The Danger of Cosmic Genius

In the range of his genius, Freeman Dyson is heir to Einstein—a visionary who has reshaped thinking in fields from math to astrophysics to medicine, and who has conceived nuclear-propelled spaceships designed to transport human colonists to distant planets. And yet on the matter of global warming he is, as an outspoken skeptic, dead wrong: wrong on the facts, wrong on the science. How could someone as smart as Dyson be so dumb about the environment? The answer lies in his almost religious faith in the power of man and science to bring nature to heel.

Illustration: Marc Yankus; Photo of Freeman Dyson: Imke Lass/Redux

One starry night 35 years ago, I drove the physicist Freeman Dyson through the British Columbia rain forest toward a reunion with his estranged son, George. The son, then 22, was a long-haired, sun-darkened, barefoot dropout with an uncanny resemblance to Thoreau. He had emigrated to Canada during the Vietnam War, and he lived 95 feet up a Douglas fir outside Vancouver. His passion was the aboriginal North American skin boat. In a workshop near his tree house, he had resurrected the baidarka, the kayak of the Aleutian Islands—a watertight second skin, lightweight and nimble, in which the Aleut hunter originally, and young George himself eventually, became a kind of sea centaur, half man and half canoe. The father, Freeman, was then and continues to be a professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, employed there, as Einstein was before him, to think about whatever he finds interesting.

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Freeman Dyson is one of those force-of-nature intellects whose brilliance can be fully grasped by only a tiny subset of humanity, that handful of thinkers capable of following his equations. His principal contribution has been to the theory of quantum electrodynamics, but he has done stellar work, too, in pure mathematics, particle physics, statistical mechanics, and matter in the solid state. He writes with a grace and clarity that is rare, even freakish, in a scientist, and his books, including Disturbing the Universe, Weapons and Hope, Infinite in All Directions, and The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet, have made a mark. Dyson has won the Lorentz Medal (the Netherlands) and the Max Planck Medal (Germany) for his work in theoretical physics. In 1996, he was awarded the Lewis Thomas Prize, which honors the scientist as poet. In 2000, he scored the Templeton Prize for exceptional contribution to the affirmation of life’s spiritual dimension—worth more, in a monetary way, than the Nobel.

The period of his career that Dyson remembers most happily, the endeavor during which he believes he learned the most, began the year after Sputnik. In 1958, he took a leave of absence from the Institute for Advanced Study and moved to La Jolla, California, where he joined Project Orion, a group of 40 scientists and engineers working to build a spacecraft powered by nuclear bombs. The Orion men believed that rocketry was hopeless as a means of settling the universe. Only nuclear power had sufficient bang to propel the requisite payloads into space. The team called the concept “nuclear-pulse propulsion.” From a hole at the center of a massive “pusher plate” at the bottom of the craft, atom bombs would be dropped at intervals and detonated. The shock wave and debris from each blast would strike the pusher plate, driving the ship heavenward on a succession of blinding fireballs. Shock absorbers the size of grain silos would cushion the cabin and crew, smoothing out the cataclysmic bumpiness of the ride.

To the layperson, this seems exactly the sort of contraption that Wile E. Coyote, in his efforts to overtake Road Runner, habitually straps on before self-immolation. But the layperson is wrong, apparently. Specialists in the effects of nuclear explosions saw no reason Orion would not work. The Advanced Research Projects Agency, the precursor to NASA, underwrote the project, then NASA took it on, and nuclear-pulse propulsion briefly held its own against the chemical rockets of Wernher von Braun. Dyson and his colleagues did not want to delegate; they intended to go bombing into space themselves. Their schedule had them landing on Mars by 1965 and Saturn by 1970.

The Volkswagen camper in which I was driving Freeman through the forest was a ’69, assembled the same year the Orion ship was supposed to thunder silently through space toward its 1970 rendezvous with Saturn. Like all VW minibuses of that vintage, mine was underpowered and prone to overheating. It was primitive transportation—internal combustion, just 57 horsepower—yet it got us down the road. Now and again, I checked the speedometer. We were averaging about 50 miles per hour, well under the 22 million mph that Freeman had hoped to coax from an interstellar spacecraft, but safe under the conditions. To the tinny pocketa pocketa of the four cylinders, I steered beneath the narrow swath of stars bounded by the crowns of conifers on either side.

The détente between the Dysons, father and son, was something I had helped mediate. This drive through the forest to unite them had the look of family counseling, but in fact it was fieldwork. I was gathering notes for my book The Starship and the Canoe, an account of the two men, their two vessels, and their two diverging views of the future.

