Dreams of Earth and Sky (2015), by Freeman Dyson


I’m here a little early in the evening at Club Paradise. I’m relaxing in a booth. Place is quiet. Paddy has brought over my first Bombay Sapphire martini. I’m expecting a couple of little known poets and a hermit writer to join me soon for drinks. A few days ago I asked this trio to help me look into some possible implications of Freeman Dyson’s latest collection of book reviews. The books he reviews are mainly vehicles for his own dreams and observations. These always seem worthwhile reading. Dyson looks into the heart of things. But is he entirely current anymore?

The question arises from reading polymath Dyson’s latest wide-ranging, well-regarded and popular reviews (from 2006-2014 in The New York Review). Now 92, Dyson has been a most prominent professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton for many years, and he has known and worked with many of the seminal physicists and other scientists and technologists of the times, notably Hans Bethe and Richard Feynman. He writes in a clear, declarative style especially friendly to a public audience and surely welcome to specialists used to strenuous divining of tangled texts.

Dyson is what is sometimes called a “free thinker,” in his case especially signifying someone who (a) can look at both (or many) sides of an ongoing scientific and/or philosophical matter for a broad rather than parochial outlook; and (b) imagine how further related discoveries will take place, discoveries often made in a dialectical process such as a period of brilliant theorizing followed by a period of inspired experimentation. Einstein and Eddington.

Dyson is full of wonder and unquenchable delight in the variety of worldly and unworldly scientific and artistic adventures in History and instinctively seeks to weave them together as Grand Drama. Dreams of Earth and Sky is a conference of invited books which conduct among themselves a sub-conversation about which Freeman the Eavesdropper is not only a Commentator but an awakened Visionary, to include speculations and reflections on: our likely move from the present period of information technology to one of biotech; theory and mathematics versus empirical measurement in the progress of physics and cosmology; “Rocket Man” Wernher von Braun driven at bottom by dreams of interplanetary space travel; Dyson’s sense of insufficient evidence of global warming; the question of whether elegant physics–for example, the idea of processes “accomplished with the least action”–shows ours to be “the best of all possible worlds”; the traditional idea that progress in the sciences must benefit humankind, this pondered by Dyson against his youthful work in World War 2 as a technical designer of the RAF bombing campaign against Germany; the true Oppenheimer; and Churchill’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

The scope of his curiosity shows in the books reviewed in these pieces, including: Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman; Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons, and Alternative Theories of Everything, by Margaret Wertheim; The Fellowship (on The Royal Society of London), by John Gribbin; The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes; and Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center, by Ray Monk.

Dyson ultimately thinks and writes in a cheerful tone. He is not unrealistic about the shadows in History and the plights of the Human Condition. But death, war, pestilence, folly, farce–in the olden encapsulations “the darkness of the intellect” and “the weakness of the flesh”–are left outside on the stormy heath of History. And as to our Future: After reading Dyson’s Dreams of Earth and Sky, we must say: Dystopia, we hardly knew ye.

In looking for a definitive statement and accompanying major assumptions in Dreams, there are these stirring words:

The vision of the future as an infinite playground, with an unending sequence of mysteries to be understood by an unending sequence of players exploring an unending supply of information, is a glorious vision for scientists.

Apropos: My friend Marvin Minsky, who passed away this past January, told me that over the years he had posed the question of personal immortality to fellow scientists and thinkers and that they had almost all longed for it primarily so they could keep working indefinitely on grand mysteries.

About that I’ve always thought, “Humm.”

Dyson sees for artists and writers and ordinary people, “people who feel alienated from the prevailing scientific culture,” a darker sense of the Human Condition in an “information-dominated universe,” citing Borges’s famous short story, “The Library of Babel” in which, as critic James Gleick says, humans “walk the corridors, searching the shelves and rearranging them, looking for lines of meaning amid leagues of cacophony and incoherence….” Borges wrote his story in 1941; since then, notably Thomas Pynchon in an epic series of novels has massively dramatized the confused epistemology of Homo sapiens.

But here I’m sure Dyson is just being evenhanded. Elsewhere in Dreams of Earth and Sky I discover a passage with which he seems most sympathetic. It is this timeless definition by Francis Bacon:

The true and lawful goal of the sciences is simply this, that human life be endowed with new discoveries and powers.

Bacon’s words, together with Dyson’s in that earlier passage on the vision of the future as an infinite playground, create the general impression that Dyson is essentially cheerfully brave–a stiff upper lip–on the rim of what Pynchon calls “the vortex of history.”

I’ve invited the poets and the hermit writer for drinks because they tend not to be such. That’s putting it mildly.

