from the world's big
Big Think Interview With Freeman Dyson
Freeman Dyson: \r\nSo my first name is Freeman and my last name Dyson and my title, Mister.\r\nI’m a physicist, but also a writer.\r\n\r\n
Question: How did you first become interested in science?\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nYeah, it’s hard to tell of course, but I’ve been interested in science\r\ncertainly from a child. I was\r\nmostly interested in numbers. I\r\nwas calculating things at a very young age. I just fell in love with numbers and then it spread from\r\nthere to the rest of nature and I became… \r\nI remember the total eclipse of the sun, which happened when I was\r\nthree, and I was furious with my father because he wouldn’t take us to see\r\nit. It would have meant about a\r\nwhole day’s driving and anyways, so he said no, you can’t see the partial\r\neclipse and that’s it, and I thought that was terribly unfair.\r\n\r\n
\r\n\r\n Question: What was your science education like?
Question: What was your science education like?
Freeman Dyson: \r\nSo, well I never learned much science in school. That was I think an advantage in the\r\nold days. I grew up in England and\r\nwe spent most of the time on Latin and Greek and very little on science, and I\r\nthink that was good because it meant we didn’t get turned off. It was… Science was something we did\r\nfor fun and not because we had to.\r\n\r\n
Question: What was your experience of World War II like?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nYes, well I was 15 when the war started, so for a long time I just stayed\r\nin school, but then so I was lucky. \r\nI had only two years of the war and so I went to work for the Royal Air\r\nForce when I was 19, which was already just two years before it ended, so I\r\nwent to the **** headquarters and that was July ’43, and so I had just two\r\nyears of it, the last two years and I was working as a statistician mostly just\r\ncollecting all the information about the Air Force operations, particularly the\r\nbombing of Germany, so I had a sort of front-row seat view of that. Of course it was a total shambles, the\r\nwhole campaign. It was a great\r\ntragedy for both sides and, well, there was nothing I could do about it.\r\n\r\n
Question: How did the physics community react after the\r\ndropping of the atomic bomb?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nOf course they talked about it incessantly. That was the main subject of conversation for many years and\r\nso people had very strong feelings about it on both sides and people who\r\nthought it was the greatest thing they'd ever done and people who thought it\r\nwas just an unpleasant job and people who thought they should have never done\r\nit at all, so there were opinions of all kinds.\r\n\r\n
Question: How does the public, including public ignorance of\r\nscience, affect scientists?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nWell it’s very hard to tell. \r\nI mean I grew up in England at a time when England was winning Nobel\r\nPrizes right and left. I mean it\r\nwas amazing how many Nobel Prizes England was winning in chemistry and physics\r\nand biology and all the sciences and at that time the teaching of science in\r\nthe schools was really lousy. I\r\nmean I experienced that myself. We\r\nlearned almost nothing in school. \r\nScience was very unpopular. \r\nIt was… I mean science was\r\nblamed for all the horrors of World War I, just as it’s blamed today for\r\nnuclear weapons and quite rightly. I mean World War I was a horrible war and it was mostly the\r\nfault of science, so that was in a way a very bad time for science, but on the\r\nother hand we were winning all these Nobel Prizes. Well since then of course the teaching of science in schools\r\nin England has improved tremendously and the number of Nobel Prizes has gone\r\ndown and I think that that might even be connected. I don’t know, but I think it’s quite possible that the more\r\nscience you teach kids in school the more it turns them off, so I don’t\r\nknow. I mean you never can\r\ntell which way it will go.\r\n\r\n
