From Eros to Gaia by Freeman Dyson, Penguin Books, 1992

I do not remember many books after reading which I felt really lucky to have read them. The above book by Freeman Dyson was certainly one of those books.  I find that From Eros to Gaia is a rare book about the process and personalities of science, written by one of the foremost physicists, who had been very active in the last century, in lucid and accessible language.  There aren’t that many scientists who candidly discuss how science works in practice. In his book, Freeman Dyson has shown us a glimpse.

His essay titled “The importance of being unpredictable” is a great lesson in scientific honesty that is uncanny.  Not giving in to his personal prejudice, Freeman Dyson admits to be wrong, at times, in his views about the future of science. When he met Francis Crick at Fanum House after WWII, Crick pointed out that the most exciting science for next twenty years would be biology.  Then, twenty two year old Dyson was so sure physics would lead for another twenty years.  Crick who left physics for biology ended up sharing Noble Prize for the discovery of structure of DNA.  He also talks about an incident involving Patrick Blackett who won a Noble Prize for his work in particle physics. After the WWII he gave a talk in London. Freeman Dyson attended the talk to listen to exciting things about particle physics. Instead, Blackett talked about measuring magnetization in the mud on the ocean bottom.  Dyson was very disappointed.  After seventeen years from then, Blackett’s work helped to prove Wagner’s theory of continental drift and start the new science of plate tectonics.  The fact that a brilliant scientist like Freeman Dyson who reconciled the opinions of Richard Feynman, Julian Schwinger and Sin Itiro Tomonaga on quantum electrodynamics, can make wrong judgement calls makes us think about science as a human affair.

He also talks about big blunders, committed by scientists, like the “White Oliphant” accelerator built in Birmingham. The point is that unless scientists are equally conscious about their successes and failures, science would become a falsely prejudicial enterprise. He elegantly touches on the simple science done using brilliant ideas.  One example for simple science is, despite controversy surrounding his Nobel Prize, about the radio telescope built in a Cambridge field by Anthony Hewish.  The lesson we can learn from the book is that the importance of a discovery or a theory should lie in its brilliance, not in the way it was discovered or proposed as long as scientific reasoning is sound.

In his book “Trouble with Physics”, Lee Smolin talks about the fall-from-grace of String Theory in a very matter-of-fact style.  But Freeman Dyson’s honest admissions about his own wrong judgements go even further to humanize scientists. There aren’t many scientists candidly talking about their own failures. Discussing people like Sophus Lie and Hermann Grassmann, he points out that the science is not all about fashionable personalities or ideas:”.. unfashionable people and unfashionable ideas have often been of decisive importance to the progress of science (p168)”. He also looks at the prejudices the modern education carries with it.  He openly questions the unequivocal value of PhD to do science; he reckons that this rigid practice prevents ordinary, bright Americans choosing science as a career path. He admits failure of his forty year effort to change this attitude of American academia.  Who can be certain that, even without a scheme to lessen the importance of it, given the massive number of degrees being offered every year, the symbolic status of PhD will not naturally go through what G. H. Hardy[1] intended to do by trivializing tripos at Cambridge?   In modern world, let alone the chance of a Freeman Dyson who joined Institute of Advanced Studies with just a Bachelor’s degree, the chance of a Michael Faraday is no greater than zero.

In my opinion, the importance of Freeman Dysons’ book is its attempt to give science a human face; he shows it is not a robotic machine running with clock-work precision; after all it is only another human endeavour.  One recent example to strengthen his case comes from the repetition of the classic sexual selection study conducted by Angus Bateman in early last century. The authors of this new repetition say:

“Here we show that Bateman’s methodology violated an assumption crucial to the reliability of

his inferences: the methodology obscured some observations so that some matings that occurred were not counted, thus overestimating the number of subjects with no mates to an unknown

degree and underestimating the number of subjects with one or more mates, also to an unknown degree. (Gowaty,   Pactricia Adair et al, at www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1207851109)

 

True to the spirit of the above example, Freeman Dyson rather acknowledges science as a self-correcting process[2] and implicitly accepts its contingencies. “When the great innovation appears, it will almost certainly be in a muddled, incomplete, and confusing form. To the discoverer himself it will only half-understood. To everybody else it will be a mystery. For any speculation that does not at first glance look crazy, there is no hope (p106)”.

He  is bold enough not to simply tow the line of mainstream science to be treated as a ‘true believer’; unlike many true-blue scientists, he sees the value of Gaia hypothesis and its relevance to our survival as a species. Every individual, existing on the time scale of years is connected with the “whole web of life on our planet” on the time scale of eons.  To secure the long term survival of the web of life on our planet, we must pay our homage to Gaia, the concept. Science, Religion and everything else in the universe we see through the coloured glass of being human.  Before we fight and self-destruct, it is paramount for us to see all that exists in the planet as components of a greater web. From Eros to Gaia is a book which subtly lifts us towards that higher goal.

 



[1] Prof. Hardy himself was a great human being with a large heart who was magnanimous enough to read the letters he received from an insignificant Indian clerk who had no recognized qualification in mathematics. If not for Prof. Hardy, the genius of Srinivas Ramanujan might have been lost to the world forever.

[2] For an example, he says on the mystery of missing carbon – the destiny of half the carbon we are burning;

” Either the oceanographers are wrong or the botanists are wrong. Perhaps both are wrong. What we need in order to solve the mystery is more observations (p134).

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The website aims to show the possible origin of religion through a ‘uniquely’ human process which has links to the seclusion of girls at puberty. It also advocates the view that the Paleolithic Venus figurines are related to these puberty rites and hence, the prehistoric Venus figurines may carry a much larger meaning. Thus, Religion is something more than a throwback from our animal past.

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