Freeman Dyson

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Mentioned Freeman Dyson’s “Astrochicken” idea in the “Afflictor’s 50 Great 2016 Nonfiction Pieces” post and just realized last year was the one the physicist targeted for the realization this tiny spacecraft that would be not built but grown. Well, most futurists are too aggressive with their time frames. Still nothing theoretically impossible about it.

First encountered the thought experiment in Infinite in All Directions, a template of sorts for all Dyson’s great science-fiction-ish essays and lectures that were to follow (though he first proposed this noveau spacecraft in 1979’s Disturbing the Universe). In reviewing Infinite in the New York Times, Roger Penrose wrote: “His centerpiece is a one-kilogram spacecraft ‘astrochicken,’ which will be ready to launch in 2016. It will not be built but grown by the use of genetic engineering, and it will depend on artificial intelligence and solar-electric propulsion for its operation. Accompanying it will be a ‘Martian potato,’ a ‘comet creeper’ and a ‘space butterfly.'”

An excerpt:

The basic idea of Astrochicken is that the spacecraft will be small and quick. I do not believe that a fruitful future for space science lies along the path we are now following, with space missions growing larger and larger and fewer and fewer and slower and slower as the decades go by. I propose a radical step in the direction of smallness and quickness. Astrochicken will weigh a kilogram instead of Voyager’s ton, and it will travel from Earth into orbit around Uranus in two years instead {197} of Voyager’s nine. The spacecraft must be far more versatile than Voyager. It must land on each of Uranus’ moons, roam around on their surfaces, see where it is going, taste the stuff it is walking on, take off into space again, and navigate around Uranus until it decides to make a landing somewhere else. To do all this with a 1-kilogram spacecraft sounds crazy to people who have to work and plan within the constraints of today’s technology. Perhaps it will still be crazy in 2016. Perhaps not. I am dreaming of the new technologies which might make such a crazy mission possible.

Three kinds of new technology are needed. All three are likely to become available for use by the year 2016. All three are already here in embryonic form and are advanced far enough to have names. Their names are genetic engineering, artificial intelligence and solar-electric propulsion. Genetic engineering is fundamental. It is the essential tool required in order to design a 1-kilogram spacecraft with the capabilities of Voyager. Astrochicken will not be built, it will be grown. It will be organized biologically and its blueprints will be written in the convenient digital language of DNA. It will be a symbiosis of plant and animal and electronic components. The plant component has to provide a basic life-support system using closed-cycle biochemistry with sunlight as the energy source. The animal component has to provide sensors and nerves and muscles with which it can observe and orient itself and navigate to its destination. The electronic component has to receive instructions from Earth and transmit back the results of its observations. During the next thirty years we will be gaining experience in the art of designing biological systems of this sort. We will be learning how to coordinate the three components so that they work smoothly together.

Artificial intelligence is the tool required to integrate the animal and electronic components into a working symbiosis. If the integration is successful, Astrochicken could be as agile as a hummingbird with a brain weighing no more than a gram. The information-handling apparatus is partly neural and partly electronic. An artificial intelligence machine is a computer {198} designed to function like a brain. A computer of this sort will be made compatible with a living nervous system, so that information will flow freely in both directions across the interface between neural and electronic circuits.

The third new technology required for Uranus 2 is solar-electric propulsion. To get from Earth to Uranus in two years requires a speed of 50 kilometers per second, too fast for any reasonable multistage chemical rocket. It is also too fast for solar sails. Nuclear propulsion of any kind is impossible in a 1-kilogram spacecraft. Solar-electric propulsion is the unique system which can economically give a high velocity to a small pay load. In this system, solar energy is collected by a large, thin antenna and converted with modest efficiency into thrust. The spacecraft carries a small ion-jet motor which uses propel-lant sparingly and gives an acceleration of the order of a milligee.

Nobody has yet done the careful engineering development to demonstrate that the energy of sunlight can be converted into thrust with a power-to-weight ratio of 1 kilowatt per kilogram. That is what Uranus 2 needs. But solar-electric propulsion is probably an easier technology to develop than genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. Since I am talking science fiction, I shall assume that all three technologies will be available for our use in 2016. I can then give a rough sketch of the Uranus 2 mission.

The mission begins with a conventional launch taking the spacecraft from Earth into orbit. Since the spacecraft weighs only 1 kilogram, it can easily ride on any convenient launcher. During the launch, the spacecraft is packaged into a compact shape, and the biological components are busy reorganizing themselves for life in space. During this phase the spacecraft is a fertilized egg, externally inert but internally alive, waiting for the right moment to emerge in the shape of an Astro-chicken. After it is in a low Earth orbit, it will emerge from its package and deploy the life-support apparatus needed for survival in space. It will deploy, or grow, a thin-film solar collector. The collector weighs 100 grams and collects {199} sunlight from an area of 100 square meters. It feeds a kilowatt of power into the little ion-drive engine which sends the spacecraft on its way with a milligee acceleration sustained for several months. This is enough to escape from Earth’s gravity and arrive at Uranus within two years. The same 100-square-meter collector serves as a radio antenna for two-way communication with Earth. This is ten times the area of the Voyager high-gain antenna. For the same rate of information transmitted, the transmitter power of Astrochicken can be ten times smaller than Voyager, 2 watts instead of 20 watts.

The spacecraft arrives at Uranus at 50 kilometers per second and grazes the outer fringe of the Uranus atmosphere. The 100-square-meter solar collector now acts as an efficient atmospheric brake. Because the collector is so light, it is not heated to extreme temperatures as it decelerates. The peak temperature turns out to be about 800 Celsius or 1500 Fahrenheit. The atmospheric braking lasts for about half a minute and produces a peak deceleration of 100 gees. The spacecraft leaves Uranus with speed reduced to 20 kilometers per second and passes near enough to one of the moons to avoid hitting Uranus again. It is then free to navigate around at leisure among the moons and rings. The solar-electric propulsion system, using the feeble sunlight at Uranus, is still able to give the spacecraft an acceleration of a tenth of a milligee, enough to explore the whole Uranus system over a period of a few years.

The spacecraft must now make use of its biological functions to refuel itself. First it navigates to one of the rings and browses there, eating ice and hydrocarbons and replenishing its supply of propellant. If one ring tastes bad it can try another, moving around until it finds a supply of nutrients with the right chemistry for its needs. After eating its fill, it will use its internal metabolic processes with the input of energy from sunlight to convert the food into chemical fuels. Chemical fuels are needed for jumping onto moons and off again. Solar-electric propulsion gives too small a thrust for jumping. The spacecraft carries a small auxiliary chemical rocket system for {200} this purpose. We know that a chemical rocket system is biologically possible, because there exists on the Earth a creature called the Bombardier beetle which uses a chemical rocket to bombard its enemies with a scalding jet of hot liquid. It manufactures chemical fuels within its body and combines them in its rocket chamber to produce the scalding jet. Astrochicken will borrow its chemical rocket system from the Bombardier beetle. The Bombardier beetle system will give it the ability to accelerate with short bursts of high thrust to escape from the feeble gravity of the Uranus moons. The spacecraft may also prefer to use the Bombardier beetle system for jumping quickly from one place to another on a moon rather than walking laboriously over the surface. While living on the surface of a moon, the Astrochicken will continue to eat and to keep the Bombardier beetle fuel tanks filled. From time to time it will transmit messages to Earth informing us about its adventures and discoveries.

That is not the end of my dream, but it is the end of my chapter. I have told enough about the Uranus 2 mission to give the flavor of it. The underlying idea of Uranus 2 is that we should apply to the development of technology the lessons which nature teaches us in the history of the evolution of life. Birds and dinosaurs were cousins, but birds were small and agile while dinosaurs were big and clumsy. Big main-frame computers, nuclear power stations and Space Shuttle are dinosaurs. Microcomputers, STIG gas turbines, Voyager and Astrochicken are birds. The future belongs to the birds. The JPL engineers now have their dreams on board the Voyager speeding on its way to Neptune. I hope the next generation of engineers will have their dreams riding on Uranus 2 in 2016.•

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I read Sean Penn’s “El Chapo Speaksat the beginning of 2016, and spent the rest of the year trying to absorb as many great articles as I could to erase from my mind the awful reporting and prose. “Espinoza is the owl who flies among falcons,” wrote the actor-director-poetaster. Yes, Sean, okay, but go fuck yourself.

