There were two Dysons in the news recently.
One is making ventilators for profit to add to his £14 billion fortune; the other is a theoretical physicist who woke to the news of the Hiroshima atomic masacre and announced, “I felt better that morning than I had felt for years.”
The first Dyson is very much alive, currently sucking the bacteria and gerbils out of his home with cyclonic separation, while the other is very much dead, as is the climate, which he could have told you all about.
Freeman Dyson, the dead one, was born in Berkshire, England, and is remembered for trying to calculate the number of atoms in the Sun at age four. As a young man he worked for the RAF, eagerly developing the optimal density for bomber formations, and a keen sense of being contrary, or, as Oliver Sacks commented, “subversive”.
At some point during his later career in the academy, Dyson determined, like so many before him whose grandiloquent delusions get the better of them, to predict the future. Though he admitted his prophecies and beliefs were subpar compared to, say, a gray squirrel, he thought it was better to be completely wrong than half-baked.
And so he let rip.
First, the Sun.
Dyson believed that genetically-engineered crops would help resolve wealth inequality, ignoring the slew of associated challenges, like the destruction of our natural biodiversity and the collapse of fundamental ecosystems that sustain our existence. And, as an obvious extension of his thinking, he suggested we could and predicted we would grow such genetically-engineered plants in the hollowed-out spaces on comets that were speeding past us at one hundred thousand miles an hour.
And, if you can grow plants on comets, why not live in orbit around the Sun?
Yes, Dyson proposed that one day we surround the Sun with floating domes, trap all of its solar energy, and live within an artificial biosphere that completely encompasses our fiery star.
Of course we’d need to get to the Sun and other celestial bodies, but that was no problem for our intrepid comet-rider.
Because one rainy day in his head, Dyson did “some historical research on the costs of the Mayflower's voyage, and on the Mormons' emigration to Utah” and determined that for around $150,000 we could get anywhere in our glorious galaxy, and predicted we would land ‘men’ on Mars by 1965, Saturn a few years later, and Cloud Cuckooland by where are the leather restraints.
You may be thinking, damn, Dyce, won’t the Sun be too hot for us?
No, said Freeman Dyson. He felt that a group of intelligent, immortal beings could escape death by extreme heat by changing the time continuum and using only a small percentage of finite energy. Where to find them he didn’t say. He just smiled, and examined his hands.
But let’s not stop there. Jupiter awaits!
Dyson suggested that when a major impact occurs on Jupiter, creatures (fishy ones) living in the planet's oceans would be ‘splashed into space’ and freeze-dried in an instant. Therefore, if we want evidence of extraterrestrial life, we need to look no further than the freeze-dried fish in Jupiter's ring.
I’m not making this up.
And how best to visit this wondrous galaxy of ours?
Why, the Astrochicken, of course. He predicted we’d build a self-replicating robotic chicken that would endlessly explore space for us, sending back data, photos, and giblets, so we would understand more clearly what lies beyond in space.
Now back down to Earth - kind of.
Dyson agreed with most sensible people that global warming was real and that we did it, and that carbon dioxide features heavily in the crime. But he also claimed that those increased levels of carbon dioxide would stimulate biological growth, boost agriculture, and encourage forests.
Dire climate predictions, he said, were rife with margins of error and predicted trends were untrustworthy, and that belief in climate change was akin to belief in religion. He also said that “we don't understand climate ... it will take a lot of very hard work before that question is settled." He said that 5 years ago.
James Hansen, director of the Program on Climate Science, summed up thoughtful and considered scientific response to this by saying he "doesn't know what [the fuck] he's talking about!”
As if science wasn’t a big enough study area to mess around with, Dyson turned his attention to religion, and made some fabulous claims.
He said, for example, that science and religion both give incomplete pictures of the world, and that “religious creationists and scientific materialists are equally dogmatic and insensitive.”
So, knowing that we can live around the Sun, with freeze-dried Jupiterian fish, and with no fear of climate change at all, and a delusional moral compass (“For bad people to do good things, that takes religion”, he said), Dyson had no qualms in determining that the atomic bombing of the Earth was a job well done.
When he heard that Hiroshima and a lot of its inhabitants had been annihilated, he said, “Once we had got ourselves into the business of bombing cities, we might as well do the job competently … those fellows who had built the atomic bombs obviously knew their stuff.”
Yes, Dyce, they did indeed know their stuff.
We can only hope that the alive Dyson, the one who’s currently producing ventilators to save lives, knows his stuff too.
Nigel Roth, 2020