Occasionally I stole a sideways glance at Freeman, who rode shotgun, very erect in the seat, staring in his unblinking way at the pavement ahead. It did not escape me that the black macadam in my headlights covered a road on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada, Planet Earth. This was not extraterrestrial basalt on the dark side of Saturn’s moon Iapetus, which Freeman had especially wanted to visit, curious about why one side is black and the other white. This was not some haul road on Mimas, the innermost of the major moons of Saturn, a cratered satellite of water-ice just 115,000 miles from the planetary surface and favored by Freeman both as a place to provision and for its spectacular view of Saturn filling most of the sky. Back in 1958, Freeman had calculated the velocity increments required to deposit the Orion ship on various inner moons of Saturn and Jupiter, laying out the data in tables—but all for naught, in the end. The Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, with its prohibition of nuclear explosions in the atmosphere and outer space, killed Project Orion. President Kennedy’s signature effectively condemned Freeman to spend the rest of his life on this planet.

The forest was dark, the road twisty and narrow. It was two in the morning, and I had been driving all night. To keep awake at the wheel, I interviewed the physicist, in a desultory way. I was curious about his childhood in England. In 1943, as a teenager, he had been a mathematician with the Royal Air Force, calculating the ideal density for bomber formations raiding Germany; but his precociousness, I knew, had manifested itself much earlier than that. By the age of 6, his great interests had been mathematics and astronomy. He had been a little wizard, a wunderkind.

“It is said that the mental processes of a mathematical prodigy differ in no essential respect from those of ordinary folks who can handle more modest problems,” George Dyson had written—not Freeman’s tree-dwelling son, but Sir George Dyson, Freeman’s father, a composer and the director of the Royal College of Music. “The prodigy’s gift is the power of incessant concentration on more and more complicated mental calculations, until his brain can instantly recall the end products of the thousands of factors with which his mind has been busy.”

The prodigy in question, Freeman Dyson, now middle-aged, stared ahead, his incessant concentration on the road unbroken. He seemed mesmerized by the oncoming pavement, or by some idea or formulation glimpsed in the immateriality beyond the pavement. I asked him whether as a boy he had speculated much about his gift. Had he asked himself why he had this special power? Why he was so bright?

Dyson is almost infallibly a modest and self-effacing man, but tonight his eyes were blank with fatigue, and his answer was uncharacteristic.

“That’s not how the question phrases itself,” he said. “The question is: why is everyone else so stupid?”

In August 2009, Dyson appeared on the Charlie Rose show. His inimitable voice—somehow both diffident and firm, its original British accent overlaid by an American one—caught me in transit of my living room, and I pulled up a chair. Dyson has aged well. He has kept himself trim, not to say scrawny, and what he radiates in his 80s is a kind of wizened boyishness. I smiled at the familiar mannerisms. Freeman and his son, George, share an odd, cryptic style of chuckling in which the chin drops, the eyes get merry, and the shoulders shake with laughter, but no sound comes out.

Among intelligent nonexperts who have weighed in on climate change, Freeman Dyson has become, now that Michael Crichton is dead, perhaps our most prominent global-warming skeptic. Charlie Rose began his interview with questions about the climate. Dyson answered that he remained very skeptical about the dangers of global warming. He did not believe the pronouncements of the experts. He did not claim to be an expert himself, so he would not argue the details with anybody; he had not given much time to the issue and did not pretend to know the real answers, but what he knew for sure was that the global-warming experts did not know the answers, either.

Dyson did not deny that the world was getting warmer. What he doubted was the models of the climatologists, and the grave consequences they predicted, and the supposition that global warming is bad. “I went to Greenland myself, where the warming is most extreme,” he said. “And it’s quite spectacular, of course, what you see in Greenland. But what is also true is, the people there love it. The people there hope it continues. It makes their lives a lot more pleasant.”

Dyson argued that melting ice and the resulting sea-level rise is no cause for alarm. He said that the release of increasing volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere is a very good thing, as it makes plants grow better. The important thing to remember, he said, is that the planet is warming mainly in places that are cold, and at night rather than during the day, so that the phenomenon is essentially making the climate more even, rather than just making everything hotter.

“Have we been kind to the planet?” Rose asked at one point.

“Yes. I would say, on the whole, yes.”

When Rose expressed surprise at this answer, the physicist backtracked slightly.