Question: Are there any current technologies or areas of\r\nscientific inquiry that could have similarly terrible consequences?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nIndeed there are. Of course\r\nI mean it’s strange in a way that we had already we were scared of biological\r\nwarfare in the ‘30s. I mean there\r\nwas Aldous Huxley, wrote his novel Brave New World and started out with anthrax\r\nbombs, so we knew all about anthrax already in the ‘30s and in fact, we\r\nexpected that. I mean when World\r\nWar I… when World War II came along, which was when I was a teenager, we all\r\nexpected we would have anthrax bombs and this kind of stuff. We thought it would be a biological\r\nwar. Fortunately it wasn’t and,\r\nbut it’s because the danger is still there and by some miracle we escaped all\r\nthat, so you never can tell what it going to happen, but biology certainly\r\ncould be even worse than physics and chemistry.\r\n\r\n
Question: What specific biotechnologies could pose a danger?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nWell germ warfare of course exists. There have been on a small scale… There have been, of\r\ncourse, a few people who got killed with anthrax right here in Princeton.\r\n\r\n
Question: Will humanity destroy itself, or will wisdom\r\nprevail?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nWell it’s always a mixture. \r\nWe don’t know what’s… Some\r\nthings go better than you expected, other things go worse, so I’m… I think the only sensible thing is just\r\nto wait and see and what I’m doing when I’m writing books - I’m not doing\r\nscience so much anymore. Mostly\r\nI’m just writing books for the public, and so I try to describe for the public\r\nwhat the choices are, what they might have to expect in the future and so by\r\nwarning people ahead of time maybe you have an effect. I think the fact that Aldous Huxley\r\nwrote Brave New World and talked about anthrax bombs probably helped because at\r\nleast we… people had the understanding before the war began that’s something we\r\ndidn’t want to get into, so I think it’s much better to have your eyes open,\r\nbut 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\r\nit.\r\n\r\n
Question: Have you ever been totally surprised by the\r\noutcome of your own research?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nI was amazed when I did this work, which was the first thing I did in\r\nphysics, which was really what made me famous, this quantum\r\nelectrodynamics. I mean what I was\r\ndoing was calculating what an electron decides to do in a certain situation, in\r\nan experiment and I did a huge calculation which took pages and pages and pages\r\nof paper and in the end I got a number, so that is what the electron has to do,\r\nand well then somebody in New York does the experiment and the electron somehow\r\nknows that. The electron does\r\nexactly what I calculated. To me\r\nthat was amazing. I mean why\r\nshould the electron know? How does\r\nthe electron know? Somehow it\r\ndoes. Anyway, to me that sounds\r\nlike a miracle.\r\n\r\n
Question: What was your role in the development of quantum\r\nelectrodyamics?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nThat’s very hard. I really\r\nneed equations and a blackboard to do that. I mean it’s very technical stuff. I mean essentially I was a mathematician and so my job was\r\njust cleaning up the mathematics. \r\nAll the physics already had been done. That’s to say the ideas were already there and all I had to\r\ndo was just organize calculations, so that’s about all I can say. I can’t tell you the details, but so I\r\nhad a… I had arrived as a young\r\nstudent and all the work had really already been done to understand atoms and\r\nlight and radio waves, and all the components were in a way understood, but\r\nnobody understood how to organize the calculations, so that was my job.\r\n\r\n
Question: What is the field basically attempting to study?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nYes, well I can tell you roughly what happened. I mean that the atoms by and large were\r\nunderstood in the 1920s when quantum mechanics was invented and quantum\r\nmechanics is the part of science which tells how atoms actually behave, and so\r\nthat was all more or less worked out in the 1920s, but there were some fine\r\ndetails left over, and particularly there was an experiment which was done in\r\nAmerica at Columbia University in the 1946, just after the war, which disagreed\r\nwith quantum mechanics and so it was clear we had a real discrepancy. Theory said one thing and the\r\nexperiment said something different, so that was the stimulus that started me\r\ngoing, that there was something there to be explained, which wasn’t understood\r\nand to try to see why that experiment gave the answer it did, so it was a big\r\nopportunity for a young student starting to have actually an experiment which\r\ncontradicted the theory, so that’s was my chance to understand that, and I\r\nfound out that if you did the calculation in a different way that you got the right\r\nanswer.\r\n\r\n
