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Freeman Dyson

Birthdate: 15. December 1923
Other names: Freeman John Dyson

Freeman John Dyson is an English-born American theoretical physicist and mathematician. He is known for his work in quantum electrodynamics, solid-state physics, astronomy and nuclear engineering. He theorized several concepts that bear his name, such as Dyson's transform, Dyson tree, Dyson series, and Dyson sphere.

He is professor emeritus in the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, a Visitor of Ralston College, and a member of the Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Works

„If we had a reliable way to label our toys good and bad, it would be easy to regulate technology wisely. But we can rarely see far enough ahead to know which road leads to damnation.“

—  Freeman Dyson

Disturbing the Universe (1979)
Context: If we had a reliable way to label our toys good and bad, it would be easy to regulate technology wisely. But we can rarely see far enough ahead to know which road leads to damnation. Whoever concerns himself with big technology, either to push it forward or to stop it, is gambling in human lives. <!-- Pt. 1, Ch. 1

„The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand.“

—  Freeman Dyson

"Heretical Thoughts about Science and Society", in Edge (8 August 2007) http://www.edge.org/documents/archive/edge219.html#dysonf
Context: My first heresy says that all the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated. Here I am opposing the holy brotherhood of climate model experts and the crowd of deluded citizens who believe the numbers predicted by the computer models. Of course, they say, I have no degree in meteorology and I am therefore not qualified to speak. But I have studied the climate models and I know what they can do. The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics, and they do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields and farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in. The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand. It is much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building and run computer models, than to put on winter clothes and measure what is really happening outside in the swamps and the clouds. That is why the climate model experts end up believing their own models.

„Scientifically speaking, a butterfly is at least as mysterious as a superstring.“

—  Freeman Dyson, book Infinite in All Directions

Source: Infinite in All Directions (1988), Ch. 2 : Butterflies and Superstrings, p. 14
Context: Scientifically speaking, a butterfly is at least as mysterious as a superstring. When something ceases to be mysterious it ceases to be of absorbing interest to scientists. Almost all things scientists think and dream about are mysterious.

„What was needed was a little more human charity, a little more willingness to listen rather than to lay down the law, a little more humility. Scientists stand in need of these Christian virtues just as much as preachers do.“

—  Freeman Dyson, book Infinite in All Directions

Source: Infinite in All Directions (1988), Ch. 1 : In Praise of Diversity
Context: There is no easy solution to the conflict between fundamentalist Christian dogma and the facts of biological evolution. I am not saying that the conflict could have been altogether avoided. I am saying only that the conflict was made more bitter and more damaging, both to religion and to science, by the dogmatic and self-righteousness of scientists. What was needed was a little more human charity, a little more willingness to listen rather than to lay down the law, a little more humility. Scientists stand in need of these Christian virtues just as much as preachers do.

„There is no easy solution to the conflict between fundamentalist Christian dogma and the facts of biological evolution.“

—  Freeman Dyson, book Infinite in All Directions

Source: Infinite in All Directions (1988), Ch. 1 : In Praise of Diversity
Context: There is no easy solution to the conflict between fundamentalist Christian dogma and the facts of biological evolution. I am not saying that the conflict could have been altogether avoided. I am saying only that the conflict was made more bitter and more damaging, both to religion and to science, by the dogmatic and self-righteousness of scientists. What was needed was a little more human charity, a little more willingness to listen rather than to lay down the law, a little more humility. Scientists stand in need of these Christian virtues just as much as preachers do.

„To talk about the end of science is just as foolish as to talk about the end of religion. Science and religion are both still close to their beginnings, with no ends in sight.“

—  Freeman Dyson

Progress In Religion (2000)
Context: To talk about the end of science is just as foolish as to talk about the end of religion. Science and religion are both still close to their beginnings, with no ends in sight. Science and religion are both destined to grow and change in the millennia that lie ahead of us, perhaps solving some old mysteries, certainly discovering new mysteries of which we yet have no inkling.

„The right way to ask the question is: How does the concept of a point fit into the logical structure of Euclid's geometry? …It cannot be answered by a definition.“

—  Freeman Dyson, book Infinite in All Directions

Source: Infinite in All Directions (1988), Ch. 2 : Butterflies and Superstrings, p. 17
Context: Euclid... gave his famous definition of a point: "A point is that which has no parts, or which has no magnitude." …A point has no existence by itself. It exists only as a part of the pattern of relationships which constitute the geometry of Euclid. This is what one means when one says that a point is a mathematical abstraction. The question, What is a point? has no satisfactory answer. Euclid's definition certainly does not answer it. The right way to ask the question is: How does the concept of a point fit into the logical structure of Euclid's geometry?... It cannot be answered by a definition.