Perhaps a Mercilessly Negative Person could think of a Grand Take on Things as Nightmares of Earth and Sky.

Looked at in a dark way, what are we learning from cosmology? The vastitude, the unimaginably violent scale of which has exceeded our minds except perhaps through colorless and dispiriting probability, seems a less and less inspiring field of discovery. Not so much a matter of the event horizon as of a human mind horizon. If string theory is itself beautiful (and wildly assuming that beauty must equal truth), what it portrays seems Bad News. Meanwhile, natural selection, whatever its “engineering” merits, grips us as per another timeless idea of the Human Condition, Bloody Nature, a realm   wherein perhaps not the speed of light but the certainty of Death is the great constant.

Some present mathematicians such as Thomas Harris and Reuben Hersch can make you think of pure mathematics as the Great Refuge. They’re hard to argue with. All that forlorn “philosophy of mathematics”–“foundations” and “existence” and elegant mathematics reflecting a “deity’s mind”–caused by a most understandable confusion of the Natural (including Theology) with Mathematics…we’re getting over it. And notice that you can’t observe infinity but it’s real. Mathematics is ultimately unto itself.

And apropos new mathematics, here’s a profound cited passage in Dreams of Earth and Sky by the contemporary physicist, Frank Wilczek, which has a telltale duplicity about it, a sense of a fundamental idea on the verge of escaping the Natural for the Pure:

Through patchy clouds, off in the distance, we seem to glimpse a mathematical Paradise, where the elements that build reality shed their dross. Correcting for the distortion of our everyday vision, we create in our minds a vision of what they might really be: pure, ideal, symmetric, equal and perfect.

So: Imagining the shedding of dross and the correcting for our everyday vision–the two enormous processes must be profoundly related–we come to escaping to an endlessly suspenseful Ideal of Mathematics–dynamic and progressive edificial discoveries ever the inverse of a Static Heaven aka the Beatific Vision aka Nirvana–through a non-natural selection in which we re-engineer ourselves into Indefinites. It’s far too soon to analyze this glimpse of a new human history, one no doubt of dubious plausibility owing to insufficient time to create it not to mention inadequate human intelligence. Best now just to raise it.

The raising of it seems fitting, though. A fitting intimation?

So, on second thought, I’m leaving before those poets and the hermit writer show up. Knowing them, they’ll imagine they know more than we really do about all this.

I’ll leave a fifty at the bar as their tab.

Text them after I leave.

Maybe talk to them sometime later.

PS. Here it is the next day and one of the poets, an elderly traditionalist, sent me a few verses–she won’t call them poetry–about a couple of the many problems in rising to Math Heaven.

I. On Rebuilding Ourselves

I see inward beyond the Natural
A human heaven I might capture all,
A Mathematica Dramatica,
A suspenseful silent sinfonia,
Rising not from physical reality
But only from my own mentality.

I’ve long known this Ideal place
Distractedly, within the Natural place,
Hence interrupting mathematics
To eat, sleep, weep and procreate–basics,
So that I can never see math heaven,
And die dramatizing cruel Ulam:

Unable to build, hold and extend an
Edificial math alive within my ken.
In my natural life, that would bring quick death,
No doubt by accident–yes, my last breath.
Hence Natural Me does not see math heaven,
Though the idea of it does regret deaden.

To escape from my mortal Determine,
To reach my mathematical Heaven,
My psyche saved from accident,
My mental beyond the Natural sent,
I need not superstitious redemption
But immortal non-natural reinvention.

II. On The Endless (?) Engrossment of Mathematics

Now I ask: Math by super numerists
Eventually bores those numerists?
Infinity, basic to the Ideal,
Fosters familiarity too real,
Stealing, say, fun in coin-flipping,
All suspense in supermath then slipping!

But design of superhuman mathite,
And endless drama in infinite flight,
Hopefully sum in happy ratio
For heavenly suspense ever neo
Thrilling: not static but intelligent:
No beatific vision but ascendent.

Mathite’s design aside for the moment,
What in math could make mathlife descendent?
Perhaps math collapsing of its own weight?
Or might internal flooding be math’s fate?
But most profoundly there’s Infinity,
Unobserved in math sublimity.

Yes, a simple example: the coin flip–
Heads or tails? “Chance” in the natural grip,
Those occasional instants of suspense
But with which Infinity will dispense,
By eliminating uncertainty
In unimaginable certainty.

Two issues for designers of Mathite:
Redesigning humans for Ideal flight?
The Infinite as infinite dramas?
The first, Redesign, eschews pajamas.
But the Great Infinite must be unknown;
Could Big Sleep befall us in that unknown?