Question: What was Project Orion?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: This was in the year 1957 when the Russians\r\nsent up the first satellite, which they called Sputnik, which means\r\ncompanion. It was a companion for\r\nthe earth. So this Sputnik was up\r\nthere in space and it was making everybody nervous because if the Russians\r\ncould send satellites into space they could also throw missiles at us and we at\r\nthat time didn’t have any missiles which we could throw at them. So it was a scary moment and so it was\r\na moment when you could get money very easily for crazy projects and so my\r\nfriend, Ted Taylor, who was a young physicist, actually younger than me, he had\r\nthis idea of building a spaceship with nuclear bombs, which sounds crazy and in\r\na certain way it is crazy, but it could have actually… it could have worked and\r\nso I thought that would be exciting to do. I had never done anything like that. I had been always just a mathematician\r\nand working on paper, but so that gave me a chance to do something real, so I\r\nmoved to San Diego in California and joined a company called General Atomic,\r\nwhich is still there and went to work on this spaceship and it looked as though\r\nwe might even get the green light actually to go ahead and build it, but in the\r\nend of course we didn’t. The fatal\r\nflaw of that whole scheme is that it spreads radioactivity all around. You’re exploding bombs in big numbers,\r\nso you really do make a tremendous mess, and so in the end common sense\r\nprevailed and they decided to go ahead with ordinary rockets and not with\r\nnuclear bombs, but we had a great time. \r\nWe studied the theory of this and the engineering. We had a lot of good engineers and we\r\nactually did little tests of chemical explosives building little model\r\nspacecraft, which would go pop, pop, pop, pop, just up in the sky and come down\r\nagain and just to show that we knew how to do it, so we had every Saturday\r\nmorning we didn’t get paid for that, but every Saturday morning we’d go and fly\r\nour little models. The rest of the\r\nweek we’d do the serious stuff. So\r\nI spent a year and a half there and the project actually lasted for seven\r\nyears, but by the end of the first year it was pretty clear that it wasn’t\r\ngoing to fly.\r\n\r\n
Question: What were the theoretical possibilities of the\r\nOrion mission?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nIf it had been given the green light we could have gone to Mars in about\r\nfive years. I mean the thing\r\nstarted in ’58 and we planned to have a Mars mission already within five years\r\nand we’d be scooting all around the solar system. I mean it was a very, very high performance ship, far better\r\nthan anything we have today, and it would have easily gone to Mars and back and\r\nto Jupiter, the satellites of Saturn and all the interesting places in the\r\nsolar system. We could have gone\r\nscooting around, and of course we intended to go ourselves. This was a big ship and it was with a\r\ncrew. We imagined we would have a\r\ncrew of about 40 people, so it was on the grand scale, and it would have been\r\ncomparatively cheap because it was built like a submarine, not like an\r\nairplane. It was heavy engineering\r\nand so a lot cheaper than aerospace.\r\n\r\n
Question: Will we ever be able to accomplish those feats\r\nthrough some alternative technology?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nWell the joke is of course that we do such marvelous missions now with\r\nsmall payloads. I mean when we\r\nworked on Orion we were talking about 1,000 tons of payload just for one ship,\r\nand so we thought of ourselves as sort of like the Darwin on the Beagle going\r\nout for five years and with all our provisions and having to take along a\r\nsquash court so that you could stay fit, and we could take along almost\r\nanything you wanted, and of course nowadays the whole way of operating in space\r\nis so totally different. Now you\r\nmeasure the payload in pounds, not in tons, and so we have a ship which is now\r\norbiting around Saturn called Cassini, which of course doesn’t have people on\r\nboard. It has wonderful\r\ninstruments on board and the total payload of that thing is a few thousand\r\npounds and it’s doing far more exploring than we could have done. So if we had a thousand tons of payload\r\ntoday we wouldn’t know what to do with it.\r\n\r\n