The following 50 articles made me feel pretty good again. In time, I myself once more began to fly among the falcons.

Congratulations to all the wonderful writers who made the list. My apologies for not reading more small journals and sites, but the time and money of any one person, myself included, is limited.


1) “Latina Hotel Workers Harness Force of Labor and of Politics in Las Vegas” and 2) “A Fighter’s Hour of Need(Dan Barry, New York Times).

As good as any newspaper writer–or whatever you call such people now–Barry reports and composes like a dream. The first piece has as good a kicker as anyone could come up with–even if life subsequently kicked back in a shocking way–and the second is a heartbreaker about the immediate aftermath of a 2013 boxing match in which Magomed Abdusalamov suffered severe brain damage.

Even when Barry shares a byline, I still feel sure I can pick out his sentences, so flawless and inviting they are. One example of that would be…

3) “An Alt-Right Makeover Shrouds the Swastikas by Barry, Serge F. Kovaleski, Julie Turkewitz and Joseph Goldstein.

An angle used to dismiss the idea that the Make America Great White Again message resonated with a surprising, depressing number of citizens has been to point out that some Trump supporters also voted for Obama. That argument seems simplistic. Some bigots aren’t so far gone that they can’t vote for a person of a race they dislike if they feel it’s in their best interests financially or otherwise. That is to say, some racially prejudiced whites voted for President Obama. Trump appealed to them to find their worst selves. Many did.

Likewise the Trump campaign emboldened far worse elements, including white nationalists and separatists and anti-Semites. Thinking they’d been perhaps permanently marginalized, these hate groups are now updating their “brand,” hiding yesterday’s swastikas and burning crosses and other “bad optics,” and referring to themselves not as neo-Nazis but by more vaguely appealing monikers like “European-American advocates.” It’s the same monster wrapped in a different robe, the mainstreaming of malevolence, and they won’t again be easily relegated to the fringe regardless of Trump’s fate.

This group of NYT journalists explores a beast awakened and energized by Trump’s ugly campaign. It’s a great piece, though we should all probably stop calling these groups by their preferred KKK 2.0 alias of “alt-right.”

4) “No, Trump, We Can’t Just Get Along” (Charles Blow, New York Times)

In the hours after America elected, if barely, a Ku Klux Kardashian, most pundits and talk-show hosts encouraged all to support this demagogue, as if we could readily forget that he was a racist troll who demanded the first African-American President show his birth certificate, a deadbeat billionaire who didn’t pay taxes or many of his contracted workers, a draft-dodger who mocked our POWs while praising Putin, a sexual predator who boasted about his assaults, a xenophobe who blamed Mexicans and Muslims, a bigot who had a long history of targeting African-Americans with the zeal of a one-man lynching bee. In a most passionate and lucid shot across the bow, Blow said “no way,” penning an instant classic, speaking for many among the disenfranchised majority. 

5) “Lunch with the FT: Burning Man’s Larry Harvey (Tim Bradshaw, Financial Times)

If self-appointed Libertarian overlord Grover Norquist, a Harvard graduate with a 13-year-old’s understanding of government and economics, ever had his policy preferences enacted fully, it would lead to worse lifestyles and shorter lifespans for the majority of Americans. In fact, we now get to see many of his idiotic ideas played out in real-life experiments. He’s so eager to Brownback the whole country he’s convinced himself, despite being married to a Muslim woman, there’s conservative bona fides in Trump’s Mussolini-esque stylings and suspicious math.

In 2014, Norquist made his way to the government-less wonderland known as Burning Man, free finally from those bullying U.S. regulations, the absence of which allows Chinese business titans to breathe more freely, if not literally. Norquist’s belief that the short-term settlement in the Nevada desert is representative of what the nation could be every day is no less silly than considering Spring Break a template for successful marriage. He was quote as saying: “Burning Man is a refutation of the argument that the state has a place in nature.” Holy fuck, who passed him the peyote?

In his interview piece, Bradshaw broke bread in San Francisco with Harvey, co-founder of Burning Man and its current “Chief Philosophic Officer,” who speaks fondly of rent control and the Bernie-led leftward shift of the Democratic Party. Norquist would not approve, even if Harvey is a contradictory character, insisting he has a “conservative sensibility” and lamenting the way many involved in social justice fixate on self esteem.

6) “The World Wide Cageand 7)Humans Have Long Wished to Fly Like Birds: Maybe We Shall” (Nicholas Carr, Aeon)

One of the best critics of our technological society keeps getting better.

The former piece is the introduction to Carr’s essay collection Utopia Is Creepy. The writer argues (powerfully) that we’ve defined “progress as essentially technological,” even though the Digital Age quickly became corrupted by commercial interests, and the initial thrill of the Internet faded as it became “civilized” in the most derogatory, Twain-ish use of that word. To Carr, the something gained (access to an avalanche of information) is overwhelmed by what’s lost (withdrawal from reality). The critic applies John Kenneth Galbraith’s term “innocent fraud” to the Silicon Valley marketing of techno-utopianism. 

You could extrapolate this thinking to much of our contemporary culture: binge-watching endless content, Pokémon Go, Comic-Con, fake Reality TV shows, reality-altering cable news, etc. Carr suggests we use the tools of Silicon Valley while refusing the ethos. Perhaps that’s possible, but I doubt you can separate such things.

The latter is a passage about biotechnology which wonders if science will soon move too fast not only for legislation but for ethics as well. The “philosophy is dead” assertion that’s persistently batted around in scientific circles drives me bonkers because we dearly need consideration about our likely commandeering of evolution. Carr doesn’t make that argument but instead rightly wonders if ethics is likely to be more than a “sideshow” when garages aren’t used to just hatch computer hardware or search engines but greatly altered or even new life forms. The tools will be cheap, the “creativity” decentralized, the “products” attractive. As Freeman Dyson wrote nearly a decade ago: “These games will be messy and possibly dangerous.”

8) “Calum Chace: Ask Me Anything” (Chace, Reddit)

The writer, an all-around interesting thinker, conducted an AMA based on his book, The Economic Singularity, which envisions a future–and not such a far-flung one–when human labor is a thing of the past. It’s certainly possible since constantly improving technology could make fleets of cars driverless and factories workerless. In fact, there’s no reason why they can’t also be ownerless. 

What happens then? How do we reconcile a free-market society with an automated one? In the long run, it could be a great victory for humanity, but getting from here to there will be bumpy.

9) “England’s Post-Imperial Stress Disorder(Andrew Brown, Boston Globe)

Not being intimately familiar with the nuances of the U.K.’s politics and culture, I’m wary of assigning support for Brexit to ugly nativist tendencies, but it does seem a self-harming act provoked by the growing pains of globalism. It’s not nearly as dumb a move as a President Trump, for instance, but some of the same forces are at play, particularly when it comes to the pro-Brexit, anti-immigration UKIP party.

It’s not shocking that Britain and the U.S. are trying to dodge the arrival of a new day and greater competition, a time when empires can’t merely strike back at will. We’re richer now, we have better things, but the distribution is very uneven and we feel poor inside. For some, maybe a surprising number, blame must be assigned to the “others.” As Randy Newman sang: “The end of an empire is messy at best.”

10) My President Was Black” (Ta-Nahesi Coates, The Atlantic)

It wasn’t the color of President Obama’s suit that so bothered his critics but the color of his skin. Sure, Bill Clinton was impeached and John Kerry swiftboated, but there was something so deeply disqualifying about the antagonism that faced 44, something beyond mere partisanship, which boiled over into Birtherism, interruptions during the State of the Union, denial of his Christian faith and vicious insults hurled at his gorgeous wife.

The old adage that black people have to be twice as good at a job as white people proved to be mathematically refutable: The Obamas were a million times better, and it wasn’t nearly enough for their detractors. When Obama even mildly suggested that institutional racism still existed, something he rarely did, he was labeled a “jerk” by prominent Republicans. Worse yet, his most overtly bigoted tormentor will succeed him in the White House. 

That raises an obvious question: If the perfect son isn’t good enough, then what kind of chance do his siblings have?

In a towering essay, Coates reflects on Obama’s history and the “fitful spasmodic years” of his White House tenure, which had pluses and minuses but were a gravity-defying time of true accomplishment which will never happen the same way again. In addition to macro ideas about race and identity, Coates’ writing on the Justice Department under this Administration is of particular importance.

