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Impearls: The World, The Flesh, and the Devil

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Earthdate 2002-11-12

The World, The Flesh, and the Devil   by Freeman J. Dyson

Freeman J. Dyson
Institute for Advanced Study
Princeton, New Jersey

 

Introduction  by Michael McNeil
I.  Bernal's Book
II.  The Double Helix
III.  Biological Engineering
IV.  Big Trees
V.  Self-Reproducing Machinery
VI.  Devils and Pilgrims
 

Introduction   by Michael McNeil

Glenn Reynolds, the Instapundit, recently published in his web log several plugs for nanotechnology (not to speak of entire articles appearing elsewhere), such as this entitled “WHY WE NEED NANOTECHNOLOGY.”  In his piece, Reynolds quotes a recent article from The Independent, “Only technology revolution can save the Earth.”

Diplomacy has failed — meaning that only a revolutionary advanced technology will save the Earth from relentless global warming driven by greenhouse gas emissions, scientists warned yesterday.

Avoiding a catastrophic effect on climate from the burning of fossil fuels would require political will, international cooperation and huge resources, said the team from a group of American universities.  But “no amount of regulation” could solve the problem, they said.

I agree with Glenn Reynolds as to the great potential of nanotechnology, but I'd point out that there are several forthcoming technologies other specifically than nanotechnology which can greatly assist in ameliorating the (literally) vast problems, to which the quoted article alludes, facing us on this planet.

The best exposition of these new technologies of which I'm aware is a too-long-neglected essay by physicist-visionary Freeman Dyson, since 1953 of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, originator of such concepts as the “Dyson sphere,” and the author of moving books such as Disturbing the Universe (1979), Weapons and Hope (1984), and Infinite in All Directions (1988).

Thirty years ago this year, on May 16, 1972, Freeman Dyson presented the Third J. D. Bernal Lecture, at Birkbeck College, London.  The talk was printed for private circulation in 1972 by Birkbeck College, and reprinted the following year as Appendix D of Communication with Extraterrestrial Intelligence (CETI), edited by Carl Sagan and published by MIT Press.  Now three decades on the author has kindly allowed me to republish his essay here, slightly corrected from preceding versions.

Dyson's essay The World, The Flesh, and the Devil is a retro- and prospective look at the great physicist (and developer of X-ray crystallography) J. D. Bernal's first book, of similar name, composed in 1929.  In his talk dedicated to Bernal, Dyson said he decided the best way he can “do honor to Bernal … is to use his book as a point of departure for my own speculations about the future of mankind,” which Dyson certainly accomplishes in this essay.

How well do Dyson's (and Bernal's) predictions hold up over a span of 30 more years?  My view, just as Dyson said in his turn of Bernal, speaking then 43 years after Bernal had set down his book, is that the bright promise of the technologies championed is just as beckoning, and as yet as unrealized, as almost in Bernal's day.  (Of course, nanotechnology is another unrealized dream as yet, except for tentative beginnings.)

Someday, however, the technologies Dyson so eloquently lays out will be achieved.  They certainly appear possible, and I believe they are very likely both attainable and feasible, every one of them.  Look at the advances in biotechnology and computer systems over the past 30 years for slight guidance as to what can perhaps be achieved in derivative fields given a few more decades.

The conclusions of another great figure, physiologist and geneticist J. B. S. Haldane (writing in nearly the same period as when J. D. Bernal composed his own slim little book) are still pertinent in this regard, I believe, even today.

We are at present almost completely ignorant of biology, a fact which often escapes the notice of biologists, and renders them too presumptuous in their estimates of the present position of their science, too modest in their claims for the future….  The conservative has but little to fear from the man whose reason is the servant of his passions, but let him beware of him in whom reason has become the greatest and most terrible of the passions.  These are the wreckers of outworn empires and civilizations, doubters, disintegrators, deicides….  I do not say that biologists as a general rule try to imagine in any detail the future applications of their science.  They do not see themselves as sinister or revolutionary figures.  They have no time to dream.  But I suspect that more of them dream than would care to confess it…. 
(J. B. S. Haldane, Daedalus, or Science and the Future, 1924)

Given the travails and wrenching transitions that no doubt lie ahead, the virtues of the pilgrim fathers that Dyson recommends to us in chapter VI. Devils and Pilgrims will stand us in very good stead, in the future as they have in the past.

Without further ado, here's Freeman Dyson's The World, The Flesh, and the Devil (1972).  (Chapters are posted in inverse chronological order so scrolling down reads normally.)
 

UPDATE 2002-11-24 19:34 UT:  Backlinks to linkers.



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