A FINE BALANCE - Wise and just, but perhaps not a sage

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  • Published 5.01.07

The Scientist as Rebel By Freeman Dyson, New York Review Books, $ 27.95

John Desmond Bernal, the famous British molecular biologist, was lovingly called a ‘sage’ by his friends and colleagues. He earned the title for his fervent support of scientific research dedicated to serving the poor, a stand that his admirers believed ought to be traced to his communist ideology. However, it was the same commitment that made Bernal describe Josef Stalin as one of the greatest scientists he ever saw!

If bias is the last attribute expected of a sage, then the modern-day scientist who seems to qualify for that stature is Freeman John Dyson, the 83-year-old professor emiritus at that mecca of theoretical physics, the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, US. His was a case of a missed Nobel Prize, most certainly because of the convention that not more than three can share the award each year. Richard Feynman, Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itro Tomonaga won the prize in 1965 for separately inventing the theory of interaction of light and matter. But it was Dyson who showed the sublime connection among the various formulations invented by them.

Those familiar with his commentaries on the contentious current issues, both within and beyond science, know that his is often the most balanced — and therefore the wisest — views on those topics. The Scientist as Rebel, a highly readable compilation of his speeches, essays and book reviews, most of them already printed in the New York Review of Books, bears testimony to his wisdom.

The title of Dyson’s book is somewhat misleading; Giordano Bruno, Galileo Galilei or Andrei Sakharov barely figure in it. Rather, while discussing rebellion in its first chapter, he suggests that science in the new millennium ought to rebel “against poverty and ugliness and militarism and economic injustice”. His hero is Benjamin Franklin, who stood for “thoughtful rebellion, driven by reason and calculation more than by passion and hatred”. If science ever stops confronting authority, Dyson believes it won’t deserve to be pursued by our brightest children.

Buried within science are many supremacy battles. What drives progress, theory or experiment? Out-of-the-box ideas or new tools? Extraneous demands or intrinsic curiosity? Dyson’s answers to all these questions are simple: a mix of both. With his characteristic incisive analysis, he discusses how two great theorists, Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer, despite providing the best clues for the existence of black holes, became useless bystanders as young researchers went ahead with vigorous studies on them. According to Dyson, historians of science often fall prey to their biases while assessing the contributions of theorists and experimenters. He points out that it is not right to claim that Einstein’s discovery of the special theory of relativity was necessitated by the demand for perfecting the time-keeping jobs. Also, while reviewing two books on the advent of nuclear physics, he wonders how they can portray entirely different characters as the key player in this important drama in science.

Dyson’s penchant for unbiased assessment of the luminaries in science is best illustrated in his defence of Edward Teller, deeply reviled for his clamour for the hydrogen bomb and for causing the downfall of his erstwhile boss, Oppenheimer. First, Dyson takes Alan Lightman to task for depicting “mostly the dark side” of Teller while reviewing his Memoirs. Second, in his own review of the same title elsewhere, he elaborates how Teller quarrelled vehemently with older scientists but gave generous help to young colleagues. “Those who disagreed with him did him a grave injustice when they tried to turn him into a demon,” Dyson signs off.

Dyson has added postscripts to almost all the articles in The Scientist as a Rebel in order to update them. They consist of the gist of the rejoinders that his book reviews attracted, mostly from their authors, as well as his response to their points of view. In some cases, he admits his errors and says they have been taken care of in the articles now published in the book.

That brings us to an exception to this exercise in fairness. There is no postscript to the chapter, “Religion from the Outside”, Dyson’s take on the philosopher, Daniel C. Dennett’s latest book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. The title earned rave reviews in many publications, coming, as it did, as the first among a dozen or so tomes published last year delineating the grip of religion on 21st-century men and women. Dennett, a professor at Tufts University, Massachusetts, is a diehard Darwinian when it comes to explaining human behaviour. His plea to everyone is to come out of the spell that religion often casts upon us.

Dyson, who calls himself a “sceptical Christian”, is a recipient of the Templeton Prize, an honour bestowed by the trust founded by the international investor, Sir John Templeton. The philanthropist is known for encouraging dialogue between spirituality and science, an idea ridiculed by the Nobel-Prize-winning physicist, Steven Weinberg. Not one to consider religion a dispensable fad, Dyson has taken issue with Dennett for having quoted a famous remark of Weinberg’s in Breaking the Spell: “Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things — that takes religion.” That’s looking at religion from the outside, Dyson argues, citing its beneficial aspects that its critics ignore. “Weinberg’s statement is true as far as it goes, but it is not the whole truth,” he comments, “to make it the whole truth, we must add an additional clause: ‘And for bad people to do good things — that takes religion.’”

Dennett’s long rebuttal of Dyson’s arguments has not made it to The Scientist as Rebel. As the last chapter, “Religion from the Outside”, may have been included in the book as it went to the press. There may not have been time enough to add Dennett’s rejoinder, published in the New York Review of Books one-and-a-half months after Dyson’s review appeared in it.

If that is not the reason for its omission then we can’t call Dyson a sage either.