Wednesday, July 14, 1999

Dyson's Prediction of Future

In his new book, "The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet: Tools of Scientific Revolutions" (Oxford University Press, 1999), Freeman Dyson contends that the driving force of scientific revolutions is more often new tools rather than new concepts. A tool-biased view of the history of physics was written by the experimental physicist Peter Galison [1], while a concept-biased analysis was made by the theoretical physicist Thomas Kuhn in his famous book [2]. Being a theorist, though, Dyson considers that Galison's view of science more pleasing, and predicts that three new technologies - solar energy, genetic engineering and the internet - will be the most important things in the twenty-first century.

Dyson's books [3] have always fascinated us by his wide-ranging intelligence, great insight, keen analysis and convincing arguments based on concrete examples. "The Sun, the Genome, the Internet" is not an exception. An additional agreeable character of his writing consists in the fact that he attaches importance to social justice realizable by technology. He expects that the gap between the rich and the poor would be narrowed by the ethical application of science.

In the final chapters of the new book, Dyson discusses the future of the society under the inexorable growth of techniques suggested by the two big surprises that happened in 1997. These surprises are the cloning of Dolly and the defeat of the world chess champion by the IBM chess-playing program Deep Blue. The first of the surprises makes Dyson think about reprogenetics, which is a possible future technology offering the parent the opportunity to improve the quality of life of the child by removing bad genes and by inserting advantageous ones [4]. I could not read his discussion about this possibility without reminding myself of the scientific fiction Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.

(A modified version of this essay is posted as tttabata's review of "The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet" on the bying-info page of this book at Amazon.com.)

Note added later: I have found that Richard Feynman said a thing similar to the above in his lecture [5] delivered in 1963: "The very rapid developments of biology are going to cause all kinds of very exciting problems.  . . .  I just refer you to Aldous Huxley's book Brave New World, which gives some indication of the type of problem that future biology involve itself in."
  1. Peter Galison, "Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics" (University of Chicago Press, 1997).
  2. Thomas Kuhn, "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions," 2nd ed. (University of Chicago Press, 1970).
  3. Freeman Dyson, "Disturbing the Universe" (Harper & Row, 1979); "Infinite in All Directions" (Harper & Row, 1988); "From Eros to Gaia" (Penguin Books, 1992); "Imagined World" (Harvard University Press, 1997).
  4. Lee Silver, "Remaking Eden" (Avon Books, 1997).
  5. R. P. Feynman, "The Meaning of It All" (Addison-Wesley, 1998).

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