“No, the fact is, of course, we’ve done a lot of damage to the planet, but we also repair the damage. I grew up in England, and England was far more filthy then than it is now. We had the industrial revolution first, so England was much more polluted than the United States ever has been, and England now is quite comparatively clean. You can go to London and your collar doesn’t get black in one day.”

The question that phrases itself now, in the minds of many, is: how could someone as smart as Freeman Dyson be so dumb?

That humanity has been kind to the planet is not a possible interpretation, not even for a moment—certainly not for anyone who has been paying the slightest attention at any point in the 4,700 years of human history since Gilgamesh logged the cedar forest of the Fertile Crescent. That we repair our damage to the planet is a laughable assertion. It is true that the air is better now in London, and in Los Angeles too. Collars do blacken more slowly in both those places. Some rivers in the developed world are somewhat cleaner, as well: the Cuyahoga has not burned in many years. But it is also true that the Atlantic is afloat with tar balls, and that detached sections of fishnet and broken filaments of longline drift, ghost-fishing, in all our seas. Many of the large cities of Africa, South America, and Asia are megalopolises of desperate poverty ringed by garbage. Vast tracts of tropical rain forest, the planet’s most important carbon sink, disappear annually, burned or logged or mined. Illegal logging is also ravaging the slow-growing boreal forests of Siberia. The ozone hole over Antarctica continues to open every southern spring, exposing all life beneath to unfiltered ultraviolet rays. African wildlife is in precipitous decline. Desertification continues in the Sahel, turning that semi-arid zone into just more Sahara. Frogs are vanishing everywhere. We are in the middle of a mass die-off, the “sixth extinction,” this one caused not by volcanoes or collisions with asteroids and comets, as before, but by mankind—with species disappearing, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, at 1,000 to 10,000 times the rate prevalent over the 65 million years since the previous great extinction. That one was caused by an asteroid strike—the cataclysm that ended the Cretaceous Period, killing off the dinosaurs and nearly everything else alive. It is wonderful that Dyson, in his trips home to London, finds less soot on his collar, but this is perhaps not the best measure of planetary health.

Many of Dyson’s facts on global warming are wrong, as the scientists who have done actual research on the subject point out, but more disconcerting is the selective way he gathers his information and the peculiar conceptual framework into which he inserts it.

It is true that plants grow better with increases in carbon dioxide. (Photosynthesis is the conversion of carbon dioxide and sunlight into organic compounds, so the more CO2 and sunlight, the better, up to a point.) If a plant’s survival depended only on its metabolism—if all it had to do was photosynthesize—then increased CO2 in the atmosphere might indeed be a good thing. But plants happen to grow in these little universes we call ecosystems, where they are sustained by complex webs of interdependency with fungi, microbes, animals, and other plants. Much of this mutually dependent life is adapted to narrow temperature and rainfall regimes, and these biomes are collapsing everywhere.

Plants do grow better with increased CO2, but not when deprived of water. Water is a vanishing commodity in the American West, where I live, and where, like the Australians and Sudanese and many others, we are enduring a succession of increasingly prolonged and severe droughts. Drought is a paleontological fact in the American West, but the latest desiccations have a new signature, and my region’s climatologists, hydrologists, foresters, and water managers are nearly unanimous in their conviction that what we are seeing now is climate change, the anthropogenic kind, a consequence of too much CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Drought-induced stress increases plants’ susceptibility to disease, and tree diseases are epidemic now in my home landscape and elsewhere. Plants grow better with increased CO2, but not when they are dead snags.

The planet, Dyson assured Rose, is warming mainly in places that are cold; it is not getting hotter so much as the climate is evening out. This is a peculiar analysis. The fact is that the planet is getting hotter, by small but enormously consequential increments. That the warming is most pronounced in cold places is true, but this is no consolation to the creatures that live there. I recently returned from reporting on diminishing sea ice and the decline of penguin populations and krill stocks on the Antarctic Peninsula, the western side of which, over the past half century, has been warming at five times the world’s average rate. I feel obligated to put in a word for the elephant seals, fur seals, crabeater seals, leopard seals, whales, penguins, albatrosses, petrels, and other members of that cold-adapted, krill-dependent fauna. Dyson’s implication that an evening out of global temperatures might somehow be a neutral or beneficial phenomenon is astounding. Temperature differentials at different latitudes and altitudes are a prime driver of planetary weather. Weather patterns, needless to say, are full of consequence not just for penguins and seals, but for all life everywhere.

How could someone as brilliant as Freeman Dyson take the positions he does on global warming and other environmental issues?

I have a number of theories.

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