Freeman Dyson's THE SCIENTIST AS REBEL
This collection of essays and reviews by the physicist/mathematician Freeman Dyson makes for fascinating reading. The range of topics is broad and the style of writing is clear and approachable. Topics include religion, hydrogen bombs, Isaac Newton, the relative roles of technology and ideas in the advancement of science, the future of humanity in space (think: comets), and the role of amateurs in scientific research.
Dyson’s discussion of the latter topic has an interesting view about the different stages a body of science goes through and how involvement and importance of amateur observations change over time. He focuses most directly on astronomy but his comments are relevant to other fields as well.
The first essay I turned to was Dyson’s brief discussion of Edward Teller, now “notorious” for his support of hydrogen bomb development as well as his lack of support for J. Robert Oppenheimer during the post-WWII hearings over Oppenheimer’s security clearance. Whatever you think you know about Teller the message Dyson gives here may surprise you.
Returning to the topic of amateurs and scientific research, Dyson comments on the computer based tools now available to support the amateur scientist; powerful personal computers and use of the Internet top his list of enablers.
(It would be interesting to hear what Dyson has to say about the Internet and how easy it now is to develop specialized communities of peers through social networking and social media. Scientists have always been dependent upon peers for review and validation of research and today’s web based tools allow for an almost instantaneous sharing of knowledge — and criticism — among even small affinity groups spread throughout the globe.)
My favorite chapters so far are “A New Newton” and “Clockwork Science.”
“A New Newton” provides some historical tidbits about Sir Isaac Newton creative works and is liberally sprinkled with stories of Dyson’s own connection to people with firsthand interest or experience with Newton’s papers, such as economist John Maynard Keynes. “Clockwork Science” provides Dyson’s speculations why Albert Einstein has proven to be so much more famous than a contemporary of his, Jules Henri Poincaré.
Interestingly, thinking back to the social nature of scientific research, Dyson frequently references Kuhn’s seminal work “The Structures of Scientific Revolutions” and its emphasis on the social aspects of research. Dyson points out that we are, in fact. lucky that Newton did NOT share much of his research and thinking with other people. Instead, Newton shared the evolution of his thinking with his notebooks. The result is that we now have recordeda much better insight into Newton’s thinking that we might not have had, had Newton been more “social!”
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