11) “The Problem With Obama’s Faith in White America (Tressie McMillan Cottom, The Atlantic)

Hope is usually audacious but sometimes misplaced.

Without that feeling of expectation in a country founded on white supremacy that has never erased institutional racism, Barack Hussein Obama would certainly have never been elected President of the United States, not once, let alone twice. But his hope has also served as an escape hatch for white Americans who wanted to not only ignore the past but also the present. By stressing the best in us, Obama overlooked the worst of us, and that worst has never gone away.

It’s doubtful he behaved this way merely due to political opportunism: Obama seems a true believer in America and the ideals it espouses but has never lived up to. I love him and Michelle and think they’re wonderful people, but the nation has never been as good as they are, and even on a good day I’m unsure we even aspire to be. A painfully true Atlantic essay by Cottom meditates on these ideas.

12) “We’re Coming Close to the Point Where We Can Create People Who Are Superior to Others” (Hannah Devlin, The Guardian)

Devlin interviews novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, who wonders if liberal democracy will be doomed by a new type of wealth inequality, the biological kind, in which gene editing and other tools make enhancement and improved health available only to the haves. Ishiguro isn’t a fatalist on the topic, encouraging more public engagement.

Some believe exorbitantly priced technologies created for the moneyed few will rapidly decrease in price and make their way inside everyone’s pockets (and bodies and brains), the same distribution path blazed by consumer electronics. That’s possible but certainly not definite. Of course, as the chilling political winds of 2016 have demonstrated, liberal democracy may be too fragile to even survive to that point.

13) “The Privacy Wars Are About to Get a Whole Lot Worse” (Cory Doctorow, Locus Magazine)

Read the fine print. That’s always been good advice, but it’s never been taken seriously when it comes to the Internet, a fast-moving, seemingly ephemeral medium that doesn’t invite slowing down to contemplate. So companies attach a consent form to their sites and apps about cookies. No one reads it, and there’s no legal recourse from having your laptop or smartphone from being plundered for all your personal info. It quietly removes legal recourse from surveillance capitalism.

In an excellent piece, Doctorow explains how this oversight, which has already had serious consequences, will snake its way into every corner of our lives once the Internet of Things turns every item into a computer, cars and lamps and soda machines and TV screens. “Notice and consent is an absurd legal fiction,” he writes, acknowledging that it persists despite its ridiculous premise and invasive nature.

14) “The Green Universe: A Vision” (Freeman Dyson, New York Review of Books)

I’ve probably enjoyed Dyson’s “pure speculation” writings as much as anything I’ve read during my life, particularly the Imagined Worlds lecture and his NYRB essays and reviews. In this piece, the physicist goes far beyond his decades-old vision of an “Astrochicken” (a spacecraft that’s partly biological), conjuring a baseball-sized, biotech Noah’s Ark that can “seed” the Universe with millions of species of life. “Sometime in the next few hundred years, biotechnology will have advanced to the point where we can design and breed entire ecologies of living creatures adapted to survive in remote places away from Earth,” he writes. It’s a spectacular dream, though we may bury ourselves beneath water or ash long before it can come to fruition, especially with the threat of climate change.

15) “The Augmented Human Being: A Conversation With George Church” (Edge)

CRISPR’s surprising success has swept us into an age when it all seems possible: the manipulation of humans, animals and plants, even perhaps of extinct species. Which way forward?

The geneticist Church, who has long had visions of rejuvenated woolly mammoths and augmented humans, realizes some bristle at manipulation of the Homo sapiens germline because it calls into question all we are, but apart from metaphors, there are also very real practical concerns over the games getting messy and possibly dangerous. The good (diseases being edited out of existence, organs being tailored to transplantees, etc.) shouldn’t be dreams permanently deferred, but it is difficult to understand how bad applications will be contained. Of course, the negative will probably unfold regardless, so we owe it ourselves to pursue the positive, if carefully. Church himself is on board with a cautious approach but not one that’s unduly so.

16) “The Empty Brain(Robert Epstein, Aeon)

Since the 16th century, the human brain has often been compared to a machine of one sort or another, with it being likened to a computer today. The idea that the brain is a machine seems true, though the part about gray matter operating in a similar way to the gadgets that currently sit atop our laps or in our palms is likely false. 

In a wonderfully argumentative and provocative essay, psychologist Epstein says this reflexive labeling of human brains as information processors is a “story we tell to make sense of something we don’t actually understand.” He doesn’t think the brain is tabula rasa but asserts that it doesn’t store memories like an Apple would.

It’s a rich piece of writing full of ideas and examples, though I wish Epstein would have relied less on the word “never” (e.g., “we will never have to worry about a human mind going amok in cyberspace”), because while he’s almost certainly correct about the foreseeable future, given enough time no one knows how the machines in our heads and pockets will change.

17) “North Korea’s One-Percenters Savor Life in ‘Pyonghattan‘” (Anna Fifield, The Washington Post)

Even in Kim Jong-un’s totalitarian state there are haves and have-nots who experience wildly different lifestyles. In the midst of the politically driven arrests and murders, military parades and nuclear threats, there exists a class of super rich kids familiar with squash courts, high-end shopping and fine dining. “Pyonghattan,” it’s called, this sphere of Western-ish consumerist living, which is, of course, just a drop in the bucket when compared to the irresponsible splurges of the Rodman-wrangling “Outstanding Leader.” Still weird, though.

18) “Being Leonard Cohen’s Rabbi (Rabbi Mordecai Finley, Jewish Journal)

The poet of despair, who lived for a time in a monastery, spent some of his last decade discussing spirituality and more earthly matters with the Los Angeles-based rabbi, who explains how the Jewish tradition informed Cohen’s work. “We shared a common language, a common nightmare,” he writes. One remark the prophet of doom made to Finley hits especially hard with the demons awakened during this election season: “You won’t like what comes next after America.”

19) Five Books Interview: Ellen Wayland-Smith Discusses Utopias (Five Books)

In a smart Q&AWayland-Smith, author of Oneida, talks about a group of titles on the topic of Utopia. She surmises that attempts at such communities aren’t prevalent like they were in the 1840s or even the 1960s because most of us realize they don’t normally end well, whether we’re talking about the bitter financial and organizational failures of Fruitlands and Brook Farm or the utter madness of Jonestown. That’s true on a micro-community level, though I would argue that there have never been more people dreaming of large-scale Utopias–and corresponding dystopias–then there are right now. The visions have just grown significantly in scope.

In macro visions, Silicon Valley technologists speak today of an approaching post-scarcity society, an automated, quantified, work-free world in which all basic needs are met and drudgery has disappeared into a string of zeros and ones. These thoughts were once the talking points of those on the fringe, say, a teenage guru who believed he could levitate the Houston Astrodome, but now they (and Mars settlements, a-mortality and the computerization of every object) are on the tongues of the most important business people of our day, billionaires who hope to shape the Earth and beyond into a Shangri-La. 

Perhaps much good will come from these goals, and maybe a few disasters will be enabled as well. 

20) “Sam Altman’s Manifest Destiny” (Tad Friend, New Yorker)

Friend’s “Letter from California” articles in the New Yorker are probably the long-form journalism I most anticipate, because he’s so good at understanding distinct milieus and those who make them what they are, revealing the micro and macro of any situation or subject and sorting through psychological motivations that drive the behavior of individuals or groups. To put it concisely: He gets ecosystems.

The writer’s latest effort, a profile of Y Combinator President Sam Altman, a stripling yet a strongman, reveals someone who has almost no patience for or interest in most people yet wants to save the world–or something.

It’s not a hit job, as Altman really has no intent to offend or injure, but it vivisects Silicon Valley’s Venture Capital culture and the outrageous hubris of those insulated inside its wealth and privilege, the ones who nod approvingly while watching Steve Jobs use Mahatma Gandhi’s image to sell wildly marked-up electronics made by sweatshop labor, and believe they also can think different.

When envisioning the future, Altman sees perhaps a post-scarcity, automated future where a few grand a year of Universal Basic Income can buy the jobless a bare existence (certainly not the big patch of Big Sur he owns), or maybe there’ll be complete societal collapse. Either or. More or less. If the latter occurs, the VC wunderkind plans to flee the carnage by jetting to the safety of his New Zealand spread with Peter Thiel, who has a moral blind spot reminiscent of Hitler’s secretary. A grisly death seems preferable. 

