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Freeman Dyson

Freeman J. Dyson is Professor Emeritus of Mathematical Physics and Astrophysics in the School of Natural Sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He has taught as a[…]

A conversation with the physicist and writer.

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Freeman Dyson: rnSo my first name is Freeman and my last name Dyson and my title, Mister.rnI’m a physicist, but also a writer.

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Question: How did you first become interested in science?

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Freeman Dyson: rnYeah, it’s hard to tell of course, but I’ve been interested in sciencerncertainly from a child.  I wasrnmostly interested in numbers.  Irnwas calculating things at a very young age.  I just fell in love with numbers and then it spread fromrnthere to the rest of nature and I became… rnI remember the total eclipse of the sun, which happened when I wasrnthree, and I was furious with my father because he wouldn’t take us to seernit.  It would have meant about arnwhole day’s driving and anyways, so he said no, you can’t see the partialrneclipse and that’s it, and I thought that was terribly unfair.

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Question: What was your science education like?

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Freeman Dyson: rnSo, well I never learned much science in school.  That was I think an advantage in thernold days.  I grew up in England andrnwe spent most of the time on Latin and Greek and very little on science, and Irnthink that was good because it meant we didn’t get turned off.  It was… Science was something we didrnfor fun and not because we had to.

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Question: What was your experience of World War II like?

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Freeman Dyson: rnYes, well I was 15 when the war started, so for a long time I just stayedrnin school, but then so I was lucky. rnI had only two years of the war and so I went to work for the Royal AirrnForce when I was 19, which was already just two years before it ended, so Irnwent to the **** headquarters and that was July ’43, and so I had just twornyears of it, the last two years and I was working as a statistician mostly justrncollecting all the information about the Air Force operations, particularly thernbombing of Germany, so I had a sort of front-row seat view of that.  Of course it was a total shambles, thernwhole campaign.  It was a greatrntragedy for both sides and, well, there was nothing I could do about it.

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

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

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

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Freeman Dyson: rnWell it’s very hard to tell. rnI mean I grew up in England at a time when England was winning NobelrnPrizes right and left.  I mean itrnwas amazing how many Nobel Prizes England was winning in chemistry and physicsrnand biology and all the sciences and at that time the teaching of science inrnthe schools was really lousy.  Irnmean I experienced that myself.  Wernlearned almost nothing in school. rnScience was very unpopular. rnIt was…  I mean science wasrnblamed for all the horrors of World War I, just as it’s blamed today forrnnuclear weapons and quite rightly.  I mean World War I was a horrible war and it was mostly thernfault of science, so that was in a way a very bad time for science, but on thernother hand we were winning all these Nobel Prizes.  Well since then of course the teaching of science in schoolsrnin England has improved tremendously and the number of Nobel Prizes has gonerndown and I think that that might even be connected.  I don’t know, but I think it’s quite possible that the morernscience you teach kids in school the more it turns them off, so I don’trnknow.   I mean you never canrntell which way it will go.

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

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

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Question: What specific biotechnologies could pose a danger?

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

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Question: Will humanity destroy itself, or will wisdomrnprevail?

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Freeman Dyson: rnWell it’s always a mixture. rnWe don’t know what’s…  Somernthings go better than you expected, other things go worse, so I’m…  I think the only sensible thing is justrnto wait and see and what I’m doing when I’m writing books - I’m not doingrnscience so much anymore.  MostlyrnI’m just writing books for the public, and so I try to describe for the publicrnwhat the choices are, what they might have to expect in the future and so byrnwarning people ahead of time maybe you have an effect.  I think the fact that Aldous Huxleyrnwrote Brave New World and talked about anthrax bombs probably helped because atrnleast we… people had the understanding before the war began that’s something werndidn’t want to get into, so I think it’s much better to have your eyes open,rnbut 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 dornit.

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Question: Have you ever been totally surprised by thernoutcome of your own research?

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Freeman Dyson: rnI was amazed when I did this work, which was the first thing I did inrnphysics, which was really what made me famous, this quantumrnelectrodynamics.  I mean what I wasrndoing was calculating what an electron decides to do in a certain situation, inrnan experiment and I did a huge calculation which took pages and pages and pagesrnof paper and in the end I got a number, so that is what the electron has to do,rnand well then somebody in New York does the experiment and the electron somehowrnknows that.  The electron doesrnexactly what I calculated.  To mernthat was amazing.  I mean whyrnshould the electron know?  How doesrnthe electron know?  Somehow itrndoes.  Anyway, to me that soundsrnlike a miracle.

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Question: What was your role in the development of quantumrnelectrodyamics?