Question: Will humankind ever reach the stars?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nYes, I think so, but of course my guess is no better than anybody\r\nelse’s, but technically it could be done. \r\nOf course it’s much too expensive just for the next hundred years or\r\nmaybe the next thousand years, but we have lots and lots of time, so I would\r\nimagine that we will be scooting around on a much grander scale, but it\r\ncould… On the other hand, we could\r\ndecide we’re not interested, so let’s not do it and that remains to be seen.\r\n\r\n
Question: How do you rate the chances of our discovering\r\nlife on other planets?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nWell, of course, well, nobody knows. That’s why it’s interesting. I mean that it’s completely unknown whether these creatures\r\nexist or what they look or where they are, so we’re free to search in all sorts\r\nof ways and what is delightful about it is that our… It is very cheap. \r\nActually the amounts of money that have to be spent are quite small and\r\nthey don’t increase with time because our processing of data is all the time\r\ngetting cheaper and cheaper. It’s\r\nessentially a matter of computers which are getting more powerful every year,\r\nbut are not increasing in cost, so it means that we’re getting better and\r\nbetter at it, but with more or less constant expenditure and so it makes a lot\r\nof sense just to go on. There is\r\nalways a chance next year we find something and we don’t have… It’s not… The public is not, is misled into thinking this is a grand\r\nand expensive project. Actually\r\nit’s not.\r\n\r\n
Question: How do physicists understand time in ways that\r\nlaypeople don’t?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nI don’t think there is any difference. I mean the time that physicists deal with is essentially the\r\nsame as ordinary time, except that physicists think of microseconds or\r\npicoseconds instead of just seconds. \r\nThat means millionths of a second or trillionths of a second, so they\r\ncan… physicists can think of very short intervals of time, but that doesn’t\r\nreally make much difference to ordinary life. I think much… I\r\nmean much more big changes in our thinking are coming along with biology rather\r\nthan with physics. When biology\r\nadvances then we think differently about ourselves and that really does make a\r\ndifference. For example, at the\r\nmoment the most rapid movement in biology is neurology. We’re learning how to study our brains\r\nand to take moving pictures of brains with magnetic fields, so you can actually\r\nsee things going on in our own head when we’re thinking and that’s going to\r\nchange the way we think about ourselves I think in a much more fundamental way.\r\n\r\n
Question: Could quantum mechanics lend a scientific basis to\r\nthe idea of free will?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nWell I can’t say I’ll talk about it in depth, but it’s true that quantum\r\nmechanics makes atoms unpredictable. \r\nI mean that was the big surprise, that when you understand atoms it\r\nturns out you absolutely cannot predict what they’re going to do. The laws are… just don’t allow exact\r\npredictions. It… there is a\r\ncertain kind of freedom that atoms have to jump around, and they seem to choose\r\nentirely on their own without any input from the outside, so in a certain sense\r\natoms have free will, so that’s, to my mind at least, it’s probably connected\r\nwith the fact that we have free will. \r\nWe have at least a strong feeling when we decide to move a hand up and\r\ndown that we’re free to do it or not and so it could be that we are actually\r\nusing the freedom that quantum mechanics allows, though the brain is a kind of\r\nan amplifier, which takes the freedom of movement of atoms and translates it\r\ninto freedom of movement of our whole body. That’s at least my feeling about it, and we don’t understand\r\nit in detail, but it looks as though there is a connection.\r\n\r\n