21) “The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans” (Neal Gabler, The Atlantic)

The term “middle class” was not always a nebulous one in America. It meant that you had arrived on solid ground and only the worst luck or behavior was likely to shake the earth beneath your feet. That’s become less and less true for four decades, as a number of factors (technology, globalization, tax codes, the decline of unions, the 2008 economic collapse, etc.) have conspired to hollow out this hallowed ground. You can’t arrive someplace that barely exists.

Middle class is now what you think you would be if you had any money. George Carlin’s great line that “the reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it” seems truer every day. It’s not so much a fear of falling anymore, but the fear of never getting up, at least not within the current financial arrangement. Those hardworking, decent people you see every day? They’re just as afraid as you are. They are you.

In the spirit of the great 1977 Atlantic article “The Gentle Art of Poverty” and William McPherson’s recent Hedgehog Review piece “Falling,” the excellent writer and film critic Gabler has penned an essay about his “secret shame” of being far poorer than appearances would indicate.

22) “Nate Parker and the Limits of Empathy(Roxane Gay, The New York Times)

We have to separate the art and the artist or we’ll end up without a culture, but it’s not always so easy to do. There was likely no more creative person who ever walked the Earth than David Bowie, whose death kicked off an awful 2016, yet the guy did have sex with children. And Pablo Picasso beat women, Louis-Ferdinand Céline was an anti-Semite, Anne Sexton molested her daughter and so on. In Gay’s smart, humane op-ed, she looks at the controversy surrounding Birth of a Nation writer-director Parker, realizing she can’t compartmentalize her feelings about creators and creations. Agree with her or not, but it’s certainly a far more suitable response than Stephen Galloway’s shockingly amoral Hollywood Reporter piece on the firestorm.

23) “The Case Against Reality (Amanda Gefter, The Atlantic)

A world in which Virtual Reality is in wide use would present a different way to see things, but what if reality is already not what we think it is? It’s usually accepted that we don’t all see things exactly the same way–not just metaphorically–and that our individual interpretation of stimuli is more a rough cut than an exact science. It’s a guesstimate. But things may be even murkier than we believe. Gefter interviews cognitive scientist Donald D. Hoffman who thinks our perception isn’t even a reliable simulacra, that what we take in is nothing like what actually is. It requires just a few minutes to read and will provoke hours of thought.

24) “Autocracy: Rules for Survival” (Masha Gessen, New York Review of Books)

For many of us the idea of a tyrant in the White House is unthinkable, but for some that’s all they can think about. These aren’t genuinely struggling folks in the Rust Belt whose dreams have been foreclosed on by the death rattle of the Industrial Age and made a terrible decision that will only deepen their wounds, but a large number of citizens with fairly secure lifestyles who want to unleash their fury on a world not entirely their own anymore. 

I’ve often wondered how Nazi Germany was possible, and I think this election has finally provided me with the answer. There has to be pervasive prejudice, sure, and it helps if there is a financially desperate populace, but I also think it’s the large-scale revenge of mediocrity, of people wanting to establish an order where might, not merit, will rule.

Gessen addresses the spooky parallels between Russia and this new U.S. as we begin what looks to be a Trump-Putin bromance. Her advice to those wondering if they’re being too paranoid about what may now occur: “Believe the autocrat.”

25) “The Future of Privacy” (William Gibson, New York Times)

What surprises me most about the new abnormal isn’t that surveillance has entered our lives but that we’ve invited it in.

For a coupon code or a “friend,” we’re willing to surrender privacy to a corporate state that wants to engage us, know us, follow us, all to better commodify us. In fact, we feel sort of left out if no one is watching.

It may be that in a scary world we want a brother looking after us even if it’s Big Brother, so we’ve entered into an era of likes and leaks, one that will only grow more profoundly challenging when the Internet of Things becomes the thing.

In a wonderful essay, Gibson considers privacy, history and encryption, those thorny, interrelated topics.

26) “Why You Should Believe in the Digital Afterlife” (Michael Graziano, The Atlantic)

When Russian oligarch Dmitry Itskov vows that by 2045 we’ll be able to upload our consciousness into a computer and achieve a sort of immortality, I’m perplexed. Think about the unlikelihood: It’s not a promise to just create a general, computational brain–difficult enough–but to precisely simulate particular human minds. That ups the ante by a whole lot. While it seems theoretically possible, this process may take awhile.

The Princeton neuroscientist Graziano plots the steps required to encase human consciousness, to create a second life that sounds a bit like Second Life. He acknowledges opinions will differ over whether we’ve generated “another you” or some unsatisfactory simulacrum, a mere copy of an original. Graziano’s clearly excited, though, by the possibility that “biological life [may become] more like a larval stage.”

27) “Big Data, Google and the End of Free Will” (Yuval Noah Harari, The Financial Times)

First we slide machines into our pockets, and then we slide into theirs.

As long as humans have roamed the Earth, we’ve been part of a biological organism larger than ourselves. At first, we were barely connected parts, but gradually we became a Global Village. In order for that connectivity to become possible, the bio-organism gave way to a technological machine. As we stand now, we’re moving ourselves deeper and deeper into a computer, one with no OFF switch. We’ll be counted, whether we like it or not. Some of that will be great, and some not.

The Israeli historian examines this new normal, one that’s occurred without close study of what it will mean for the cogs in the machine–us. As he writes, “humanism is now facing an existential challenge and the idea of ‘free will’ is under threat.”

28) “How Howard Stern Owned Donald Trump(Virginia Heffernan, Politico Magazine)

Whether it’s Howard Stern or that other shock jock Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump’s deep-seated need for praise has made him a mark for those who know how to push his buttons. In the 1990s, when the hideous hotelier was at a career nadir, he was a veritable Wack Packer, dropping by the Stern show to cruelly evaluate women and engage in all sorts of locker-room banter. Trump has dismissed these un-Presidential comments as “entertainment,” but his vulgarity off-air is likewise well-documented. He wasn’t out of his element when with the King of All Media but squarely in it. And it wasn’t just two decades ago. Up until 2014, Trump was still playing right along, allowing himself to be flattered into conversation he must have realized on some level was best avoided.

For Stern, who’s become somewhat less of an asshole as Trump has become far more of one, the joke was always that ugly men were sitting in judgement of attractive women. The future GOP nominee, however, was seemingly not aware he was a punchline. He’s a self-described teetotaler who somehow has beer goggles for himself. During this Baba Booey of an election season, Heffernan wrote knowingly of the dynamic between the two men.

29) “I’m Andrew Hessel: Ask Me Anything” (Hessel, Reddit)

If you like your human beings to come with fingers and toes, you may be disquieted by this undeniably heady AMA conducted by a futurist and a “biotechnology catalyst” at Autodesk. The researcher fields questions about a variety of flaws and illnesses plaguing people that biotech may be able to address, even eliminate. Of course, depending on your perspective, humanness itself can be seen as a failing, something to be “cured.”

30) “What If the Aliens We Are Looking For Are AI? (Richard Hollingham, BBC Future) 

If there are aliens out there, Sir Martin Rees feels fairly certain they’re conscious machines, not oxygen-hoarding humans. It’s just too inhospitable for carbon beings to travel beyond our solar system. He allows that perhaps cyborgs, a form of semi-organic post-humans, could possibly make a go of it. But that’s as close a reflection of ourselves we may be able to see in space. Hollingham explores this theory, wondering if a lack of contact can be explained by the limits we put on our search by expecting a familiar face in the final frontier.

31) “We Are Nowhere Close to the Limits of Athletic Performance” (Stephen Hsu, Nautilus

If performance-enhancing drugs weren’t at all dangerous to the athletes using them, should they be banned?

I bet plenty of people would say they should, bowing before some notion of competitive purity which has never existed. It’s also a nod to “god-given ability,” a curious concept in an increasingly agnostic world. Why should those born with the best legs and lungs be the fastest? Why should the ones lucky enough to have the greatest gray matter at birth be our best thinkers? Why should those fortunate to initially get the healthiest organs live the longest? It doesn’t make much sense to hold back the rest of the world out of respect for a few winners of the genetics lottery.

Hsu relates how genetic engineering will supercharge athletes and the rest of us, making widely available the gifts of Usain Bolt, who gained his from hard work, sure, but also a twist of fate. In fact, extrapolating much further, he believes “speciation seems a definite possibility.”

