly sobering. He doesn’t deny that global warming exists, or that it’s primarily caused by human activity, but questions whether it’s possible to predict the consequences using existing models of climate change, and believes that the danger is overblown compared to other risks, such as global poverty and disease. Dyson also argues that the problem of climate change isn’t social or political, but scientific, and has proposed a number of seemingly farfetched solutions, such as planting a trillion trees to absorb excess carbon dioxide. Perhaps most notoriously, he believes that global warming itself might not be entirely a bad thing. Rather, it will be good for some species and bad for others, a general “evening out” of the climate in a post-Darwinian world driven less by natural selection than by human activity. As a result, he has been widely accused of being oblivious, uncaring, or demented, notably in a fascinating but profoundly disingenuous piece by Kenneth Brower in the Atlantic.
Many of Dyson’s ideas are impractical, or simply incorrect, but it doesn’t seem wise to dismiss a scientist universally regarded by his colleagues as one of the smartest men in the world. And the more one looks at Dyson’s opinions, the more obvious it becomes that they need to be part of the conversation. This isn’t a politically motivated “skeptic” whose ideas are so far off the map that they don’t even deserve refutation; it’s a profoundly original mind approaching the problem from a novel perspective, drawing conclusions that have the power to shake us into new ways of thinking, and as such, he deserves to be celebrated—and, when necessary, refuted, but only by critics willing to meet him on equal terms. He may come up with outlandish proposals, but that’s what science-fictional minds do. Dyson may not have the answers, but only a system of public discussion capable of engaging his ideas will result in the answers we need. And if we can’t talk about his ideas at all, it’s our loss.