Question: What would give the human mind this capacity?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nWell the human mind is just a sort of a clever device for using this\r\nfreedom in order to achieve some kind of a purpose, and of course animals in\r\ngeneral do that and humans have reached the point of being aware of what\r\nthey’re doing.\r\n\r\n
Question: Do you have any personal recollections of\r\nEinstein?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: I mean I was here in Princeton when Einstein\r\nwas still alive, but I never spoke a word to him and in fact, he moved in his\r\nown circle of friends. He didn’t\r\nhave anything much to do with the young people here at the institute, so we\r\nnever actually contacted… He never\r\ncame to our talks or to our meetings, which was a shame, but that’s the truth.\r\n\r\n
Question: What misconceptions do people have about Einstein?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nWell I suppose what most of what people believe about him is true, I\r\nwould say. I mean he was a totally\r\nexceptional person in all sorts of ways. \r\nHis science was exceptional. \r\nHis humor was exceptional, his ability to say… just to answer questions\r\nin a witty way so that he got in headlines in the newspapers. He had just this wonderful gift of\r\ntalking to the public, and in addition of course he had a turbulent family life\r\nand he was a, in many ways a selfish and unpleasant character, but on the other\r\nhand he was wonderful with children and so on. I mean there were all sorts of… He had wonderful qualities and those things I think the\r\npublic rightly appreciated.\r\n\r\n
Question: Of the scientists you worked with, who inspired or\r\nmentored you?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nWell of course the one I wrote about most, the one I enjoyed most, was\r\nRichard Feynman. He was… When I knew him best he was quite\r\nyoung, so he and I were about five years apart, so he was a young professor and\r\nI was a student, and he took me for a ride across the country from here to\r\nAlbuquerque in a rickety old car and we had a great time. So I mean he was a wonderful person to\r\nbe around. In addition he was a\r\ngenius and so he was doing the physics that actually made me famous. He had the ideas and then I translated\r\nthem into mathematics, so we worked together in that sense, so he had\r\nalways… He did the real work and I\r\ntied it up afterwards, but anyway, it was a great thing to be with him and I\r\nenjoyed him enormously, and in addition because he was a great joker, he was a\r\nclown. He loved to play the fool\r\nand he was famous for picking locks. \r\nHe could open a safe and he did that quite a lot just in order to shock\r\npeople, and he told stories about himself, most of which were true.\r\n\r\n
Question: In the 25 years since your book “Weapons and\r\nHope,” what’s changed?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nWell of course almost everything has changed. That book was written at an unfortunate time. It was just about two years before the\r\ncollapse of the Soviet Union, so the world changed totally, and I never ever\r\nthought that would happen. In\r\nfact, very few people I know ever did imagine the Soviet Union could just\r\npeacefully disappear the way it did ,and of course so the way the world has\r\nchanged since then is, of course, that all the troubles are now on a small\r\nscale comparatively, but they’re totally different and so you have wars like\r\nthe war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan where small weapons of course are\r\ndoing all the harm. These are\r\nlethal weapons, particularly landmines and explosive devices in the ground and\r\nthe little handheld rockets and the machine guns and so it’s all smaller\r\narms. It’s nobody is using nuclear\r\nweapons and so the whole problem of war and peace has changed totally and we’re\r\nnot able to cope with it very well and unfortunately the sort of old way of\r\nthinking still prevails in large parts of the world. We haven’t adjusted to the changes. So it was an unfortunate time to write\r\nthat book and if I wrote it now it would be very different. It’s I mean everything the book says\r\nabout nuclear weapons I think is still true, but of course what it doesn’t do\r\nis to talk about all these small and much more important weapons that we have now\r\nand it’s amusing that the company I worked for when I worked on the Orion 50\r\nyears ago when I worked on the spaceship, the company is called General Atomic,\r\nand now they’re doing extremely well because what they’ve changed over now is\r\nto building Predators. The\r\nPredator is the unmanned airplane that is now being used all the time in Iraq\r\nand Afghanistan and in Pakistan partly just for spying on… for taking pictures\r\nof what is going on, on the ground, but in addition it’s also being used for\r\nkilling people on the ground, so it’s become now a very important part of the\r\nwar, and we never imagined that when we worked there.\r\n\r\n