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Freeman Dyson: rnThat’s very hard.  I reallyrnneed 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 wasrnjust cleaning up the mathematics. rnAll the physics already had been done.  That’s to say the ideas were already there and all I had torndo was just organize calculations, so that’s about all I can say.  I can’t tell you the details, but so Irnhad a…  I had arrived as a youngrnstudent and all the work had really already been done to understand atoms andrnlight and radio waves, and all the components were in a way understood, butrnnobody understood how to organize the calculations, so that was my job.

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Question: What is the field basically attempting to study?

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Freeman Dyson: rnYes, well I can tell you roughly what happened.  I mean that the atoms by and large werernunderstood in the 1920s when quantum mechanics was invented and quantumrnmechanics is the part of science which tells how atoms actually behave, and sornthat was all more or less worked out in the 1920s, but there were some finerndetails left over, and particularly there was an experiment which was done inrnAmerica at Columbia University in the 1946, just after the war, which disagreedrnwith quantum mechanics and so it was clear we had a real discrepancy.  Theory said one thing and thernexperiment said something different, so that was the stimulus that started merngoing, that there was something there to be explained, which wasn’t understoodrnand to try to see why that experiment gave the answer it did, so it was a bigrnopportunity for a young student starting to have actually an experiment whichrncontradicted the theory, so that’s was my chance to understand that, and Irnfound out that if you did the calculation in a different way that you got the rightrnanswer.

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Question: What was Project Orion?

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Freeman Dyson: This was in the year 1957 when the Russiansrnsent up the first satellite, which they called Sputnik, which meansrncompanion.  It was a companion forrnthe earth.  So this Sputnik was uprnthere in space and it was making everybody nervous because if the Russiansrncould send satellites into space they could also throw missiles at us and we atrnthat time didn’t have any missiles which we could throw at them.  So it was a scary moment and so it wasrna moment when you could get money very easily for crazy projects and so myrnfriend, Ted Taylor, who was a young physicist, actually younger than me, he hadrnthis idea of building a spaceship with nuclear bombs, which sounds crazy and inrna certain way it is crazy, but it could have actually… it could have worked andrnso I thought that would be exciting to do.  I had never done anything like that.  I had been always just a mathematicianrnand working on paper, but so that gave me a chance to do something real, so Irnmoved to San Diego in California and joined a company called General Atomic,rnwhich is still there and went to work on this spaceship and it looked as thoughrnwe might even get the green light actually to go ahead and build it, but in thernend of course we didn’t.  The fatalrnflaw of that whole scheme is that it spreads radioactivity all around.  You’re exploding bombs in big numbers,rnso you really do make a tremendous mess, and so in the end common sensernprevailed and they decided to go ahead with ordinary rockets and not withrnnuclear bombs, but we had a great time. rnWe studied the theory of this and the engineering.  We had a lot of good engineers and wernactually did little tests of chemical explosives building little modelrnspacecraft, which would go pop, pop, pop, pop, just up in the sky and come downrnagain and just to show that we knew how to do it, so we had every Saturdayrnmorning we didn’t get paid for that, but every Saturday morning we’d go and flyrnour little models.  The rest of thernweek we’d do the serious stuff.  SornI spent a year and a half there and the project actually lasted for sevenrnyears, but by the end of the first year it was pretty clear that it wasn’trngoing to fly.

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Question: What were the theoretical possibilities of thernOrion mission?

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Freeman Dyson: rnIf it had been given the green light we could have gone to Mars in aboutrnfive years.  I mean the thingrnstarted in ’58 and we planned to have a Mars mission already within five yearsrnand we’d be scooting all around the solar system.  I mean it was a very, very high performance ship, far betterrnthan anything we have today, and it would have easily gone to Mars and back andrnto Jupiter, the satellites of Saturn and all the interesting places in thernsolar system.  We could have gonernscooting around, and of course we intended to go ourselves.  This was a big ship and it was with arncrew.  We imagined we would have arncrew of about 40 people, so it was on the grand scale, and it would have beenrncomparatively cheap because it was built like a submarine, not like anrnairplane.  It was heavy engineeringrnand so a lot cheaper than aerospace.

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Question: Will we ever be able to accomplish those featsrnthrough some alternative technology?