32) “How Democracies Fall Apart(Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz, Foreign Affairs

If we are hollow men (and women), American liberty, that admittedly unevenly distributed thing, may be over after 240 years. And it could very well end not with a bang but a whimper.

Those waiting for the moment when autocracy topples the normal order of things are too late. Election Day was that time. It’s not guaranteed that the nation transforms into 1930s Europe or that we definitely descend into tyranny, but the conditions have never been more favorable in modern times for the U.S. to capitulate to autocracy. The creeps are in office, and the creeping will be a gradual process. Don’t wait for an explosion; we’re living in its wake.

Kendall-Taylor and Frantz analyze how quietly freedom can abandon us.

33) Khizr Khan’s Speech to the 2016 Democratic National Convention (Khan, DNC)

Ever since Apple’sThink Different ad in 1997, the one in which Steve jobs used Gandhi’s image to sell marked-up consumer electronics made by sweatshop labor, Silicon Valley business titans have been celebrated the way astronauts used to be. Jobs, who took credit for that advertising campaign which someone else created, specifically wondered why we put on a pedestal those who voyage into space when he and his clever friends were changing the world–or something–with their gadgets. He believed technologists were the best and brightest Americans. He was wrong.

Some of the Valley’s biggest names filed dourly into Trump Tower recently in a sort of reverse perp walk. It was the same, sad spectacle of Al Gore’s pilgrimage, which was answered with Scott Pruitt, climate-change denier, being chosen EPA Chief. Perhaps they made the trek on some sort of utilitarian impulse, but I would guess there was also some element of self-preservation, not an unheard of sense of compromise for those who see their corporations as if they were countries, not only because of their elephantine “GDPs,” but also because of how they view themselves. I don’t think they’re all Peter Thiel, an emotional leper and intellectual fraud who now gets to play out his remarkably stupid theories in a large-scale manner. I’ve joked that Thiel has a moral blind spot reminiscent of Hitler’s secretary, but the truth is probably far darker. 

What would have been far more impressive would have been if Musk, Cook, Page, Sandberg, Bezos and the rest stopped downstairs in front of the building and read a statement saying that while they would love to aid any U.S. President, they could not in this case because the President-Elect has displayed vicious xenophobia, misogyny and callous disregard for non-white people throughout the campaign and in the election’s aftermath. He’s shown totalitarian impulses and has disdain for the checks and balances that make the U.S. a free country. In fact, with his bullying nastiness he continues to double down on his prejudices, which has been made very clear by not only his words but through his cabinet appointments. They could have stated their dream for the future doesn’t involve using Big Data to spy on Muslims and Mexicans or programming 3D printers to build internment camps on Mars. They might have noted that Steve Bannon, whom Trump chose as his Chef Strategist, just recently said that there were too many Asian CEOs in Silicon alley, revealing his white-nationalistic ugliness yet again. They could have refused to normalize Trump’s odious vision. They could have taken a stand.

They didn’t because they’re not our absolute finest citizens. Khizr and Ghazala Khan, who understand the essence of the nation in a way the tech billionaires do not, more truly represent us at our most excellent. They possess a wisdom and moral courage that’s as necessary as the Constitution itself. The Silicon Valley folks lack these essential qualities, and without them, you can’t be called our best and brightest.

And maybe Khan’s DNC speech is our ultimate Cassandra moment, when we didn’t listen, or maybe we did but when we looked deep inside for our better angels we came up empty. Regardless, he told the truth beautifully and passionately. When we went low, he went high.

34) “The Perfect Weapon: How Russian Cyberpower Invaded the U.S.” (Eric Lipton, David E. Sanger and Scott Shane)

It was thought that the Russian hacking of the U.S. Presidential election wasn’t met with an immediate response because no one thought Trump really had a chance to win, but the truth is the gravity of this virtual Watergate initially took even many veteran Washington insiders by surprise. This great piece of reportage provides deep and fascinating insight into one of the jaw-dropping scandals of an outrageous election season, which has its origins in the 1990s.

35) “Goodbye to Barack Obama’s World” (Edward Luce, The Financial Times

He must be taken seriously,” Luce wrote in the Financial Times in December 2015 of Donald Trump, as the anti-politician trolled the whole of America with his Penthouse-Apartment Pinochet routine, which seems to have been more genuine than many realized.

Like most, the columnist believed several months earlier that the Reality TV Torquemada was headed for a crash, though he rightly surmised the demons Trump had so gleefully and opportunistically awakened, the vengeful pangs of those who longed to Make America Great White Again, were not likely to dissipate.

But the dice were kind to the casino killer, and a string of accidents and incidents enabled Trump and the mob he riled to score enough Electoral College votes to turn the country, and world, upside down. It’s such an unforced error, one which makes Brexit seem a mere trifle, that it feels like we’ve permanently surrendered something essential about the U.S., that more than an era has ended.

In this post-election analysis, Luce looks forward for America and the whole globe and sees possibilities that are downright ugly.

36) “The Writer Who Was Too Strong To Live” (Dave McKenna, Deadspin)

A postmortem about Jennifer Frey, a journalistic prodigy of the 1990s who burned brilliantly before burning out. A Harvard grad who was filing pieces for newspapers before she was even allowed to drink–legally, that is–Frey was a full-time sportswriter for the New York Times by 24, out-thinking, out-hustling and out-filing even veteran scribes at a clip that was all but impossible. Frey seemed to have it all and was positioned to only get more.

Part of what she had, though, that nobody knew about, was bipolar disorder, which she self-medicated with a sea of alcohol. Career, family and friends gradually floated away, and she died painfully and miserably at age 47. The problem with formidable talent as much as with outrageous wealth is that it can be forceful enough to insulate a troubled soul from treatment. Then, when the fall finally occurs, as it must, it’s too late to rise once more.

37) “United States of Paranoia: They See Gangs of Stalkers” (Mike McPhate, The New York Times)

Sometimes mental illness wears the trappings of the era in which it’s experienced. Mike Jay has written beautifully in the last couple of years about such occurrences attending the burial of Napoleon Bonaparte and the current rise of surveillance and Reality TV. The latter is something of a Truman Show syndrome, in which sick people believe they’re being observed, that they’re being followed. To a degree, they’re right, we all are under much greater technological scrutiny now, though these folks have a paranoia which can drive such concerns into crippling obsessions.

Because we’re all connected now, the “besieged” have found one another online, banning together as “targeted individuals” who’ve been marked by the government (or some other group entity) for observation, harassment and mind control. McPhate’s troubling article demonstrates that the dream of endless information offering lucidity has been dashed for a surprising amount of people, that the inundation of data has served to confuse rather than clarify. These shaky citizens resemble those with alien abduction stories, except they seem to have been “shanghaied” by the sweep of history.

38) “The Long-Term Jobs Killer Is Not China. It’s Automation. (Claire Cain Miller, The New York Times)

Many people nowadays wonder what will replace capitalism, but I believe capitalism will be just fine.

You and me, however, we’re fucked.

The problem is that an uber technologized version of capitalism may not require as many of us or value as highly those who’ve yet to be relieved of their duties. Perhaps a thin crust at the very top will thrive, but without sound policy the rest may be Joads with smartphones. In this scenario, we’d be tracked and commodified, given virtual trinkets rather than be paid. Our privacy, like many of our jobs, will disappear into the zeros and ones.

While the orange supremacist was waving his penis in America’s face during the campaign, the thorny question of what to do should widespread automation be established was left unexplored. That’s terrifying, since more and more outsourcing won’t refer to work moved beyond borders but beyond species. Certainly great investment in education is required, but that won’t likely be enough. Not every freshly unemployed taxi driver can be upskilled into a driverless car software engineer. There’s not enough room on that road.

Miller, a reporter who understands both numbers and people in a way few do, analyzes how outsourcing will increasingly refer to work not moved beyond borders but beyond species.

39) “Nothing To Fear But Fear Itself(Sasha Von Oldershausen, Texas Monthly)

Surveillance is a murky thing almost always attended by a self-censorship, quietly encouraging citizens to abridge their communication because perhaps someone is watching or listening. It’s a chilling of civil rights that happens in a creeping manner. Nothing can be trusted, not even the mundane, not even your own judgement. That’s the goal, really, of such a system–that everyone should feel endlessly observed.

