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Climate change iconoclast

March 31, 2009

Nicholas Dawidoff, in the Sunday New York Times, has a report about Freeman Dyson, an eminent physicist–and not, as I briefly thought, the guy who invented that technologically advanced vacuum cleaner that never gets clogged– who bucks the growing consensus on climate change. The theme of the piece: Freeman Dyson is smarter than you, and smarter than almost everyone, and he isn’t convinced that global warming is really a very big problem, so maybe it isn’t.

Dyson is a scientist whose intelligence is revered by other scientists — William Press, former deputy director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and now a professor of computer science at the University of Texas, calls him “infinitely smart.” Dyson — a mathematics prodigy who came to this country at 23 and right away contributed seminal work to physics by unifying quantum and electrodynamic theory — not only did path-breaking science of his own; he also witnessed the development of modern physics, thinking alongside most of the luminous figures of the age, including Einstein, Richard Feynman, Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Witten, the “high priest of string theory” whose office at the institute is just across the hall from Dyson’s. Yet instead of hewing to that fundamental field, Dyson chose to pursue broader and more unusual pursuits than most physicists — and has lived a more original life.

The article is worth a read, just as much for exploring the idea of intellectual orthodoxy–if you are informed and intelligent, you can’t possibly disagree with “x”– as for Dyson’s interesting and challenging take on the current environmental challenges facing the world.

One Comment leave one →
  1. john permalink
    April 1, 2009 9:11 am

    An excellent piece. But i am always concerned with the notion that the ability to do math calculator-quick in your head is somehow a sign of true genius. Dyson’s genius is not in his ability to perform math calculations quickly like Raymond Babbit, but in his ability to apply that talent in creative ways. It is a simple distinction, but one that i don’t think is made clear often enough.

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