„In the time of Jesus and for many centuries afterwards, there was a free market in human bodies. The institution of slavery was based on the legal right of slave-owners to buy and sell their property in a free market. Only in the nineteenth century did the abolitionist movement, with Quakers and other religious believers in the lead, succeed in establishing the principle that the free market does not extend to human bodies.“

—  Freeman Dyson

Progress In Religion (2000)
Context: In the time of Jesus and for many centuries afterwards, there was a free market in human bodies. The institution of slavery was based on the legal right of slave-owners to buy and sell their property in a free market. Only in the nineteenth century did the abolitionist movement, with Quakers and other religious believers in the lead, succeed in establishing the principle that the free market does not extend to human bodies. The human body is God's temple and not a commercial commodity. And now in the twenty-first century, for the sake of equity and human brotherhood, we must maintain the principle that the free market does not extend to human genes. Let us hope that we can reach a consensus on this question without fighting another civil war.

„Like many other crucially important technologies, hay emerged anonymously during the so-called Dark Ages.“

—  Freeman Dyson, book Infinite in All Directions

Source: Infinite in All Directions (1988), Ch. 8 : Quick Is Beautiful, p. 135
Context: The technologies which have had the most profound effects on human life are usually simple. A good example of a simple technology with profound historical consequences is hay. Nobody knows who invented hay, the idea of cutting grass in the autumn and storing it in large enough quantities to keep horses and cows alive through the winter. All we know is that the technology of hay was unknown to the Roman Empire but was known to every village of medieval Europe. Like many other crucially important technologies, hay emerged anonymously during the so-called Dark Ages. According to the Hay Theory of History, the invention of hay was the decisive event which moved the center of gravity of urban civilization from the Mediterranean basin to Northern and Western Europe. The Roman Empire did not need hay because in a Mediterranean climate the grass grows well enough in winter for animals to graze. North of the Alps, great cities dependent on horses and oxen for motive power could not exist without hay. So it was hay that allowed populations to grow and civilizations to flourish among the forests of Northern Europe. Hay moved the greatness of Rome to Paris and London, and later to Berlin and Moscow and New York.

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„The dominance of grey technology is now coming to an end.“

—  Freeman Dyson

Progress In Religion (2000)
Context: All through our history, we have been changing the world with our technology. Our technology has been of two kinds, green and grey. Green technology is seeds and plants, gardens and vineyards and orchards, domesticated horses and cows and pigs, milk and cheese, leather and wool. Grey technology is bronze and steel, spears and guns, coal and oil and electricity, automobiles and airplanes and rockets, telephones and computers. Civilization began with green technology, with agriculture and animal-breeding, ten thousand years ago. Then, beginning about three thousand years ago, grey technology became dominant, with mining and metallurgy and machinery. For the last five hundred years, grey technology has been racing ahead and has given birth to the modern world of cities and factories and supermarkets.
The dominance of grey technology is now coming to an end.

„I have to clear away a few popular misconceptions about space as a habitat … It is generally considered that planets are important. Except for Earth, they are not.“

—  Freeman Dyson

Part IV: Personal and Philosophical Essays, Ch. 24 : "The World, the Flesh, and the Devil" (1972)
The Scientist As Rebel (2006)
Context: I have to clear away a few popular misconceptions about space as a habitat … It is generally considered that planets are important. Except for Earth, they are not. Mars is waterless, and the others are, for various reasons, basically inhospitable to man. It is generally considered that beyond the sun’s family of planets there is absolute emptiness extending for light-years until you come to another star. In fact, it is likely that the space around the solar system is populated by huge numbers of comets, small worlds a few miles in diameter, rich in water and the other chemicals essential to life.

„The progress of science requires the growth of understanding in both directions, downward from the whole to the parts and upward from the parts to the whole.“

—  Freeman Dyson, book The Scientist as Rebel

Part I : Contemporary Issues in Science, Ch. 1 : "The Scientist as Rebel"
The Scientist As Rebel (2006)
Context: The progress of science requires the growth of understanding in both directions, downward from the whole to the parts and upward from the parts to the whole. A reductionist philosophy, arbitrarily proclaiming that the growth of understanding must go only in one direction, makes no scientific sense. Indeed, dogmatic philosophical beliefs of any kind have no place in science.

„I am saying to modern scientists and theologians: don't imagine that our latest ideas about the Big Bang or the human genome have solved the mysteries of the universe or the mysteries of life. Here are Bacon's words again: "The subtlety of nature is greater many times over than the subtlety of the senses and understanding".“

—  Freeman Dyson

Progress In Religion (2000)
Context: I am saying to modern scientists and theologians: don't imagine that our latest ideas about the Big Bang or the human genome have solved the mysteries of the universe or the mysteries of life. Here are Bacon's words again: "The subtlety of nature is greater many times over than the subtlety of the senses and understanding". In the last four hundred years, science has fulfilled many of Bacon's dreams, but it still does not come close to capturing the full subtlety of nature.

