Thursday, February 01, 2007

Annotation: Disturbing the Universe by Freeman Dyson

Disturbing the Universe by Freeman Dyson

Disturbing the Universe is a mixed-genre account not only of Freeman Dyson’s academic and professional life, but of the scientific and often moral and spiritual development of the Western world, especially the United States as an intellectual melting pot, from World War II until the 1970s. I say mixed-genre because it is part memoir, part scientific reporting, part political commentary, part speculative and philosophical examination—and always utterly fascinating.

Of course, it does not account for all events nor even all major scientific advances during the time; it is not a catalog or encyclopedia, and it is much the better for that. Always told in the first person, Disturbing the Universe is divided into three sections: I. England, II. America, and III. Points Beyond.


As the sections evolve—the first section based primarily on a few specific, narrative examples of Dyson’s childhood as well as a more detailed account of his involvement in England’s Bomber Command, the second on his personal development and scientific involvement in a wide variety of math- and physics-related endeavors of national and global implication, and the third mostly discussing the future of science, and so the future of civilization—Dyson’s approach evolves, as well.

Memoir is strongest in the early sections. Scientific reporting and to a degree political commentary are strongest in the middle and largest section of the book. Philosophical exploration and resultant political commentary, though always specific and gentlemanly, define the third section. Personal essay combining flowing narrative and strong metaphor occurs throughout.

Dyson’s book is a classic example that you must first become an expert in your field to then wax poetic on it. By that I mean that Dyson thoroughly validates his concluding arguments—his vision of mankind’s future—by detailing his experiences, conjectures, and perhaps most importantly failures along with successes.

What captivated me most, however, was not the last but rather the first and second sections of the book. Here we find Dyson writing crisp, entertaining narrative that nonetheless covers complex subjects like nuclear physics and rocket science (particularly in the second section). Toward the end of II. America, though, Dyson weaves in a much stronger critique of political and military actions in relation to his own, clearly acknowledging his role, as much for worse as for better. The chapters “The Ethics of Defense” and “The Murder of Dover Sharp” are particularly pressing and poignant in this respect. Indeed, while we’ve learned a great deal about Dyson the scientist and even Dyson the critical thinker to this point, we may have learned the most about the man as a human being in these two chapters.

Even if we believe as Dyson does that time and space do not work in linear fashion, the book is mostly chronological. Given the technical nature of much of the subject matter, as well as the significant historical events—World War II and the Cold War, predominantly—a chronological approach both makes sense and works well. But Disturbing the Universe also does not rely solely on a linear pattern, as references to historic events, people, and arts (including and perhaps especially literature), and speculation and forethought are eloquently woven throughout the text.

Dyson’s major intents here are threefold. First, he wants to record the amazing time he lived in, as well has his place and role in that time. Second, he wants to demonstrate accountability for many of the actions of the day—both his involvement in scientific discoveries, and his responsibility in activities that he realizes were not right, or at least did not turn out as perhaps then the scientists thought it might. Dyson’s realization of the great harms of nuclear fallout from bomb tests and Orion rocket tests—if ever expanded—is perhaps the strongest example. Third, he wants to build upon his great experience to offer a vision of the future—with a passionate (and still scientifically credible) call for solar energy and an entertaining and thoroughly acceptable thesis on how humans will (not may; he has no doubt of this) expand into space.

While I think the third section is the weakest of the three—simply because it cannot rest on the imagery and compelling historical details of the first two sections—I do not consider the third section a weakness. All three sections and the entire book are wonderfully written, pulling from a wide array of literary techniques that in lesser collections could seem fragmented, but here work in harmony, not unlike the beautifully simple structure of a single atom.

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