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A Many-Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe (Page-Barbour Lectures) Hardcover – August 8, 2007

4.4 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Physicist Dyson, now retired from Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, attempts too much in this brief volume. He addresses three themes: the human and ethical consequences of biotechnology; the place of life in the universe; and the implications of biology for philosophy and religion. The seven short chapters consist of recent speeches that are not particularly well linked. Unlike some of his earlier works (e.g., The Scientist as Rebel), which dazzle the reader with insight and make intellectual connections across a wide array of subjects, this volume is somewhat quirky and superficial. A self-professed heretic, Dyson argues that the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated, but his analysis is far from compelling. In proposing a simple way to prospect for life in the universe, he theorizes that herbivores and carnivores may be present on objects in the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud, and may be constantly migrating from object to object. Dyson is most interesting when he defines theofiction, a genre by writers such as Olaf Stapledon and Octavia Butler, that arises from science fiction but where the vision is primarily religious rather than scientific. But even here, he falls short of his previous high standard. (Aug.)
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Dyson, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, is no lightweight. Although personally humble, he has made fundamental contributions to quantum physics and mathematics. His scientific status and his pacifist views have made him a darling of left-wing opinion outlets like The New York Times. But in these books, Dyson demonstrates that his ability to think critically and skeptically and his commitment to the truth often outweighs his politics...Dyson's great strength, whether he realizes it or not, is his ability to find problems we didn't think of, and imagine outlandish and sometimes impractical solutions...His powerful imagination sees the world as a spectacular explosion of irreducible phenomena.

(T.J. Nelson, brneurosci.org)

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Product Details

  • Series: Page-Barbour Lectures
  • Hardcover: 176 pages
  • Publisher: University of Virginia Press (August 8, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0813926637
  • ISBN-13: 978-0813926636
  • Product Dimensions: 8.7 x 6 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,796,956 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Shalom Freedman HALL OF FAME on August 16, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Dyson reflects here on the 'dome of many - colored glass that stains the white radiance of eternity' our richly varied world. He shows a commendable humility in his reflections on the place of life in the Universe. Originally given as public lectures to a scientifically literate public Dyson opens with a consideration of problems of biotechnology.
In one section he writes about three heresies he espouses, one in which he suggests that global warning is not perhaps the awesome danger many see it to be. In another reflection he speaks about the divisions between 'humanists' and 'naturalists' the latter being those who wish to preserve 'nature' and believe nature's way superior. He talks about his own native England about the poverty of the natural landscape until human beings transformed it to the land of meadows and moors, of pastures and green farmland. He considers himself a 'humanist' who believes that mankind's mission is too in transforming nature for the better. And this though of course he is aware of the dangers of this, of those we have created for ourselves. In another realm he speaks about his belief that the U.S. is about to be replaced as the world's major power most likely by China but perhaps by Brazil or India. He suggests that about one- hundred and fifty years is all the time a major nation can be predominant before it becomes over- extended in every way. He suggests the U.S will reach this point around 2070.
In speaking to young people about the future he warns about rapid changes making obsolescent the professions and work they have trained for. But he concludes with a modest and somewhat optimistic word of advice to them.
"The main lesson that I would like them to take home is that the long-range future is not predetermined. The future is in their hands.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is a rare delight.

There are two types of science books. Most explain how and why we know something about what we know. The other questions what we assume we know, which is generally the path to new, expanded and sometimes very new fields of scientific knowledge.

Al Gore, for example, who realizes no one gets major headlines by being modest or unsure about one's ideas, says we must end our reliance on fossil fuels within a decade. Dyson says, in effect, wait a minute, we're already overdue for an ice age, maybe global warming is keeping us from freezing.

In contrast to Gore's certainty, Dyson questions, probes, doubts and considers alternatives. In a world overun by people who are dead certain about politics, progress, art, theology, music and almost everything, it's a treat to find educated and thoughtful ideas by someone who admits, "I am trying to reconcile the theoretical law of increasing disorder in the universe with the evidence for increasing order in the universe as we observe it."

On that basis, Dyson will upset people who know things.

Granted, once upon a time he was young, immature, impatient and brashly confident of his wisdom. In 1945, when he was 22 years old, he advised Francis Crick not to give up physics in favour of a new career in biology. Fortunately, Crick didn't take Dyson's advice; instead, within seven years he discovered the double helix structure of DNA which gave birth to molecular genetics.

Suffice to say, Dyson learned, "Even a smart 22-year-old is not a reliable guide to the future of science. And the 22-year-old has become even less reliable now that he is 82.
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Format: Paperback
Dyson writes well enough, but this collection of essays is hit and miss. I feel a bit out of turn being overly critical or analytical of such an accomplished physicist, philosopher and thinker, but there are some profoundly naive and superficial conclusions and reasoning in a couple of the essays that distracted from the brilliant thoughts in some of the others, particularly the sections on the "Friendly Universe" in which Dyson tries to rationalize the paradox of order in a world dominated by the second law of thermodynamics and its tendency toward disorder and the essay on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

What does work is that Dyson is tremendously well-read and deeply thoughtful in fields outside theoretical physics. One might argue that a lot of his speculations into biotechnology and other fields are the equivalent of an amateur poking around and considering himself an expert, but this isn't so. He's very clear and direct about his lack of knowledge and that his speculations are just that. In that respect he differs from a lot of "futurists" who publish books like "The World in 2050" in which they proclaim flying cars for everyone! (I'm still waiting for the one my grandmother promised me I'd have by the time I was twenty when I was ten.) He's realistic about the time frames for his speculations about the development of technology and the future of discovery in the realms of science. Dyson, quite rightly given the enormous mathematical and technological complexities of advances in particle and theoretical physics today, thinks that biology and biotechnology will dominate the sciences in the next hundred years. There are some heretical ideas in his speculations.
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