„I don't say that this personal theology is supported or proved by scientific evidence. I only say that it is consistent with scientific evidence.“

—  Freeman Dyson

Progress In Religion (2000)
Context: My personal theology is described in the Gifford lectures that I gave at Aberdeen in Scotland in 1985, published under the title, Infinite In All Directions. Here is a brief summary of my thinking. The universe shows evidence of the operations of mind on three levels. The first level is elementary physical processes, as we see them when we study atoms in the laboratory. The second level is our direct human experience of our own consciousness. The third level is the universe as a whole. Atoms in the laboratory are weird stuff, behaving like active agents rather than inert substances. They make unpredictable choices between alternative possibilities according to the laws of quantum mechanics. It appears that mind, as manifested by the capacity to make choices, is to some extent inherent in every atom. The universe as a whole is also weird, with laws of nature that make it hospitable to the growth of mind. I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension. God may be either a world-soul or a collection of world-souls. So I am thinking that atoms and humans and God may have minds that differ in degree but not in kind. We stand, in a manner of speaking, midway between the unpredictability of atoms and the unpredictability of God. Atoms are small pieces of our mental apparatus, and we are small pieces of God's mental apparatus. Our minds may receive inputs equally from atoms and from God. This view of our place in the cosmos may not be true, but it is compatible with the active nature of atoms as revealed in the experiments of modern physics. I don't say that this personal theology is supported or proved by scientific evidence. I only say that it is consistent with scientific evidence.

„It is something that gives people an illusion of illimitable power, and it is, in some ways, responsible for all our troubles — this, what you might call technical arrogance, that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.“

—  Freeman Dyson

As quoted in The Day After Trinity: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb (1981), a documentary film directed by Jon Else, written by David Peoples, Janet Peoples, and Jon Else.
Context: I have felt it myself. The glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist. To feel it's there in your hands, to release this energy that fuels the stars, to let it do your bidding. To perform these miracles, to lift a million tons of rock into the sky. It is something that gives people an illusion of illimitable power, and it is, in some ways, responsible for all our troubles — this, what you might call technical arrogance, that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.

„The biggest breakthrough in the next 50 years will be the discovery of extraterrestrial life.“

—  Freeman Dyson

"Freeman Dyson forecasts the future" at NewScientist.com (15 November 2006) http://www.newscientist.com/channel/opinion/science-forecasts/dn10481-freeman-dyson-forecasts-the-future.html
Context: The biggest breakthrough in the next 50 years will be the discovery of extraterrestrial life. We have been searching for it for 50 years and found nothing. That proves life is rarer than we hoped, but does not prove that the universe is lifeless. We are only now developing the tools to make our searches efficient and far-reaching, as optical and radio detection and data processing move forward.

„There is no such thing as a unique scientific vision, any more than there is a unique poetic vision. Science is a mosaic of partial and conflicting visions.“

—  Freeman Dyson, book The Scientist as Rebel

Part I : Contemporary Issues in Science, Ch. 1 : "The Scientist as Rebel"; this first appeared in New York Review of Books (25 May 1995).
The Scientist As Rebel (2006)
Context: There is no such thing as a unique scientific vision, any more than there is a unique poetic vision. Science is a mosaic of partial and conflicting visions. But there is one common element in these visions. The common element is rebellion against the restrictions imposed by the locally prevailing culture, Western or Eastern as the case may be. It is no more Western than it is Arab or Indian or Japanese or Chinese. Arabs and Indians and Japanese and Chinese had a big share in the development of modern science. And two thousand years earlier, the beginnings of science were as much Babylonian and Egyptian as Greek. One of the central facts about science is that it pays no attention to East and West and North and South and black and yellow and white. It belongs to everybody who is willing to make the effort to learn it. And what is true of science is true of poetry.... Poetry and science are gifts given to all of humanity.

„Fifty years ago Kurt Gödel… proved that the world of pure mathematics is inexhaustible. … I hope that the notion of a final statement of the laws of physics will prove as illusory as the notion of a formal decision process for all mathematics.“

—  Freeman Dyson, book Infinite in All Directions

Source: Infinite in All Directions (1988), Ch. 3 : Manchester and Athens
Context: Fifty years ago Kurt Gödel... proved that the world of pure mathematics is inexhaustible. … I hope that the notion of a final statement of the laws of physics will prove as illusory as the notion of a formal decision process for all mathematics. If it should turn out that the whole of physical reality can be described by a finite set of equations, I would be disappointed, I would feel that the Creator had been uncharacteristically lacking in imagination.

„Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Etiam egestas wisi a erat. Morbi imperdiet, mauris ac auctor dictum.“

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