The West Texas border reporter finds similarities between her stretch of America, which feverishly focuses on security from intruders, and her time spent living under theocracy in Iran.

40) “Madness” (Eyal Press, The New Yorker)

“By the nineties, prisons had become America’s dominant mental-health institutions,” writes Press in this infuriating study of a Florida correctional facility in which guards tortured, brutalized, even allegedly murdered, inmates–and employed retaliatory measures against mental health workers who complained. Prison reform is supposedly one of those issues that has bipartisan support, but very little seems to get done in rehabilitating a system that warehouses many nonviolent offenders and mentally ill people among those who truly need to be incarcerated. It seems a breakdown of the institution but is more likely a perpetuation of business as it was intended to be. Either way, the situation needs all the scrutiny and investigation journalists can muster.

41) It May Not Feel Like Anything To Be an Alien(Susan Schneider, Nautilus)

Until deep into the twentieth century, most popular dreams of ETs usually centered on biology. We wanted new friends that reminded us of ourselves or were even cuter. When we accepted we had no Martian doppelgangers, a dejected resignation set in. Perhaps some sort of simple cellular life existed somewhere, but what thin gruel to digest.

Then a new reality took hold: Maybe advanced intelligence exists in space as silicon, not carbon. It’s postbiological.

If there are aliens out there, maybe they’re conscious machines, not oxygen-hoarding humans. It’s just too inhospitable for beings like us to travel beyond our solar system. He allows that cyborgs, a form of semi-organic post-humans, could possibly make a go of it. But that’s as close a reflection of ourselves we may be able to see in space. 

Soon enough, that may be true as well on Earth, a relatively young planet on which intelligence may be in the process of shedding its mortal coil. Another possibility: Perhaps intelligence is also discarding consciousness.

Schneider’s smart article asserts that “soon, humans will no longer be the measure of intelligence on Earth” and tries to surmise what that transition will mean.

42) “Schadenfreude with Bite(Richard Seymour, London Review of Books)

The problem with anarchy is that it has a tendency to get out of control.

In 2013, Eric Schmidt, the most perplexing of Googlers, wrote (along with Jared Cohen) the truest thing about our newly connected age: “The Internet is the largest experiment involving anarchy in history.”

Yes, indeed.

California was once a wild, untamed plot of land, and when people initially flooded the zone, it was exciting if harsh. But then, soon enough: the crowds, the pollution, the Adam Sandler films. The Golden State became civilized with laws and regulations and taxes, which was a trade-off but one that established order and security. The Web has been commodified but never been truly domesticated, so while the rules don’t apply it still contains all the smog and noise of the developed world. Like Los Angeles without the traffic lights.

Our new abnormal has played out for both better and worse. The fan triumphed over the professional, a mixed development that, yes, spread greater democracy on a surface level, but also left truth attenuated. Into this unfiltered, post-fact, indecent swamp slithered the troll, that witless, cowardly insult comic.

The biggest troll of them all, Donald Trump, the racist opportunist who stalked our first African-American President demanding his birth certificate, is succeeding Obama in the Oval Office, which is terrible for the country if perfectly logical for the age. His Lampanelli-Mussolini campaign also emboldened all manner of KKK 2.0, manosphere and neo-Nazi detritus in their own trolling, as they used social media to spread a discombobulating disinformation meant to confuse and distract so hate could take root and grow. No water needed; bile would do.

In the wonderfully written essay, Seymour analyzes the discomfiting age of the troll.

43) “An American Tragedy(David Remnick, The New Yorker)

It happened here, and Remnick, who spent years covering the Kremlin and many more thinking about the White House, was perfectly prepared to respond to a moment he hoped would never arrive. As the unthinkable was still unfolding and most felt paralyzed by the American embrace of a demagogue, the New Yorker EIC urgently warned of the coming normalization of the incoming Administration, instantly drawing a line that allowed for myriad voices to demand decency and insist on truth and facts, which is our best safeguard against the total deterioration of liberal governance.

44) “This Is New York in the Not-So-Distant Future” (Andrew Rice, New York)

Some sort of survival mechanism allows us to forget the full horror of a tragedy, and that’s a good thing. That fading of facts makes it possible for us to go on. But it’s dangerous to be completely amnesiac about disaster.

Case in point: In 2014, Barry Diller announced plans to build a lavish park off Manhattan at the pier where Titanic survivors came to shore. Dial back just a little over two years ago to another waterlogged disaster, when Hurricane Sandy struck the city, and imagine such an island scheme even being suggested then. The wonder at that point was whether Manhattan was long for this world. Diller’s designs don’t sound much different than the captain of a supposedly unsinkable ship ordering a swimming pool built on the deck just after the ship hit an iceberg.

Rice provides an excellent profile of scientist Klaus Joseph, who believes NYC, as we know it, has no future. The academic could be wrong, but if he isn’t, his words about the effects of Irene and Sandy are chilling: “God forbid what’s next.”

45) “The Newer Testament” (Robyn Ross, Texas Monthly)

A Lone Star State millennial using apps and gadgets to disrupt Big Church doesn’t really seem odder than anything else in this hyperconnected and tech-happy entrepreneurial age, when the way things have been are threatened at every turn. At Experience Life in Lubbock, Soylent has yet to replace wine and there’s no Virtual Reality confessionals, but self-described “computer nerd” Chris Galanos has done his best to take the “Old” out of the Old Testament with his buzzing, whirring House of God 2.0. Is nothing sacred anymore?

46) “The New Nationalism Of Brexit And Trump Is A Product Of The Digital Age” (Douglas Rushkoff, Fast Company)

“We are flummoxed by today’s nationalist, regressively anti-global sentiments only because we are interpreting politics through that now-obsolete television screen,” writes Rushkoff in this excellent piece about the factious nature of the Digital Age. The post-TV landscape is a narrowcasted one littered with an infinite number of granular choices and niches. It’s empowering in a sense, an opportunity to vote “Leave” to everything, even a future that’s arriving regardless of popular consensus. It’s a far cry from not that long ago when an entire world sat transfixed by Neil Armstrong’s giant leap. Now everyone is trying to land on the moon at the same time–and no one can agree where it is. It’s more democratic this way, but maybe to an untenable degree, perhaps to the point where it’s a new form of anarchy.

47) “The Incredible Fulk(Alexandra Suich, The Economist 1843)

The insanity of our increasingly scary wealth inequality is chronicled expertly in this richly descriptive article, even though it seems in no way intended as a hit piece. The title refers to Ken Fulk, Silicon Valley’s go-to “lifestyle designer,” who charges billionaires millions to create loud interiors, rooms stuffed with antique doors from shuttered mental institutions and musk-ox taxidermy, intended to “evoke feelings” or some such shit.

As the article says: “His spaces, when completed, have a theatrical quality to them, which Fulk plays up. Once he’s finished a project he often brings clients to their homes to show them the final product, a ceremony which he calls the ‘big reveal.’ For the Birches’ home in San Francisco, he hired men dressed as beefeaters to stand outside the entrance and musicians to play indoors. For another set of clients in Palm Springs, he hired synchronized swimmers, a camel and an impersonator to dress up and sing like Dean Martin.” It’s all good, provided a bloody revolution never occurs.

Fulk acknowledges a “tension between high and low” in his work. Know what else has tension? Nooses.

48) “Truth Is a Lost Game in Turkey. Don’t Let the Same Thing Happen to You.(Ece Temelkuran, The Guardian)

Nihilism is sometimes an end but more often a means.

Truth can be fuzzy and facts imprecise, but an honest pursuit of these precious goods allows for a basic decency, a sense of order. Bombard such efforts for an adequate length of time, convince enough people that veracity and reality are fully amorphous, and opportunities for mischief abound.

Break down the normal rules (written and unwritten ones), create an air of confusion with shocking behaviors and statements, blast an opening where anything is possible–even “unspeakable things”–and a democracy can fall and tyranny rise. The timing has to be right, but sooner or later that time will arrive.

Has such a moment come for America? The conditions haven’t been this ripe for at least 60 years, and nothing can now be taken for granted.

Temelkuran explains how Turkey became a post-truth state, a nation-sized mirage, and how the same fate may befall Europe and the U.S. She certainly shares my concerns about the almost non-stop use of the world “elites” to neutralize the righteous into paralysis.