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Freeman Dyson: rnWell the joke is of course that we do such marvelous missions now withrnsmall payloads.  I mean when wernworked on Orion we were talking about 1,000 tons of payload just for one ship,rnand so we thought of ourselves as sort of like the Darwin on the Beagle goingrnout for five years and with all our provisions and having to take along arnsquash court so that you could stay fit, and we could take along almostrnanything you wanted, and of course nowadays the whole way of operating in spacernis so totally different.  Now yournmeasure the payload in pounds, not in tons, and so we have a ship which is nowrnorbiting around Saturn called Cassini, which of course doesn’t have people onrnboard.  It has wonderfulrninstruments on board and the total payload of that thing is a few thousandrnpounds and it’s doing far more exploring than we could have done.  So if we had a thousand tons of payloadrntoday we wouldn’t know what to do with it. 

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Question: Will humankind ever reach the stars?

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Freeman Dyson: rnYes, I think so, but of course my guess is no better than anybodyrnelse’s, but technically it could be done. rnOf course it’s much too expensive just for the next hundred years orrnmaybe the next thousand years, but we have lots and lots of time, so I wouldrnimagine that we will be scooting around on a much grander scale, but itrncould…  On the other hand, we couldrndecide we’re not interested, so let’s not do it and that remains to be seen.

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Question: How do you rate the chances of our discoveringrnlife on other planets?

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Freeman Dyson: rnWell, of course, well, nobody knows.  That’s why it’s interesting.  I mean that it’s completely unknown whether these creaturesrnexist or what they look or where they are, so we’re free to search in all sortsrnof ways and what is delightful about it is that our…  It is very cheap. rnActually the amounts of money that have to be spent are quite small andrnthey don’t increase with time because our processing of data is all the timerngetting cheaper and cheaper.  It’srnessentially a matter of computers which are getting more powerful every year,rnbut are not increasing in cost, so it means that we’re getting better andrnbetter at it, but with more or less constant expenditure and so it makes a lotrnof sense just to go on.  There isrnalways 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 grandrnand expensive project.  Actuallyrnit’s not.

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Question: How do physicists understand time in ways thatrnlaypeople don’t?

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Freeman Dyson: rnI don’t think there is any difference.  I mean the time that physicists deal with is essentially thernsame as ordinary time, except that physicists think of microseconds orrnpicoseconds instead of just seconds. rnThat means millionths of a second or trillionths of a second, so theyrncan… physicists can think of very short intervals of time, but that doesn’trnreally make much difference to ordinary life.  I think much…  Irnmean much more big changes in our thinking are coming along with biology ratherrnthan with physics.  When biologyrnadvances then we think differently about ourselves and that really does make arndifference.  For example, at thernmoment the most rapid movement in biology is neurology.  We’re learning how to study our brainsrnand to take moving pictures of brains with magnetic fields, so you can actuallyrnsee things going on in our own head when we’re thinking and that’s going tornchange the way we think about ourselves I think in a much more fundamental way.

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Question: Could quantum mechanics lend a scientific basis tornthe idea of free will?

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Freeman Dyson: rnWell I can’t say I’ll talk about it in depth, but it’s true that quantumrnmechanics makes atoms unpredictable. rnI mean that was the big surprise, that when you understand atoms itrnturns out you absolutely cannot predict what they’re going to do.  The laws are… just don’t allow exactrnpredictions.  It… there is arncertain kind of freedom that atoms have to jump around, and they seem to choosernentirely on their own without any input from the outside, so in a certain sensernatoms have free will, so that’s, to my mind at least, it’s probably connectedrnwith the fact that we have free will. rnWe have at least a strong feeling when we decide to move a hand up andrndown that we’re free to do it or not and so it could be that we are actuallyrnusing the freedom that quantum mechanics allows, though the brain is a kind ofrnan amplifier, which takes the freedom of movement of atoms and translates itrninto freedom of movement of our whole body.  That’s at least my feeling about it, and we don’t understandrnit in detail, but it looks as though there is a connection.

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Question: What would give the human mind this capacity?

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Freeman Dyson: rnWell the human mind is just a sort of a clever device for using thisrnfreedom in order to achieve some kind of a purpose, and of course animals inrngeneral do that and humans have reached the point of being aware of whatrnthey’re doing.

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Question: Do you have any personal recollections ofrnEinstein?

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Freeman Dyson: I mean I was here in Princeton when Einsteinrnwas still alive, but I never spoke a word to him and in fact, he moved in hisrnown circle of friends.  He didn’trnhave anything much to do with the young people here at the institute, so wernnever actually contacted…  He neverrncame to our talks or to our meetings, which was a shame, but that’s the truth.

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Question: What misconceptions do people have about Einstein?