Question: Can Obama honor his commitment to reduce nuclear\r\nstockpiles worldwide?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nWell he should be doing much more. \r\nI mean this is… I like\r\nObama and I like what he is doing, but this is not at all impressive. George Bush, Sr., did far more. I mean George Bush, Sr., got rid more\r\nthan half of our nuclear weapons just like that. He was the one who really got rid of nuclear weapons on a\r\nbig scale, but George Bush, Sr., was careful because he was a Republican. He did it very quietly. He didn’t want to have his name\r\nassociated with that, but he got it done. \r\nOf course with Obama it’s sort of the opposite that he would like to get\r\nthe credit for it, but he is not really doing it, and so it’s, I think he\r\nshould be doing far more and I hope he will, but he is in a much more difficult\r\nposition. It helps to be a\r\nright-wing Republican if you want to disarm.\r\n\r\n
Question: How do you currently rate the likelihood of\r\nclimate catastrophe?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nWell that’s a big subject, of course, and I mean I don’t like the word\r\ncatastrophe. I don’t think there\r\nis any catastrophe there, but certainly the climate is changing and that’s\r\nimportant. It’s always been\r\nchanging. There has never been a\r\ntime when the climate stayed put for any length of time, and so I would say all\r\nthe evidence we have is that we’re having some effect on the climate. It’s not clear whether it’s good or\r\nbad. It’s not clear whether it’s\r\ngoing to become a catastrophe or not and as far as I’m concerned it’s very\r\nfoolish to do anything spectacular to… \r\nWhat we should be doing is dealing with the problems in detail. I mean the first thing is we should\r\nbuild dikes around New Orleans, and I mean there are simple practical things we\r\ncan do which really would help, like building dikes around cities which are\r\nexposed to hurricanes or tsunamis and so these kind of practical measures could\r\nbe enormously helpful. I mean we’ve\r\nseen just in the last few months, we’ve seen two big earthquakes, one in Haiti\r\nand one in Chile, and what we’ve seen is that the earthquake in Chile was much\r\nlarger, but the damage actually was smaller, the reason being that Chileans had\r\ntaken more trouble to build buildings that would resist earthquakes and so you\r\ncan… it actually helps enormously to strengthen your buildings. Of course I mean Chile has the\r\nadvantage of being a richer country to start with, but it’s a dramatic proof of\r\nwhat you can do. You can actually\r\ntake a natural catastrophe and reduce the damage by a factor of 100 or so just\r\nby quite simple measures; just by having good building codes and the same is\r\ntrue of climate. There are all\r\nsorts of things we can do in a practical way. It’s not -- we don’t only have to worry about warming. We also have to worry about cooling,\r\nand it could very well be the climate gets colder. Nobody knows, and there are many things we should be doing\r\nto prepare for that and they’re not all that expensive, but what I think is\r\nabsurd, what I disagree with very strongly, is the idea that climate is\r\npredictable, that we can sort of do things 100 years in advance knowing what is\r\ngoing to happen. That is just\r\nnot… That is just not the way it\r\nis.\r\n\r\n
Question: What has been your reaction to the controversy over\r\nyour opinions on global warming?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nIt doesn’t disturb me at all. \r\nI always believe in talking to my opponents and staying friends. I mean you know it’s with the people I\r\ndisagree with the most strongly I’m actually quite friendly with and there is\r\nno… It doesn’t make… It doesn’t\r\ndisturb me if they disagree with me.\r\n\r\n
