Sunday, January 20, 2008

Our rosy future, according to Freeman Dyson

Climate change is nothing to worry about, says the eminent physicist. Let's celebrate genetic engineering and our ability to design a new world of plants and creatures.

In his new collection of essays, "A Many-Colored Glass," renowned physicist Freeman Dyson turns his thoughts to do-it-yourself biotech and breeding one's own pet lizard, the fallacies of global warming science, science fiction (with a tip of the hat to recently departed Madeleine L'Engle) and the importance of biology to the future of religion.

To Dyson, a deeper understanding of the human brain means a better understanding of theology and perhaps more tolerance for those with different beliefs.

Such broad-spectrum thinking, particularly for a scientist, usually puts you in one of two camps: quack or genius. Dyson has been called both. Yet his penchant for challenging conventional wisdom is matched by a sense of humor, a necessary attribute for any scientist who has seen seven decades' worth of scientific hits and flops -- some of them his own.

In the science world, Dyson is best known for unifying the three versions of quantum electrodynamics invented by Julian Schwinger, Shinichiro Tomonaga and his friend and colleague Richard Feynman. But it's his broader writings on nuclear weapons, the science of immortality and the expectation of extraterrestrial intelligence that have captured the public.

Dyson is quick to remind readers that he's a scientist, not a soothsayer. He has said that "it is better to be wrong than to be vague" and has certainly suffered the former rather than the latter. Recalling his advice to a young Francis Crick to stick with physics rather than waste his time in biology, Dyson quips, "When I was a young and arrogant physicist, I tried to predict the future of physics and biology. 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's 82."

Dyson never earned a Ph.D., but in addition to his 18 honorary degrees he has received numerous awards, ranging from the National Book Critics Circle Award for his 1984 book, "Weapons and Hope," about the nuclear threat, to the 2000 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. Among his six children are digital age guru Esther Dyson and science historian George Dyson.

To read "A Many-Colored Glass" is to get a sense of the wonder and awe that continue to drive our successes and failures at understanding the world around us. While Dyson continues to write prolifically, if you ask him what he's up to, he's apt to refer to his work as "scribbling equations on paper." In conversation, Dyson is studied and frank, unafraid of one-word responses -- all the better, it seems, to spirit him along to a question he might like better.

You write that it's impossible to observe both the scientific and the religious aspects of human nature at the same time. What do you mean?

For me, science is just a box of tricks, and I enjoy playing with them. It's a form of exercise. It has nothing to do with philosophy, certainly even less to do with religion. It's essentially just a skill that I happen to have learned. Some people think about science much more solemnly. For me, science has nothing much to do with deep thoughts.

Do you think science and religion are at odds?

No. I think it's only a small fraction of people who think that. Perhaps they have louder voices than the others.

What do you think of what Richard Dawkins is doing.

I think Richard Dawkins is doing a lot of damage. I disagree very strongly with the way he's going about it. I don't deny his right to be an atheist, but I think he does a great deal of harm when he publicly says that in order to be a scientist, you have to be an atheist. That simply turns young people away from science. He's convinced a lot of young people not to be scientists because they don't want to be atheists. I'm strongly against him on that question. It's simply not true what he's saying, and it's not only not true but also harmful. The fact is that many of my friends are much more religious than I am and are first-rate scientists. There's absolutely nothing that stops you from being both.

Dawkins calls religion as a virus.

I disagree totally. He has the arrogance to say that anyone who does not share his views is infected with a virus. No wonder he cannot coexist peacefully with them.

You've mentioned that you believe in God. How would you characterize your religion?

For me, religion is much more about a community of people than about belief. It's fine literature and music. As far as I can tell, people who belong to my church don't necessarily believe anything. Certainly we don't talk about that much. I suppose I'm a better Jew than I am a Christian. Jewish religion is much more a matter of community than it is of belief, and I think that's true of us Christians to a great extent, too.

Were your parents Christians?

Yes. Nominally. I would say they're practicing Christians, but not believing Christians.

What's the difference?

Oh, it's totally different. A practicing Christian is somebody who lives a Christian life and likes to worship in common with a lot of other people and considers the church as a community to which to belong, but you don't inquire closely as to what the others believe. Of course, some people take belief very seriously, and others don't.

You've said, "My conception of God is not weakened by my not knowing whether the physical universe is open or closed, finite or infinite, simple or multiple. God for me is a mystery, and will remain a mystery after we know the answers to these questions ... I cannot imagine that he is greatly impressed by our juvenile efforts to read his mind."

I don't remember the context out of which this remark arose. Maybe I was thinking of the fight between Galileo and the Aristotelian philosophers of his day. The Aristotelians wanted to keep the heavens separate from the earth so there would be room for God in the sky. Galileo said the moon was a world like the earth with mountains and seas. Translated into modern language, Galileo was saying that the size and shape of the universe are not telling us anything about God.

Physicist Richard Feynman has said that nobody understands quantum mechanics. Has the interpretation of quantum mechanics become a religion among scientists?

I wouldn't say that. For me, the important thing about quantum mechanics is the equations, the mathematics. If you want to understand quantum mechanics, just do the math. All the words that are spun around it don't mean very much. It's like playing the violin. If violinists were judged on how they spoke, it wouldn't make much sense.

You write that as our understanding of biology advances, so too will our understanding of religion.

It impacts upon our understanding of theology. What I was pointing out is that human theology is based on our own value system -- above all our knowledge of good and evil as we experience it. Take an autistic child. I took the case of Jessica Park, who is a friend of mine who happens to be autistic. If she had a theology, it would be quite different because she cannot understand other people suffering. She has no conception of other people's existence in the way we have. It's a radically different world that she lives in. You can tell by the fact that she can't understand the difference between "I" and "you." She uses the words indiscriminately.

So the idea of a suffering savior would have no meaning for her at all. If she had a theology, it wouldn't involve sin. One thing that is characteristic of autistic people is that they cannot tell a lie. Jessica never tells a lie because to tell a deliberate lie, you have to have the idea of deceiving somebody. That's something she couldn't imagine. Since there is no sin, there can be no fall from grace and no redemption.

The example of Jessica shows us how our own view of the world might be equally skewed. There may be many essential features of the world to which we are blind, just as she is blind to other people's thoughts and feelings. So our theology also reflects our possibly skewed view of the world.

Article Courtesy : Onnesha Roychoudhuri/

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Alien Attack

President Dubya was awakened one night by an urgent call from the Pentagon.

"Mr. President," said the four-star general, barely able to contain himself, "there's good news & bad news."

"Oh, no," muttered the President, "Well, let me have the bad news first."

"The bad news, sir, is that we've been invaded by creatures from another planet."

"Gosh, and the good news?"

"The good news, sir, is that they eat reporters and pee oil."

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Farm Fugitives

A Welshman, an Englishman and a Irishman were being chased by Farmer Giles with a shotgun. After 10 minutes of running they spotted a barn and ran inside.

Once inside they each hid in a old sack against the barn wall. The farmer went into the barn but did not see where they went, he was about to turn back when he saw three suspicious looking sacks. He walked forward and prodded the first sack with his gun. The Englishman inside said... ''Meow'.'

"Just cats," he thought.

He then prodded the second sack. The Welshman, hearing how the Englishman got off said... ''Woof'.'

"Just dogs," he thought.

As he walked towards the last sack, the Irishman worked out what he was going to say. As soon as the farmer prodded his sack he said... ''Potatoes!''