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Freeman Dyson: rnWell I suppose what most of what people believe about him is true, Irnwould say.  I mean he was a totallyrnexceptional person in all sorts of ways. rnHis science was exceptional. rnHis humor was exceptional, his ability to say… just to answer questionsrnin a witty way so that he got in headlines in the newspapers.  He had just this wonderful gift ofrntalking to the public, and in addition of course he had a turbulent family lifernand he was a, in many ways a selfish and unpleasant character, but on the otherrnhand he was wonderful with children and so on.  I mean there were all sorts of…  He had wonderful qualities and those things I think thernpublic rightly appreciated.

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Question: Of the scientists you worked with, who inspired orrnmentored you?

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Freeman Dyson: rnWell of course the one I wrote about most, the one I enjoyed most, wasrnRichard Feynman.  He was…  When I knew him best he was quiternyoung, so he and I were about five years apart, so he was a young professor andrnI was a student, and he took me for a ride across the country from here tornAlbuquerque in a rickety old car and we had a great time.  So I mean he was a wonderful person tornbe around.  In addition he was arngenius and so he was doing the physics that actually made me famous.  He had the ideas and then I translatedrnthem into mathematics, so we worked together in that sense, so he hadrnalways…  He did the real work and Irntied it up afterwards, but anyway, it was a great thing to be with him and Irnenjoyed him enormously, and in addition because he was a great joker, he was arnclown.  He loved to play the foolrnand he was famous for picking locks. rnHe could open a safe and he did that quite a lot just in order to shockrnpeople, and he told stories about himself, most of which were true.

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Question: In the 25 years since your book “Weapons andrnHope,” what’s changed?

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Freeman Dyson: rnWell of course almost everything has changed.  That book was written at an unfortunate time.  It was just about two years before therncollapse of the Soviet Union, so the world changed totally, and I never everrnthought that would happen.  Inrnfact, very few people I know ever did imagine the Soviet Union could justrnpeacefully disappear the way it did ,and of course so the way the world hasrnchanged since then is, of course, that all the troubles are now on a smallrnscale comparatively, but they’re totally different and so you have wars likernthe war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan where small weapons of course arerndoing all the harm.  These arernlethal weapons, particularly landmines and explosive devices in the ground andrnthe little handheld rockets and the machine guns and so it’s all smallerrnarms.  It’s nobody is using nuclearrnweapons and so the whole problem of war and peace has changed totally and we’rernnot able to cope with it very well and unfortunately the sort of old way ofrnthinking still prevails in large parts of the world.  We haven’t adjusted to the changes.  So it was an unfortunate time to writernthat book and if I wrote it now it would be very different.  It’s I mean everything the book saysrnabout nuclear weapons I think is still true, but of course what it doesn’t dornis to talk about all these small and much more important weapons that we have nowrnand it’s amusing that the company I worked for when I worked on the Orion 50rnyears ago when I worked on the spaceship, the company is called General Atomic,rnand now they’re doing extremely well because what they’ve changed over now isrnto building Predators.  ThernPredator is the unmanned airplane that is now being used all the time in Iraqrnand Afghanistan and in Pakistan partly just for spying on… for taking picturesrnof what is going on, on the ground, but in addition it’s also being used forrnkilling people on the ground, so it’s become now a very important part of thernwar, and we never imagined that when we worked there.

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Question: Can Obama honor his commitment to reduce nuclearrnstockpiles worldwide?

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Freeman Dyson: rnWell he should be doing much more. rnI mean this is…  I likernObama 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 morernthan half of our nuclear weapons just like that.  He was the one who really got rid of nuclear weapons on arnbig scale, but George Bush, Sr., was careful because he was a Republican.  He did it very quietly.  He didn’t want to have his namernassociated with that, but he got it done. rnOf course with Obama it’s sort of the opposite that he would like to getrnthe credit for it, but he is not really doing it, and so it’s, I think hernshould be doing far more and I hope he will, but he is in a much more difficultrnposition.  It helps to be arnright-wing Republican if you want to disarm. 

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Question: How do you currently rate the likelihood ofrnclimate catastrophe? 