Question: Is a moderate position on climate change now\r\nconsidered radical?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nWell, I don’t know. It\r\nchanges from week to week. What\r\nI’ve noticed is there has been a strong increase in skepticism and just in the\r\nlast couple of weeks, and I suppose it has something to do with all these\r\nsnowstorms we’ve been having. I\r\ndon’t know, but certainly I’ve seen the politicians becoming much more\r\nskeptical just recently. That of\r\ncourse I welcome. I think that\r\nactually means they’re recognizing the way things are.\r\n\r\n
Question: If climate change does cause problems, how might\r\nwe realistically be able to engineer solutions?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nWell there are all sorts of ways. \r\nThere was a couple of farmers in Minnesota I was just reading about who\r\ndecided to change from feedlots to grass. \r\nThey are raising beef. \r\nThese are farmers who are just raising cows for beef and a certain\r\namount of milk as well, and they decided to switch from feedlots, which is of\r\ncourse the fashionable way of raising cows. You keep them on a very crowded feedlot and feed them on\r\ncorn, so you’re growing corn to feed to the animals. Instead of that you put them out to grass, but you manage\r\nthe grass in a clever way with moving fences around, so they actually eat the\r\ngrass much more evenly. It turns\r\nout this pays and it’s, they’re doing extremely well just going back from\r\nfeedlots to grass and it has a big effect on the carbon dioxide in the\r\natmosphere in proportion to the area that they’re using, so it means that if\r\nthe whole of the Middle West would do this it would make a very substantial\r\ndifference to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and so that kind of… that’s the sort of practical thing you\r\ncan do, just sort of managing the land more intelligently, and it’s rather like\r\nbuilding dikes around New Orleans. \r\nI mean it’s not all that spectacular, but it actually works. So changing from feedlots to grass I\r\nthink it’s sort of… It’s not… It\r\ndoesn’t solve the whole problem, but it solves a certain chunk of the problem\r\nand there are other things you can do. \r\nDoing less ploughing makes a huge difference. Ploughing is one of the main causes of carbon going into the\r\natmosphere because you expose the soil to the atmosphere. It means the carbon gets oxidized and\r\nbecomes carbon dioxide and floats off into the atmosphere, so if you can farm\r\nwithout ploughing it actually helps, and it doesn’t matter how much coal and\r\noil you’re burning. It still\r\nhelps.\r\n\r\n
Question: Are you upset at never having won a Nobel Prize?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nWell I remember Joyce… Jocelyn Bell, the lady who discovered pulsars\r\nnever got the Nobel Prize and she was here talking to the students just a\r\ncouple of years ago. She is now a\r\nvery distinguished scientist and she discovered pulsars about 40 years ago and\r\nanyway, students were asking her, “Are you sorry you didn’t get the Nobel\r\nPrize?” And she said, “Oh no, I’ve\r\nbeen, all my life I’ve just been famous for not having the Nobel Prize.” And that was actually much better and so\r\nI think she is right. I mean you\r\nknow it’s much… If people ask why\r\ndidn’t you get the prize it’s much better than if they’re asking why did you\r\nget it.\r\n\r\n
Question: Of which honor or achievement are you proudest?\r\n\r\n
Freeman Dyson: \r\nWell, I would say bringing up six kids who are all productive citizens.
Recorded March 5th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen
A conversation with the physicist and writer.
Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think.
Women today are founding more businesses than ever. In 2018, they made up 40% of new entrepreneurs, yet in that same year, they received just 2.2% of all venture capital investment. The playing field is off-balance. So what can women do?
In a recent study, researchers examined how Christian nationalism is affecting the U.S. response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
- A new study used survey data to examine the interplay between Christian nationalism and incautious behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The researchers defined Christian nationalism as "an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture."
- The results showed that Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior.
