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The Scientist as Rebel (New York Review Books (Paperback)) Paperback – September 9, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. In an eclectic but deeply satisfying collection, Dyson, a prize-winning physicist and prolific author (Weapons and Hope), presents 33 previously published book reviews, essays and speeches (15 from the New York Review of Books). Dyson expresses his precise thinking in prose of crystal clarity, and readers will be absolutely enthralled by his breadth, his almost uncanny ability to tie diverse topics together and his many provocative statements. In the title essay, Dyson writes, "Science is an alliance of free spirits in all cultures rebelling against" the tyranny of their local cultures. In a 2006 review of Daniel Dennett's book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Dyson, himself a man of faith, takes issue with Dennett's quoting of physicist Stephen Weinberg that "for good people to do bad things—that takes religion." The converse is also true, says Dyson: "for bad people to do good things—that takes religion." Three of the best chapters (reprinted from Weapons and Hope) deal with the politics of the cold war. And his writings on Einstein, Teller, Newton, Oppenheimer, Norbert Wiener and Feynman will amuse while presenting deep insights into the nature of science and humanity. Virtually every chapter deserves to be savored. (Dec.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
Distinguished physicist Dyson is a clear and compelling writer, gifts highlighted in this collection of 33 previously published and frequently updated essays and reviews. Organized into sections on contemporary issues in science, war and peace, history of science and scientists, and personal and philosophical ruminations, these works demonstrate Dyson's far-ranging interests and skill in writing for educated and curious generalists, qualities that ensure this volume's wide appeal. Some readers may feel a thrill reading Dyson's comments on military strategy; others may prefer Dyson's thoughts on such physics-related people and issues as Isaac Newton, Edward Teller, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman, Norbert Wiener, and string theory. But whatever a reader's passion, Dyson's emphasis on rebels within science rather than upholders of the status quo makes the book especially satisfying. Steve Weinberg
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Dyson takes his time with these reviews. Sometimes it is not quickly evident where he is going, but the payoff usually justifies the suspense. In the process, we get to hear his take on innumerable hot issues in science and its interface with humanity:
*The urgent need to find a unifying theory of physics - formulas that would be compatible with both quantum mechanics and Einstein's gravitational formulas of space-time - is over-rated. We will probably never make these formulas mathematically compatible.
*Technological progress does more harm than good unless accompanied by ethical progress. The free market by itself will not produce technologies access-friendly to the poor.
*We don't have to worry about the nanotech bee-like swarms presented by Crichton in "Prey." The laws of physics don't allow entities that small to fly faster than 1/10 inch/second.
*The willingness of the British abolitionists to buy out the slave owners made the crucial difference between the peaceful liberation of the West Indian slaves in 1833 and the bloody liberation of the American slaves thirty years later.
*In Newton's time, Cambridge University and Trinity College professors had to be Anglican priests. Newton didn't even believe in the Trinity, but King Charles II gave him special dispensation. Newton complied by keeping his religious writings (and some of his scientific writings) in a private metal box - a "don't ask, don't tell" situation.
*After each published review, Dyson always had letters. The nonexpert readers were overwhelmingly complimentary. The expert readers usually had corrections for his "mistakes." This book reflects adjustments to the original reviews based on this correspondence and sometimes a PS based on more current data.
*Richard Feynman spoke from scanty notes and hated to write, claiming he was barely literate. His books were transcribed and edited from his taped words. A friend locked him in his room and wouldn't let him out until he wrote the paper about his diagrams - the paper that got him a Nobel Prize. His daughter was astounded to find extensive literate, inspirational and compassionate correspondence by Feynman 16 years after his death - some of it to strangers wanting simple information about science.
*Littlewood's law of miracles: Each person experiences about 30,000 events per day. A miracle - an event with special significance - has a probability of one chance in a million. This works out to about one miracle per person per month.
*Dyson describes himself as a skeptical Christian as was his mother, who told him, "You can throw religion out the door, but it will always come back through the window."
This is a Great book! I was continuously entertained both by the selection of books reviewed and by Dyson's excellent commentary. Skip the second section if you don't care about military issues - the better science reviews are in the last half of the book.
"In January 1939 a meeting of physicists was held at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The meeting had been planned by George Gamow long before fission was discovered. It was one of a regular series of annual meetings. It happened by chance that Neils Bohr arrived in America two weeks before the meeting, bringing from Europe the news of the discovery of fission. Gamow quickly reorganized the meeting so that fission became the main subject. Bohr and Enrico Fermi were the main speakers. For the first time, the splitting of the atom was publicly described, and the consequent possibility of atomic bombs was widely reported in the newspapers. Not much was said at the meeting about atomic bombs. Everyone at the meeting was aware of the possibilities, but nobody spoke up boldly to suggest that questions of ethical responsibility be put on the agenda. The meeting came too soon for any consensus concerning ethical responsibilities to be reached. Most of the people at the meeting were hearing about fission for the first time. But it would have been possible to start a preliminary discussion, to make plans for an informal organization of physicists, and to prepare for further meetings. After several weeks of preparations, a second meeting might have been arranged with the explicit purpose of reaching an ethical consensus.
...(By 1941, the) fear of Hitler was so pervasive that hardly a single physicist who was aware of the possibilities of nuclear weapons could resist it. The fear allowed scientists to design bombs with a clear conscience. In 1941 they persuaded the British and American governments to build the factories and laboratories where bombs could be manufactured. It would have been impossible for the community of British and American physicists to say to the world in 1941, "Let Hitler have his nuclear bombs and do his worst with them. We refuse on ethical grounds to have anything to do with such weapons. It will be better for us in the long run to defeat him without using such weapons, even if it takes a little longer and costs us more lives." Hardly anybody in 1941 would have wished to make such a statement. And if some of the scientists had wished to make it, the statement could not have been made publicly, because all discussion of nuclear matters was hidden behind walls of secrecy. The world in 1941 was divided into armed camps with no possibility of communications between them. Scientists in the Soviet Union were living in separate black boxes. It was too late in 1941 for the scientists of the world to take a united ethical stand against nuclear weapons. The latest time that such a stand could have been taken was in 1939, when the world was still at peace and secrecy not yet been imposed.
...In October of 1995, I was giving a lunchtime lecture to a crowd of students at George Washington University about the history of nuclear weapons. I told them about the meeting that had been held in a nearby building on their campus in January 1939. I told them how the scientists at the meeting missed the opportunity that was fleetingly placed in their hands, to forestall the development of nuclear weapons and to change the course of history. I talked about the nuclear projects that grew during World War II, massive and in deadly earnest in America, small and halfhearted in Germany, serious but late-starting in Russia. I described the atmosphere of furious effort and intense camaraderie that existed in wartime Los Alamos, with the British and American scientists so deeply engaged in the race to produce a bomb that they did not think of stopping when the opposing German team dropped out of the race. I told them how, when it became clear in 1944 that there would be no German bomb, only one man, of all the scientists in Los Alamos, stopped. That man was Joseph Rotblat. I told how Rotblat left Los Alamos and became the leader of the Pugwash movement, working indefatigably to unite scientists of all countries in efforts to undo the evils to which Los Alamos gave rise. I remarked how shameful it was that the Nobel Peace Prize, which had been awarded to so many less deserving people, had never been awarded to Rotblat. At that moment one of the students in the audience shouted, "Didn't you hear? He won this morning." I shouted, "Hooray," and the whole auditorium erupted in wild cheering. In my head the cheers of the students are still resounding."