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Freeman Dyson: rnWell that’s a big subject, of course, and I mean I don’t like the wordrncatastrophe.  I don’t think therernis any catastrophe there, but certainly the climate is changing and that’srnimportant.  It’s always beenrnchanging.  There has never been arntime when the climate stayed put for any length of time, and so I would say allrnthe evidence we have is that we’re having some effect on the climate.  It’s not clear whether it’s good orrnbad.  It’s not clear whether it’srngoing to become a catastrophe or not and as far as I’m concerned it’s veryrnfoolish to do anything spectacular to… rnWhat we should be doing is dealing with the problems in detail.  I mean the first thing is we shouldrnbuild dikes around New Orleans, and I mean there are simple practical things werncan do which really would help, like building dikes around cities which arernexposed to hurricanes or tsunamis and so these kind of practical measures couldrnbe enormously helpful.  I mean we’vernseen just in the last few months, we’ve seen two big earthquakes, one in Haitirnand one in Chile, and what we’ve seen is that the earthquake in Chile was muchrnlarger, but the damage actually was smaller, the reason being that Chileans hadrntaken more trouble to build buildings that would resist earthquakes and so yourncan… it actually helps enormously to strengthen your buildings.  Of course I mean Chile has thernadvantage of being a richer country to start with, but it’s a dramatic proof ofrnwhat you can do.  You can actuallyrntake a natural catastrophe and reduce the damage by a factor of 100 or so justrnby quite simple measures; just by having good building codes and the same isrntrue of climate.  There are allrnsorts 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,rnand it could very well be the climate gets colder.  Nobody knows, and there are many things we should be doingrnto prepare for that and they’re not all that expensive, but what I think isrnabsurd, what I disagree with very strongly, is the idea that climate isrnpredictable, that we can sort of do things 100 years in advance knowing what isrngoing to happen.  That is justrnnot…  That is just not the way itrnis.

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Question: What has been your reaction to the controversy overrnyour opinions on global warming? 

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Freeman Dyson: rnIt doesn’t disturb me at all. rnI always believe in talking to my opponents and staying friends.  I mean you know it’s with the people Irndisagree with the most strongly I’m actually quite friendly with and there isrnno… It doesn’t make…  It doesn’trndisturb me if they disagree with me.

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Question: Is a moderate position on climate change nowrnconsidered radical?

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Freeman Dyson: rnWell, I don’t know.  Itrnchanges from week to week.  WhatrnI’ve noticed is there has been a strong increase in skepticism and just in thernlast couple of weeks, and I suppose it has something to do with all thesernsnowstorms we’ve been having.  Irndon’t know, but certainly I’ve seen the politicians becoming much morernskeptical just recently.  That ofrncourse I welcome.  I think thatrnactually means they’re recognizing the way things are.

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Question: If climate change does cause problems, how mightrnwe realistically be able to engineer solutions?

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Freeman Dyson: rnWell there are all sorts of ways. rnThere was a couple of farmers in Minnesota I was just reading about whorndecided to change from feedlots to grass. rnThey are raising beef. rnThese are farmers who are just raising cows for beef and a certainrnamount of milk as well, and they decided to switch from feedlots, which is ofrncourse the fashionable way of raising cows.  You keep them on a very crowded feedlot and feed them onrncorn, so you’re growing corn to feed to the animals.  Instead of that you put them out to grass, but you managernthe grass in a clever way with moving fences around, so they actually eat therngrass much more evenly.  It turnsrnout this pays and it’s, they’re doing extremely well just going back fromrnfeedlots to grass and it has a big effect on the carbon dioxide in thernatmosphere in proportion to the area that they’re using, so it means that ifrnthe whole of the Middle West would do this it would make a very substantialrndifference to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and so that kind of…  that’s the sort of practical thing yourncan do, just sort of managing the land more intelligently, and it’s rather likernbuilding dikes around New Orleans. rnI mean it’s not all that spectacular, but it actually works.  So changing from feedlots to grass Irnthink it’s sort of…  It’s not… Itrndoesn’t solve the whole problem, but it solves a certain chunk of the problemrnand there are other things you can do. rnDoing less ploughing makes a huge difference.  Ploughing is one of the main causes of carbon going into thernatmosphere because you expose the soil to the atmosphere.  It means the carbon gets oxidized andrnbecomes carbon dioxide and floats off into the atmosphere, so if you can farmrnwithout ploughing it actually helps, and it doesn’t matter how much coal andrnoil you’re burning.  It stillrnhelps.

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Question: Are you upset at never having won a Nobel Prize?

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Freeman Dyson: rnWell I remember Joyce… Jocelyn Bell, the lady who discovered pulsarsrnnever got the Nobel Prize and she was here talking to the students just arncouple of years ago.  She is now arnvery distinguished scientist and she discovered pulsars about 40 years ago andrnanyway, students were asking her, “Are you sorry you didn’t get the NobelrnPrize?”  And she said, “Oh no, I’vernbeen, all my life I’ve just been famous for not having the Nobel Prize.”  And that was actually much better and sornI think she is right.  I mean yournknow it’s much…  If people ask whyrndidn’t you get the prize it’s much better than if they’re asking why did yournget it.

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Question: Of which honor or achievement are you proudest?

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Freeman Dyson: rnWell, I would say bringing up six kids who are all productive citizens.

Recorded March 5th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

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