Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Freeman Dyson

Life during wartime

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Over the last few days, I’ve been reading Maker of Patterns, the new “autobiography through letters” of the legendary physicist Freeman Dyson. Normally, I’m not all that interested in collections of a famous person’s correspondence—I’d rather see them used as primary sources for a more systematic biography—but Dyson was an unusually eloquent writer, and his retrospective commentary, which appears throughout the book, is loaded with insight and good stories. I expect to bring it up here more than once, but for now, I’d like to focus on the opening section, which covers Dyson’s years as a college student at Cambridge during World War II. The German bombing of England provided the relentless drumbeat to his life there, as it did in London, where his father, the composer Sir George Dyson, was serving as the director of the Royal College of Music. Dyson quotes a letter written by Hazel Bole, who was a student at the time:

I was fire-watching on the roof during the air raids. We students were there to throw sand on the incendiary bombs which the German bombers were raining down on us. One night I grabbed the large bucket, and someone else grabbed it too. I let go, and in a sudden flash of fireball I saw Sir George grinning at me.

Yet events in the wider world play less of a role in this part of the book than you might expect. As Dyson observes: “In these letters written during the darkest years of the war, the war is hardly mentioned.”

Part of this was due to the fact that Dyson was only seventeen years old at the time. Shortly after his arrival in Cambridge, he wrote to his family: “I find there is no compulsion, or even suggestion, for me to do anything in the way of duty, military or civil, until I have to register.” He later joined the Home Guard and the fire service, but his duties remained nominal, even as they provided occasional reminders of the horrific possibilities that they were designed to anticipate. Dyson wrote in another letter: “I was unexpectedly one morning appointed ‘staircase marshal’ which means that I have to look after my staircase, put out bombs and carry out corpses, if a bomb happens to burst within twenty yards of us. All my duties have amounted to so far is trying to get a stirrup-pump mended by plumbers who know nothing about it.” (He helpfully explains: “The stirrup-pump was standard equipment during the war for putting out fire-bombs. It stood in a bucket filed with water and pumped the water into a hose that was directed at the fire. It was hand-operated and needed no electricity. I never had a chance to use it.”) Even when the war came to his doorstep, his role was a limited one:

Sometimes a German bomber, having lost its way, would fly over Cambridge and drop a couple of bombs. One of these bombs fell on the student union just across the street from my bedroom in Trinity College. Since I belonged to our college fire service, I was ready to spring into action. But the college authorities told us that our job was to protect the historic buildings of the college. We were not allowed to cross the street. So we stood idly watching while the union building burned down.

Yet his removal from the war was also a revealing psychological choice. In a remarkable note, Dyson describes his father’s attitude:

Both at Winchester College [where Dyson attended high school] and at the Royal College, the war that began for England in 1939 hit us hard. We knew that we were in it for the long haul, with no end in sight, with a high probability that little that we valued would survive. And yet in a paradoxical way, our response to the war in both places was to ignore it as far as possible. My father in London, and our teachers in Winchester, understood that the best way to show our contempt for Hitler was to continue making music and to continue studying Latin and Greek, as if Hitler did not exist. My father said to the students in London in 1940, “All we have to do is behave halfway decently, and the whole world will come to our side.” That was his way of fighting Hitler…In Cambridge, just as in London and in Winchester, the way to defend England was to make sure that there would be something in England worth defending.

Reading this now, it’s easy to see the limits of the conviction that the world would rally around the side that tried to “behave halfway decently.” But there’s also something to be said for the importance of writing music and studying the classics during wartime. Even at moments of danger and uncertainty, life—or culture—can be about more than one thing, and acknowledging this is a crucial part of retaining our humanity when it seems the most threatened.

On some level, you could take Sir George Dyson’s mindset as an attempt to justify his reluctance to upend his life during the war, and you might be right. But he wasn’t wrong about the stakes involved. In a letter from 1943, Freeman Dyson wrote home: “I wish I had been in London for the air raid; there is nothing that makes me so happy as a display of fireworks. It seems they have given up the idea of a Baedeker raid on Cambridge, which is a pity.” He was referring to a series of raids undertaken by Germany in retaliation for the bombing of the historic town of Lübeck, of which the propagandist Baron Gustav Braun von Stumm said: “We shall go out and bomb every building in Britain marked with three stars in the Baedeker guide.” (Goebbels, revealingly, was incensed by the statement, which undercut the official story that the response was a justified retaliation for “terror” by the British.) The values represented by the Dysons, both father and son, were genuinely under attack, and their continuation during the war was an affirmation of their dignity and significance. And when the time came to serve in other ways, Dyson was ready. As he writes tersely in his memoirs: “After leaving Cambridge in 1943, I spent two years working as a civilian in the operational research reaction of Bomber Command. The headquarters were in a forest north of High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. Our job was to demolish German cities and kill as many German civilians as possible. We killed about four hundred thousand, ten times as many as the Germans had killed in Britain.” Dyson has memorably described his experience there elsewhere, but he doesn’t talk about it here. And for the two years that he worked on the war effort, he wrote no letters home at all.

Written by nevalalee

July 12, 2018 at 8:55 am

The myth of experience

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Freeman Dyson

During World War II, the legendary physicist Freeman Dyson—who wasn’t even twenty years old at the time—served as a scientist with the Operational Research Section of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command, which attempted to use statistical methods to analyze and improve airborne operations. In his memoir Disturbing the Universe, Dyson tells the following story:

I was engaged in a statistical study to find out whether there was any correlation between the experience of a crew and their chance of being shot down. The belief of the Command, incessantly drummed into the crews during their training and impressed on the public by the official propaganda machine, was that a crew’s chance of surviving a mission increased with experience. Once you get through the first five or ten missions, the crews were told, you will know the ropes and you will learn to spot the German night fighters sooner and you will stand a much better chance of coming home alive. To believe this was undoubtedly good for the boys’ morale. Squadron commanders, all of them survivors of many missions, sincerely believed that they owed their survival to their personal qualities of skill and determination rather than to pure chance. They were probably right. It had been true in the early years of the war that experienced crews survived better.

