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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.
Top Customer Reviews
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 any case, I was sorry when I reached the end, and I am hoping for more.
The author Freeman Dyson (author of "Disturbing the Universe") has a unique talent for bringing the characters and the protagonists to life, and many of the stories are inspired by the author's own experiences, and some are biographies of scientists (Feynman, Oppenheimer, Teller, and more) and others of people Dyson met in his career or in his life. Dyson ponders and answers the question: "Why do some scientists like Einstein gain cult status, while others like Poincare are forgotten by the public?"
This lovely little book is a gem, and it is proof that it is possible for the same person to be a brilliant scientist and a great story teller at the same time; observing the world we share, and helping us reflect on big questions of war and peace, on the environment, on space flights, and on whether there might be intelligent life out there.
The book is divided into five chapters, the last one consisting of Biographical Notes. Each of the four real chapters consists of a handful of stories (sections, essays or reviews) which can stand alone. A sample of titles of the sections: Can Science be Ethical? (the gap between rich and poor, and more.) Bombs and Potatoes. (reflections, and recollections from WWII work on the nuclear bomb.) Russians. (starting with History and ending with recollections of persons Dyson met in Russia.) The Force of Reason. (a rebel from the Manhattan Project, WWII work on the nuclear bomb.) Seeing the Unseen. (the beginning of atomic physics.) The World, the Flesh, and the Devil. (I will not spoil the plot on this one!) Religion from the Outside. (I will let you find out for yourself!)
PS.: Freeman Dyson devoted a good part of his life to science: I recently opened a whole volume of "Communications in Mathematical Physics", entirely devoted to the research and the advances pioneered by Dyson. Review by Palle Jorgensen, November 2006.