A pastor at the chapel of the St. Josef Hospital on April 1, 2020 in Bochum, German
Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images<p>Christian nationalists, in general, believe the U.S. and God's will are tied together, and they want the government to embody conservative Christian values and symbols. As such, they also believe the nation's fate depends on how closely it adheres to Christianity.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unsurprisingly then, in the midst of the COVID‐19 pandemic, conservative pastors prophesied God's protection over the nation, citing America's righteous support for President Trump and the prolife agenda," the researchers write.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Correspondingly, the link between Christian nationalism and God's influence on how COVID‐19 impacts America can be seen in proclamations about God's divine judgment for its immorality―with the logic being that God is using the pandemic to draw wayward America <em>back </em>to himself, which assumes the two belong together."</p><p>The logical conclusion to this kind of thinking: America can save itself not through cautionary measures, like mask-wearing, but through devotion to God. What's more, it stands to reason that Christian nationalists are less likely to trust the media and scientists, given that these sources are generally not concerned with promoting a conservative, religious view of the world.</p><p>(The researchers note that they're unaware of any research directly linking Christian nationalism to distrust of media sources, but that they're almost certain the two are connected.)</p>
Predicted values of Americans' frequency of incautious behaviors during the COVID‐19 pandemic across values of Christian nationalism
Perry et al.<p>In the new study, the researchers examined three waves of results from the Public and Discourse Ethics Survey. One wave of the survey was issued in May, and it asked respondents to rate how often they engaged in both incautious and precautionary behaviors.</p><p>Incautious behaviors included things like "ate inside a restaurant" and "went shopping for nonessential items," while precautionary behaviors included "washed my hands more often than typical" and "wore a mask in public."</p><p>To measure Christian nationalism, the researchers asked respondents to rate how strongly they agree with statements like "the federal government should advocate Christian values" and "the success of the United States is part of God's plan."</p><p>The results suggest that, compared to other groups, Christian nationalists are far less likely to wear masks, socially distance and take other precautionary measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Christian nationalism was the leading predictor that Americans engaged in incautious behavior during the pandemic, and the second leading predictor that Americans avoided taking precautionary measures."</p><p>But that's not to say that religious beliefs are causing Americans to reject mask-wearing or social distancing. In fact, when the study accounted for Christian nationalist beliefs, the results showed that Americans with high levels of religiosity were likely to take precautionary measures for COVID-19.</p>
Limitations<p>Still, the researchers note that they're theorizing about the connections between Christian nationalism and COVID-19 behaviors, not documenting them directly. What's more, they suggest that certain experiences — such as having a family member that contracts COVID-19 — might change a Christian nationalist's behaviors during the pandemic.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Limitations notwithstanding, the implications of this study are important for understanding Americans' curious inability to quickly implement informed and reasonable strategies to overcome the threat of COVID‐19, an inability that has likely cost thousands of lives," they write.</p>
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNTM5My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MTg5NjY5MX0.tvGeUHIw5IB-El9o7ePqt-aLGTV3I_3SMk_B6neP680/img.jpg?width=980" id="7626c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="7813ba6f9544a3d25025e682c8b723ba" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="\u200bHeinrich Berann's panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park" />
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain<p>Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.</p><p>As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (<em>see further below</em>). </p><p>However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent. <span></span></p>
Ash beds of North America<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNTM5MS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTAyNzczM30.klQwU7AQK8v2kcqlWQ_97CWDOYk72nDgT8kXO74aMWY/img.png?width=980" id="ce210" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f73d1cafa92b140b17915c89f097f45f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America." />
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain<p>This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.</p><p><strong>Huckleberry Ridge</strong></p><p>The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years. </p><p>This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas. </p><p><strong>Mesa Falls</strong></p><p>About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone. </p><p>It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota. </p><p><strong>Lava Creek</strong></p><p>The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera. </p><p>It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.</p><p><strong>Long Valley</strong></p><p>This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years. </p><p>The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed. </p><p><strong>Mount St Helens</strong></p><p><strong></strong>The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.</p><p>Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.<br></p>
The difference between quakes and faults<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNTM5MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyODkzMDgxOX0.SbOloPk6Ert6Gr3oO2MjDvFpNpL5UY1lVAqczFyQ6uQ/img.jpg?width=980" id="d410d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="77d3ca41241b28a2dd1d9acf708015ae" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Comparison chart of eruption volumes" />
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain<p>So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least. </p><p><span></span>Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.</p><p><span></span>What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago. </p><p>As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is <a href="https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/yellowstone-overdue-eruption-when-will-yellowstone-erupt?qt-news_science_products=0#qt-news_science_products" target="_blank">only 5 percent to 15 percent molten</a>. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.</p>
Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.
- Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
- A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
- With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.
Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.
Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.
But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.
A mixed response to technology
Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.
This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!
According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.
To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.
But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).
Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.
Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.
For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."
Screens, parents, and pandemics
Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.
But are these concerns overblown?
As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.
Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.
"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."
This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.