Dyson notes that a study conducted before his arrival had confirmed the official doctrine of the importance of experience, and that its conclusions had been “warmly accepted” by everyone involved. When he took another look at the problem, however, the results weren’t as encouraging:

Unfortunately, when I repeated the study with better statistics and more recent data, I found that things had changed…My conclusion was unambiguous: the decrease in loss rate with experience which existed in 1942 had ceased to exist in 1944. There were still many individual cases of experienced crews by heroic efforts bringing home bombers so badly damaged that a novice crew in the same situation would almost certainly have been lost. Such cases did not alter the fact that the total effect of all the skill and dedication of the experienced flight crews was statistically undetectable. Experienced and inexperienced crews were mown down as impartially as the boys who walked into the German machine gun nests at the battle of the Somme in 1916.

So what happened? According to Dyson, the theory within the Operational Research Section, which later turned out to be correct, was that the sudden irrelevance of experience was due to the introduction of a new technological factor: the Schräge Musik, or upward-firing cannons, which Germany had recently installed on many of its fighter planes. Allied bomber crews had been trained to scan the sky for enemy fighters—but the area below the aircraft was a blind spot. And once the Germans had vertical guns, which could be aimed upward while the fighter approached quietly from below, the experience of the air crews became useless.

Schräge Musik

Before I finish this story, it’s worth reflecting on what it tells us so far. We’re naturally inclined to attribute successful outcomes to talent or experience, rather than luck, because it flatters us into thinking that we’re more in control of our lives than we really are. This is true of artists, hedge fund mangers, and—as the events of this year have emphatically demonstrated—career politicians, and it means that we need to be particularly skeptical of anecdotal evidence that makes experience seem more important than it actually is. There’s also the unavoidable fact that even if experience is genuinely useful, a simple technological change can make nonsense of it. The introduction of firearms into medieval Japan threatened to render an entire system of values meaningless overnight: a child with a gun could kill a samurai from a distance. (Instead of discarding their culture, the Japanese made what, in some ways, was a more sensible choice: they decided to proceed as if guns didn’t exist for as long as they possibly could.) Finally, there’s the implication that when this sort of crisis occurs, you can’t solve it by advancing along the same lines of progress as before. Instead, you have to throw out whole sections of the rulebook, which is what happened in Dyson’s case. The Operational Research Section proposed that the number of crew members in each fighter be reduced from seven to five, and that the two gun turrets be removed completely. This would lighten the plane and allow it to fly fifty miles an hour faster, an advantage that would more than make up for the loss of its gunners: in night combat, speed was a far more decisive factor than firepower.

Of course, there was no guarantee that any of this would work, but Dyson observes that it had one undeniable advantage: “Even if the change did not result in saving a single bomber, it would at least save the lives of the gunners.” When the group brought the proposal to their section chief, who would decide whether or not to pass it up the pipeline, this was the result:

Our chief took a dim view of our suggestion that bombers might survive better without gun turrets. This was not the kind of suggestion that the commander in chief liked to hear, and therefore our chief did not like it either. To push the idea of ripping out gun turrets, against the official mythology of the gallant gunner defending his crewmates, and against the massive bureaucratic inertia of the Command, would have involved our chief in a major political battle. Perhaps it was a battle he could not have hoped to win. In any case, the instinct of a career civil servant told him to avoid such battles. The gun turrets remained in the bombers, and the gunners continued to die uselessly until the end of the war.

As for the chief, according to Dyson, his prudent unwillingness to deliver bad news to his commander “earned him the expected promotion at the end of the war and led to the inevitable knighthood.” In other words, he successfully navigated a system of incentives that was designed to reward experience whether it deserved it or not—a bureaucracy. And from his point of view, he was right.

Written by nevalalee

September 19, 2016 at 8:29 am

The crackpot’s conundrum

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Freeman Dyson

The objection that [new theories] are not crazy enough…applies especially to crackpots. Most of the crackpot papers that are submitted to the Physical Review are rejected, not because it is impossible to understand them, but because it is possible. Those that are impossible to understand are usually published. When the great innovation appears, it will almost certainly be in a muddled, incomplete, and confusing form. To the discoverer himself it will be only half understood. To everybody else it will be a mystery. For any speculation that does not at first glance look crazy, there is no hope.

Freeman Dyson

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May 10, 2015 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Freeman Dyson

The architecture has to be right…It’s like building a bridge. Once the main lines of the structure are right, then the details miraculously fit. The problem is the overall design.

Freeman Dyson

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December 30, 2014 at 7:30 am

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Freeman Dyson and the closing of the science-fictional mind

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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.

Written by nevalalee

October 10, 2011 at 9:42 am

Quote of the Day

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You can’t possibly get a good technology going without an enormous number of failures. It’s a universal rule. If you look at bicycles, there were thousands of weird models built and tried before they found the one that really worked. You could never design a bicycle theoretically. Even now, after we’ve been building them for 100 years, it’s very difficult to understand just why a bicycle works—it’s even difficult to formulate it as a mathematical problem. But just by trial and error, we found out how to do it, and the error was essential.

Freeman Dyson, in a Wired interview with Stewart Brand

Written by nevalalee

May 18, 2011 at 8:01 am

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