Could Science Make the 21st Century Worse Than the 20th?

From WWI chemical warfare to nuclear weapons, Freeman Dyson thinks misguided science was “quite rightly” blamed for many 20th-century atrocities. What dangers could it pose for the future?
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: How did the physics community react after the dropping of the atomic bomb?

Freeman Dyson:  Of course they talked about it incessantly.  That was the main subject of conversation for many years and so people had very strong feelings about it on both sides and people who thought it was the greatest thing they'd ever done and people who thought it was just an unpleasant job and people who thought they should have never done it at all, so there were opinions of all kinds.

Question: How does the public, including public ignorance of science, affect scientists?

Freeman Dyson:  Well it’s very hard to tell.  I mean I grew up in England at a time when England was winning Nobel Prizes right and left.  I mean it was amazing how many Nobel Prizes England was winning in chemistry and physics and biology and all the sciences and at that time the teaching of science in the schools was really lousy.  I mean I experienced that myself.  We learned almost nothing in school.  Science was very unpopular.  It was…  I mean science was blamed for all the horrors of World War I, just as it’s blamed today for nuclear weapons and quite rightly.  I mean World War I was a horrible war and it was mostly the fault of science, so that was in a way a very bad time for science, but on the other hand we were winning all these Nobel Prizes.  Well since then of course the teaching of science in schools in England has improved tremendously and the number of Nobel Prizes has gone down and I think that that might even be connected.  I don’t know, but I think it’s quite possible that the more science you teach kids in school the more it turns them off, so I don’t know.   I mean you never can tell which way it will go.

Question: Are there any current technologies or areas of scientific inquiry that could have similarly terrible consequences?

Freeman Dyson:  Indeed there are.  Of course I mean it’s strange in a way that we had already we were scared of biological warfare in the ‘30s.  I mean there was Aldous Huxley, wrote his novel Brave New World and started out with anthrax bombs, so we knew all about anthrax already in the ‘30s and in fact, we expected that.  I mean when World War I… when World War II came along, which was when I was a teenager, we all expected we would have anthrax bombs and this kind of stuff.  We thought it would be a biological war.  Fortunately it wasn’t and, but it’s because the danger is still there and by some miracle we escaped all that, so you never can tell what it going to happen, but biology certainly could be even worse than physics and chemistry.

Question: What specific biotechnologies could pose a danger?

Freeman Dyson:  Well germ warfare of course exists.  There have been on a small scale… There have been, of course, a few people who got killed with anthrax right here in Princeton. 

Question: Will humanity destroy itself, or will wisdom prevail?

Freeman Dyson:  Well it’s always a mixture.  We don’t know what’s…  Some things go better than you expected, other things go worse, so I’m…  I think the only sensible thing is just to wait and see and what I’m doing when I’m writing books - I’m not doing science so much anymore.  Mostly I’m just writing books for the public, and so I try to describe for the public what the choices are, what they might have to expect in the future and so by warning people ahead of time maybe you have an effect.  I think the fact that Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World and talked about anthrax bombs probably helped because at least we… people had the understanding before the war began that’s something we didn’t want to get into, so I think it’s much better to have your eyes open, but on the other hand, of course it can do harm if you tell people look, there's all these terrible things you can do and then some idiot may go ahead and do it.

Recorded March 5th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen