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The Need for Heretics

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The Need for Heretics
Freeman Dyson, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey
Commencement Address, given at the University of Michigan, December 18, 2005

When the Princess Rosalba was baptized, in Thackeray’s story, “The Rose and the Ring”, her father, King Cavalfiore of Crim Tartary, gave a banquet, and all the royal guests came with fine clothes and expensive presents and flattering speeches. Then at the end of the line of guests came the Fairy Blackstick, an ugly old lady with a long nose, carrying nothing in her hands but a plain black stick. She waved her stick over the baby and said, “As for this little lady, the best thing I can wish her is a little misfortune”. The King was furious and ordered his servants to remove the Fairy Blackstick from the hall. But of course the magic was done, and the Fairy Blackstick’s present turned out to be more valuable than all the other presents put together. I will tell you at the end how the magic worked.

I am grateful to the University of Michigan and to you, President Coleman, for giving me the privilege of talking at this celebration. I find it strange that I should be talking here. In this company I am the Fairy Blackstick. You students are proud possessors of the Ph.D. or some similar token of academic respectability. You have endured many years of poverty and hard labor, and now you are ready to go to your just rewards, to a place on the tenure track of a university or on the board of directors of a company. And here am I, a person who never had a Ph.D. myself and fought all my life against the Ph.D. system and everything it stands for. Of course I fought in vain. The grip of the Ph.D. system on academic life is tighter today than it has ever been. But I will continue to fight against it as long as I live. In short, I am proud to be a heretic. But unfortunately I am an old heretic. What the world needs is young heretics. I am hoping that one or two of you may fill that role.

I will tell you briefly about three heresies that I am promoting. The first of my heresies 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 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 in their own models.

There is no doubt that parts of the world are getting warmer, but the warming is not global. The warming happens mostly in places and times where it is cold, in the arctic more than in the tropics, in winter more than in summer, at night more than in daytime. On the whole, the warming happens most where it does the least harm. I am not saying that the warming does not cause problems. Obviously it does. Obviously we should be trying to understand it better. I am saying that the problems are grossly exaggerated. They take away money and attention from other problems that are more urgent and more important, such as poverty and infectious disease and public education and public health, and the preservation of living creatures on land and in the oceans.

I could talk for the whole of my fifteen minutes about the global warming heresy, but I won’t. My second heresy is about biotechnology. It says that biotechnology will soon be domesticated. Fifty years ago in Princeton, I watched the mathematician John von Neumann designing and building the first electronic computer that operated with instructions coded into the machine. Von Neumann did not invent the electronic computer. The computer called ENIAC had been running at the University of Pennsylvania five years earlier. What von Neumann invented was software, the coded instructions that gave the computer agility and flexibility. It was the combination of electronic hardware with punch-card software that allowed a single machine to predict weather, to simulate the evolution of populations of living creatures, and to test the feasibility of hydrogen bombs. Von Neumann understood that his invention would change the world. He understood that the descendants of his machine would dominate the operations of science and business and government. But he imagined computers always remaining large and expensive. He imagined them as centralized facilities serving large research laboratories or large industries. He failed to foresee computers growing small enough and cheap enough to be used by housewives for doing income-tax returns or by kids for doing homework. He failed to foresee the final domestication of computers as toys for three-year-olds. He totally failed to foresee the emergence of computer-games as a dominant feature of twenty-first-century life. Because of computer-games, our grandchildren are now growing up with an indelible addiction to computers. For better or for worse, in sickness or in health, till death do us part, humans and computers are now joined together more durably than husbands and wives.

What has this story of von Neumann’s computer and the evolution of computer-games to do with biotechnology? Simply this, that there is a close analogy between von Neumann’s vision of computers as large centralized facilities and the public perception of genetic engineering today as an activity of large pharmaceutical and agribusiness corporations such as Monsanto. The public distrusts Monsanto because Monsanto likes to put genes for poisonous pesticides into food-crops, just as we distrusted von Neumann because von Neumann liked to use his computer for designing hydrogen bombs. It is likely that genetic engineering will remain unpopular and controversial so long as it remains a centralized activity in the hands of large corporations.

I see a bright future for the biotechnical industry when it follows the path of the computer industry, the path that von Neumann failed to foresee, becoming small and domesticated rather than big and centralized. The first step in this direction was already taken recently, when genetically modified tropical fish with new and brilliant colors appeared in pet-stores. For biotechnology to become domesticated, the next step is to become user-friendly. I recently spent a happy day at the Philadelphia Flower Show, the biggest flower show in the world, where flower-breeders from all over the world show off the results of their efforts. I have also visited the Reptile Show in San Diego, an equally impressive show displaying the work of another set of breeders. Philadelphia excels in orchids and roses, San Diego excels in lizards and snakes. The main problem for a grandparent visiting the reptile show with a grandchild is to get the grandchild out of the building without actually buying a snake. Every orchid or rose or lizard or snake is the work of a dedicated and skilled breeder. There are thousands of people, amateurs and professionals, who devote their lives to this business. Now imagine what will happen when the tools of genetic engineering become accessible to these people. There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners who will use genetic engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes, to breed new varieties of pets. Breeders of dogs and cats will have their kits too.

Genetic engineering, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer. Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art-form as creative as painting or sculpture. Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but all will bring joy to their creators and variety to our fauna and flora.

The final step in the domestication of biotechnology will be biotech games, designed like computer games for children down to kindergarten age, but played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen. Playing such games, kids will acquire an intimate feeling for the organisms that they are growing. The winner could be the kid whose seed grows the prickliest cactus, or the kid whose egg hatches the cutest dinosaur. These games will be messy and possibly dangerous. Rules and regulations will be needed to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and others. When they are grown up, these kids will be at home in the new world of biotechnology. They will be ready to put their skills to use, designing new species of termite with a taste for heavy metal to chew up derelict automobiles, and designing new species of tree with silicon leaves to make liquid fuels out of carbon dioxide and sunlight.

Here is my third and last heresy. I say that the United States has less than a century left of its turn as top nation. Since the modern nation-state was invented around the year 1500, a succession of countries have taken turns at being top nation, first Spain, then France, Britain, America. Each turn lasted about 150 years. Ours began in 1920, so it should end about 2070. The reason why each top nation’s turn comes to an end is that the top nation becomes over-extended, militarily, economically and politically. Greater and greater efforts are required to maintain the number one position. Finally the over-extension becomes so extreme that the whole structure collapses. Already we can see in the American posture today some clear symptoms of over-extension. Who will be the next top nation? It might be the European Union or it might be China. After that it might be India or Brazil. You should be asking yourselves, not how to live in an America-dominated world, but how to prepare for a world that is not America-dominated. That may be the most important problem for your generation to solve. How does a people that thinks of itself as number one yield gracefully to become number two?

I am telling you that misfortunes are on the way. Your precious Ph.D., or whichever degree you went through long years of hard work to acquire, may be worth less than you think. Your specialized training may become obsolete. You may find yourself over-qualified for the available jobs. You may be declared redundant. The country and the culture to which you belong may move far away from the mainstream. But these misfortunes are also opportunities. It is always open to you to join the heretics and find another way to make a living. With or without a Ph.D., there are big and important problems for you to solve.

I am hoping that things will turn out for you as nicely as they turned out in the end for the Princess Rosalba as a result of the Fairy Blackstick’s appearance at her baptism. A few years after the baptism the misfortunes began. King Cavalfiore was slain in battle and the rebel Duke Padella usurped the Kingdom of Crim Tartary. Rosalba was left alone, a toddler in the abandoned palace. She wandered out into the forest and was adopted by a friendly lioness. After living quietly for a few years with the lion family, she wandered back to civilization and found a job as a serving-maid in the household of King Valoroso the twenty-fourth of Paflagonia. There she took advantage of her situation to educate herself with the school-books cast aside by her spoiled mistress, the Princess Angelica. Finally, having acquired the right sort of education, the education of hard knocks, she married Prince Giglio, the rightful heir to the throne of Paflagonia, and lived happily ever after. But now I must sit down quickly, before the King’s servants throw me out.


Intelligent design will become an essential science in the future whether people like it or not.

Say the authorities suspect that some GM tropical fish mentioned by Dyson have been released by a misguided soul into a natural reef environment. Say they are concerned that these invasive species will outcompete the natives and therefore upset the ecological balance. Assuming that the differences are not obvious, what methods will they use to distinguish the modified fish from the originals? In other words, how will they detect design?

I've mentioned this book many times before. Among other things it addresses how to control nano-engineering technology. Genetic engineering is nano-technology through commandeering the self-replicating assemblers that mother nature provided for us. Being able to reprogram existing organismal genomes for fun and profit is the big milestone event in the coming age of nano-technology. Once that has been accomplished it's a simple matter to reprogram bacteria to build things out of materials more durable than protein. Imagine bacteria that can build a house to specifcation out of pure carbon with atomic precision. Carbon obtained from the atmosphere and energy obtained from sunlight. It's physically possible. The only thing preventing such a thing is we can't yet reprogram bacteria to do things like that - but the day is fast approaching. Of course the same technology that will make it possible for this also makes it possible to build hideously destructive things too. Controlling this technology is a monumental concern and substantial portion of the 1986 seminal tome on nano-technology (referenced above) discusses how that control might be implimented. -ds antg
At about the time our original 13 states adopted their new constitution in 1787, Alexander Tyler, a Scottish history professor at the University of Edinburgh, had this to say about the Fall of the Athenian Republic some 2,000 years prior: "A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse over loose fiscal policy, (which is) always followed by a dictatorship. "The average age of the world's greatest civilizations from the beginning of history, has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith From spiritual faith to great courage From great courage to liberty From liberty to abundance From abundance to complacency From complacency to apathy From apathy to governmental dependency From governmental dependency back into bondage." Professor Joseph Olson of Hamline University School of Law, St. Paul, MN believes the US is now somewhere between the "apathy" and the "complacency" phase of Professor Tyler's definition of democracy with some 40 percent of the nation's population already having reached the "governmental dependency" phase. And, Olson adds, the last gasp of any country has been when marriage and the family have taken a back seat to other sexual interests as witness Rome one of the greatest and most-wide spread governments. Patrick
Freeman Dyson is awesome. Thank you Bill for that wonderful article. Dyson Spheres and various spinoffs have been science fiction plot elements for many decades and I first learned of them around 10 years after Dyson wrote the seminal paper on them in 1959. Here's some great further reading on the concept conceived by one of the most delightful scientific iconoclast minds the 20th century produced - Freeman Dyson's. And I had no idea Dyson has no PhD. You learn something new every day! DaveScot
It's an interesting speech, though I was hoping he would mention Darwin or cosmological fine-tuning. crandaddy
Wow, interesting fella, that Mr. Dyson. I can agree with his views on global warming and America, but he caught me off guard with the do-it-yourself biotech thing. Hmmm...... Anyway, heretics, go for it! jacktone

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