49) “Prepping for Doomsday: Bunkers, Panic Rooms, and Going Off the Grid” (Clare Trapasso, Realtor.com)

Utter societal collapse in the United States may not occur in the immediate future, but it’s certainly an understandable time for a case of the willies. In advance of the November elections, the bunker business boomed, as some among us thought things would soon fall apart and busied themselves counting their gold coins and covering their asses. In a shocking twist, the result of the Presidential election has calmed many of the previously most panicked among us and activated the fears of the formerly hopeful.

50) “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Lives in the Future” (Caroline Winter, Bloomberg Businessweek)

Jacque Fresco, one of those fascinating people who walks through life building a world inside his head, hoping it eventually influences the wider one, is now into his second century of life. A futurist and designer who’s focused much of his work on sustainable living, technology and automation, Fresco is the brains behind the Venus Project, which encourages a post-money, post-scarcity, post-politician utopia. He’s clearly a template for many of today’s Silicon Valley aspiring game-changers.

Winter traveled to Middle-of-Nowhere, Florida (pop: Fresco + girlfriend and collaborator Roxanne Meadows), to write this smart portrait of the visionary after ten decades of reimagining the world according to his own specifications. He doesn’t think the road to a computer-governed utopia will be smooth, however. As Winter writes: “Once modern life gets truly hard, Fresco believes there will be a revolution that will clear the way for the Venus Project to be built. ‘There will be a lot of people getting shot, including me,’ he says wryly.” Well, he’s had a good run.•

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Even your average Silicon Valley billionaire would find it difficult to gain and maintain a footing on the Moon and Mars and more if playing by the established economics of Big Space. Fortunately, the increasing power and diminishing costs of components in the supercomputers in our pockets have enabled Little Space to compete, turning out satellites and such for a fraction of what it would cost NASA.

It’s this Space Race 2.0 at the heart of Freeman Dyson’s New York Review of Books piece in which he reviews a raft of recent titles on the topic. The scientist-writer frets about NASA and other government bodies for their excessive risk-aversion while acknowledging the cheap-enough-to-fail model may not be bold enough to enable us to fan out among the stars this century. He also analyzes the medium-size methods of deep-pocketed entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, who dream big while trying to trim costs like the little guys.

Ultimately, the reviewer is dissatisfied with all the books because they each focus on engineering to the exclusion of biotechnology, ignoring outré-but-not-impossible visions from the febrile mind of pioneering Russian rocket scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who prophesied there would be a time centuries in the future when we could alter and create species to enable them to assimilate in space. 

In one passage about more immediate matters, Dyson offers a common-sense retort to NASA’s fear of falling, arguing mistakes we’ve made on Earth with enclosed habitats like Biosphere 2 aren’t ones we’re destined to repeat. The excerpt::

Charles Wohlforth and Amanda Hendrix’s Beyond Earth describes the prospects for future manned space missions conducted within the Big Space culture. The prospects are generally dismal, for two reasons. The authors suppose that a main motivation for such missions is a desire of humans to escape from catastrophic climate change on Earth. They also suppose any serious risks to the life and health of astronauts to be unacceptable. Under these conditions, few missions are feasible, and most of them are unattractive. Their preferred mission is a human settlement on Titan, the moon of Saturn that most resembles Earth, with a dense atmosphere and a landscape of gentle hills, rivers, and lakes.

But the authors would not permit the humans to grow their own food on Titan. Farming is considered to be impossible because an enclosed habitat with the name Biosphere Two was a failure. It was built in Arizona and occupied in 1991 by eight human volunteers who were supposed to be ecologically self-sufficient, recycling air and water and food in a closed system. The experiment failed because of a number of mistakes in the design. The purpose of such an experiment should be to learn from the failure how to avoid such mistakes in the future. The notion that the failure of a single experiment should cause the abandonment of a whole way of life is an extreme example of the risk-averseness that has come to permeate the Big Space culture.

Farming is an art that achieved success after innumerable failures. So it was in the past and so it will be in the future. Any successful human settlement in space will begin as the Polynesian settlements in the Pacific islands began, with people bringing pigs and chickens and edible plants on their canoes, along with the skills to breed them. The authors of Beyond Earth imagine various possible futures for human settlement in various places, but none of their settlers resemble the Polynesians.

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It’s a shame Freeman Dyson has gotten into a spitting match with people perplexed with his views on climate change (I’ve sometimes been one of them), and made intemperate comments on the topic, because having read his work extensively, it certainly seems he cares deeply about conservation and biodiversity. It’s just one of the stranger aspects of a distinguished scientific and writing career.

On another topic: Here’s the opening of Dyson’s latest NYRB piece, a brief essay about the new Taschen book, Expanding Universe, a spectacular collection of photography enabled by the Hubble Telescope, in which the writer marvels over how tiny particles can be more overwhelming than fully-formed bodies:

When we see things for the first time, the pictures are always a surprise. Nature’s imagination is richer than ours. We imagine things to be simple and Nature makes them complicated. In Expanding Universe, a magnificent selection of pictures taken by cameras on the Hubble Space Telescope, the big surprise is dust. We imagined a universe of stars and galaxies gleaming brightly against a black sky. What we see is multicolored patterns of fluid motion, looking like eddies in a river or clouds in a sunset. The patterns are made of dust. Dust is made of tiny solid grains of carbon and rock and metals. The grains condense out of cooling interstellar gas, just as grains of smoke condense out of cooling flames over a forest fire. Most of what we see in the universe is dust. The reason is simple. We see only the surfaces of things, so that things appear big in our pictures when they have a big surface area. Dust has far more surface area than stars or planets. That is why the most striking pictures in this book are pictures of dust. It is not accidental that the editors chose to print on the jacket a spectacular picture of a huge dustcloud giving birth to newborn stars in the constellation Carina.•

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Last week, I read Freeman Dyson’s 1997 book, Imagined Worlds, and I wanted to present one excerpt which seems more salient now than when it was written (although that pertains to a lot of the volume). The scientist assailed the way technology was destabilizing society and creating income inequality. That process has only accelerated since.

Two things about the excerpt below:

  1. Dyson did not realize how quickly computing power would become relatively affordable.
  2. That affordability hasn’t mitigated homelessness or income gaps in America.

The passage:

Today science has once again turned good into evil. This time the evil is not a war, but a civilian technology that systematically widens the gulf between rich and poor, deprives uneducated young people of jobs, and leaves large numbers of young mothers and children hopeless and homeless. The evil is to be seen in many places around the world, especially in the great cities of North and South America. When one walks through the streets of New York after dark during the Christmas season, one sees the widening gulf at its starkest. The brightly lit shop windows are filled with high-tech electronic toys for the children of the rich, and a few yards away, the dark corners of subway entrances are filled with the dim outlines of derelict human beings that the new technology has left behind. In every large American city such contrasts have become a part of everyday life.

When I arrived in America fifty years ago, rich and poor people were less estranged and less afraid of one another, the feeling of belonging to a community was stronger, the rich had fewer locks on their doors, and the poor had roofs over their heads. Since those days, wealth has accumulated and society has decayed. It is as Haldane said, “The tendency of applied science is to magnify injustices until they become too intolerable to be borne, and the average man, whom all the prophets and poets could not move, turns at last and extinguishes evil at its source.”

My scientist friends may justly protest that the calamities of American society are caused by drugs, or by guns, or by racial intolerance, or by illiteracy, or by bad schools, or by broken families, rather than by science. It is true that the immediate causes of social disintegration are moral and economic rather than technical. But science must bear a larger share of responsibility for these evils than the majority of scientists are willing to admit.•

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I’ve just started reading Imagined Worlds, the 1997 Freeman Dyson entry in the Jerusalem-Harvard Lecture series. It’s something of a summation speech of Dyson’s remarkable–and sometimes perplexing–career, even though he is thankfully still with us and still thinking. If you’re vaguely familiar, it’s the book with the tag line “Imagine a world where whole epochs will pass, cultures rise and fall, between a telephone call and a reply.” Telephone calls, remember those?

