Monday, December 24, 2007

Little book, big ideas

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, life

Freeman Dyson tops my list of original, broad-based thinkers. Among SciFi addicts, he is probably best known for "Dyson Spheres," the concept that an advanced species will gradually surround their home star with either a solid shell or a tightly-woven maze of orbital habitats, so as to capture all of its radiation for their use. He speculated that warm Infrared stars, radiating most strongly at a wavelength of 10-12 micrometers, corresponding to a "visible surface temperature"of 280-300 K, or about 10-30 ÂșC, which is the comfortable living range for "life like us."

He is a classic polymath: though his main expertise is mathematical physics, he displays mastery of the sciences generally, and in any field, his "guesses" are likely to be correct. In his new book A Many-Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe, partly composed from his Page-Babour Lectures of 2004, he speaks of life in many aspects, from the technological to the theological.

Known for keeping his own counsel and thinking much farther "outside the box" than others, he speculates on a near-future biotechnology when gene sequencing is cheap, and genetic engineering kits can be bought at the toy store, for kids who might want to create a purple-eyed kitten or a winged snakelet...or people of any age who wish to edit themselves. I like his characterization of scientist as hedgehogs and foxes. The foxes find all the new stuff, while a hedgehog learns everything about some new thing and makes it into practical products.

Dyson also explores Carl Woese's idea that before there were Bacteria and Archaea, there was a mega-species of cellular life that shared genetic material like we share e-mails, promiscuously, and with abandon. He thinks the segregation of DNA into cells that "kept it to themselves" has slowed down evolution. The toy store genetic kits might just return Earth to a rapid-paced evolutionary future.

In his third chapter he develops one of my favorite themes: the value of heretics (I tend to use the word fanatics, but the concept matches). Motivational speakers such as the Coveys say things like this: Innovation requires doing something others aren't doing. Therefore orthodoxy guarantees stagnation, and only the heterodox make any progress. Consider that 90% of what we now "know" was unknown twenty years ago, and that half of what was "known" then is now known to be wrong, while most of the rest has been subsumed into better theories.

In his heretic's garb, he points out that "global warming" is not exactly global, nor exactly warming. Extra greenhouse gases mean extra energy in the system, so some areas get warmer, other areas get cooler, and overall, climatic extremes get a little more extreme. He points out that if a much larger fraction of farmers used conservation tillage, the extra carbon stored in soil would begin to reduce carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

In his last chapter he discusses theology and neurology. He demonstrates that people with significant "handicaps" such as autism or congenital deafness think differently than others, so much so that he calls them "alien minds in our midst." Their concepts of spirituality, for those who can express one, is quite different from any major religion. I've long said that people are worth more than doctrines. Augustine said, "If you understand, it isn't God." Dyson seems to be on to something.

This just skates the surface. I may return to some of his themes, when I am not against a deadline. I just have to get a few lines penned and take off on a a matter of minutes!

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