I mention it because Imagined Worlds is one of the 76 choices Stewart Brand included on his 2014 Brainpickings reading list of books to “sustain and rebuild humanity.” The first 20 choices:

  1. Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations by David R. Montgomery
  2. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
  3. The Odyssey by Homer translated by Robert Fagles
  4. The Iliad by Homer translated by Robert Fagles
  5. The Memory of the World: The Treasures That Record Our History from 1700 BC to the Present Day by UNESCO
  6. The History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor
  7. The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories edited by Robert B. Strassler
  8. The Landmark Thucydides: A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War edited by Robert B. Strassler
  9. The Complete Greek Tragedies, Volumes 1-4 edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore
  10. The Prince by Machiavelli, translated by George Bull, published by Folio Society
  11. The Nature of Things by Lucretius
  12. The Art of the Long View: Planning for the Future in an Uncertain World by Peter Schwartz
  13. The Way Life Works: The Science Lover’s Illustrated Guide to How Life Grows, Develops, Reproduces, and Gets Along by Mahlon Hoagland and Bert Dodson
  14. Venice, A Maritime Republic by Frederic Chapin Lane
  15. The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages by Harold Bloom
  16. The Map Book by Peter Barber
  17. Conceptual Physics by Paul G. Hewitt
  18. The Encyclopedia of Earth: A Complete Visual Guide by Michael Allaby and Dr. Robert Coenraads
  19. The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov
  20. Star Maker by Olaf Stapledon

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Freeman Dyson, climate-change denier, has also said “no” to humans as a pivotal part of space exploration, despite once believing flying Mayflowers would eventually land on asteroids. Dyson says machines must do the pioneering and if we want to colonize worlds beyond our own, we have to spend centuries devising and executing such “urban planning” and need to be open to altering our physiology. Listen to audio of these and other Dyson ideas at Raw Science.•

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Richard Feynman wasn’t the only physicist who emerged from World War II with regrets about his role. Freeman Dyson looks back in anger, anger at himself, believing he failed morally to speak to certain life-and-death decisions, which has made him a Snowden supporter. From a new Paradigm interview with Dyson which was conducted by Theo Constantinou and Lee Nentwig:

Theo Constantinou:

In Jörg Friedrich’s book, The Fire, you were quoted as saying:

“I felt sickened by what I knew. Many times I decided I had a moral obligation to run out into the streets and tell the British people what stupidities were being done in their name. But I never had the courage to do it. I sat in my office until the end, carefully calculating how to murder most economically another hundred thousand people.”

WWII was in full force and you were around twenty years old and making decisions that, from what you say, cost thousands of people their lives. Seventy years later, reflecting back on your actions and the actions of the day, what insight can you give to those facing similar moral dilemmas in the current global climate?

Freeman Dyson:

The amazing thing is how little has changed. There was an American general, James Cartwright, just about a year ago, who was in charge of intelligence in Afghanistan and he wrote a secret report about the deficiencies of intelligence in Afghanistan which was essentially telling the government the idiocies that were being done, and fortunately it was leaked and so now it is out in the public. It was quite amazing to me how much the same it was as to the situation I was in seventy years before. In Afghanistan you had this enormous apparatus for collecting intelligence, which was just what we had in bomber command, and now in Afghanistan you have satellites over head and drones beneath the satellites and then airplanes and people on the ground, all collecting information and sending it all over to some building in Virginia where there were a thousand people analyzing the information. So I was one of them, I was an analyst sitting at bomber command and analyzing all of this information. The general said in his report that all of this was wonderful, that information was being collected efficiently and the analysts were working very hard in understanding it, but nothing ever went back. There was no flow of information to the people that actually needed it and could use it. It was exactly the same problem. We were actually not allowed to talk to the crewmen who flew the airplanes, they weren’t cleared to hear all of the secret stuff, and they were the only people who actually could have used it. So that’s the way it is, it hasn’t changed.

The whole drone program is very troubling, of course. People being killed in this new mechanical way so that you don’t even have to go out there and fight, you can just sit comfortably in Virginia and aim the bombs. That is a bad situation.

So I enormously admire Edward Snowden, he has really done us a great service. We need more people like that … that’s what I wasn’t brave enough to do. I would have been more or less in his situation had I gone out in the streets and shouted, I would have been locked up for sure.•

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The dominant idea in space colonization today is that we’ll fill up the moon or Mars in a large-scale settlement of 4D cities, try to make it approximate another Earth, with all the comforts of home. But while something with such familiarity may appeal to the masses, Freeman Dyson has long dreamed of exploration on the margins, of something stranger, more diffuse and, perhaps, more dangerous: He wants pioneers to grow vegetables on asteroids.

In a 1978 interview with Omni’s Monte Davis about artificial biodomes and smart clouds, the physicist stood in contrast to his fellow Princeton professor Gerard K. O’Neill, who envisioned massive, standardized space habitats. Regardless of which schemes are superior, Dyson presciently realized at the time that the future of space settlements might be powered by private interests, and in 2014 those entrepreneurs favor O’Neill’s view over his. An excerpt:

Freeman Dyson:

I’ve done some historical research on the costs of the Mayflower’s voyage, and on the Mormon’s emigration to Utah, and I think it’s possible to go into space on a much smaller scale. A cost on the order of $40,000 per person would be the target to shoot for; in terms of real wages that would make it comparable to the colonization of America. Unless it’s brought down to that level, it not really interesting to me, because otherwise it would be a luxury that only governments could afford.

Omni:

Where would your Mayflower-style colonists go?

Freeman Dyson:

I’d put my money on the asteroids. Dandridge Cole and others suggested using a solar mirror to melt and hollow out an iron asteroid, and in O’Neill’s book his homesteaders build their own shells from the minerals available out there. I wouldn’t accept either of those as the most sensible course: I think you should find an asteroid which is not iron or nickel, but some kind of soil you could grow things in.

Omni:

What do you mean by soil?

Freeman Dyson:

Well, we have specimens of meteoritic mineral called carbonaceous chondrite, which looks like soil–it’s black, crumbly stuff containing a good deal of water; it has enough carbon, nitrogen, oxygen so that there’s some hope you could grow vegetables in it, and it’s soft enough to dig without using dynamite.

Omni:

So you think it would be worth looking for an asteroid like that rather than trying to transform a raw stone or metal asteroid?

Freeman Dyson:

Yes, if it’s to be done on a pioneer basis, you’d jolly well better find a place where you can grow things right away. Otherwise it’s inevitably a much slower and more expensive job.

Omni:

Is the sunlight at a distance adequate to grow plants?

Freeman Dyson:

I think so. Plants are very flexible in their requirements, you know, and they could be genetically altered if it’s needed. After all, a lot of things grow very well even in England…

Omni:

What about colonizing the moon? Too much gravity?

Freeman Dyson:

That…and it’s simply too close to home. Too easy for the tax man to find you. And choosing a place to go is not just a question of freight charges. There have always been minorities who valued their differences and their independence enough to make very great sacrifices, and it seems obvious to me that it’s going to happen again.

Omni:

So you think we may not go in for the big O’Neill-type colonies after all?

Freeman Dyson: 

We may not, but others may. I was in Russia two years ago for a conference on telescopes, and all that anyone there wanted to hear about was O’Neill’s ideas. They knew that he and I were both at Princeton, and assumed I could tell them everything about space colonies. The point is that in Russia, they have very little of our current mistrust of technology on the grand scale–in fact, it fits very well with their ideas about our relationship to nature. Thousands of engineers working on a giant framework floating in space, that’s a picture that excited them very much. I wouldn’t be surprised if they choose that.

If they do, the historical analogy becomes very strong: the Russians play the role of Spanish colonies in the New World, and people like me are more like the English, with smaller, scattered, decentralized colonies. Of course, it took the English much longer to get going, but when we did go we did a better job.”

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Freeman Dyson and his fellow scientists behind the 1950s Project Orion space-exploration plans had an ambitious timeline for their atomic rockets: Mars by 1965 and Saturn by 1970. But their dreams were dashed, collateral damage of non-proliferation Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963. But is it merely a dream deferred? The opening of Richard Hollingham’s new BBC article on the topic:

“Project Orion has to be the most audacious, dangerous and downright absurd space programme ever funded by the US taxpayer. This 1950s design involved exploding nuclear bombs behind a spacecraft the size of the Empire State Building to propel it through space. The Orion’s engine would generate enormous amounts of energy – and with it lethal doses of radiation.

Plans suggested the spacecraft could take off from Earth and travel to Mars and back in just three months. The quickest flight using conventional rockets and the right planetary alignment is 18 months.

There were obvious challenges – from irradiating the crew and the launch site, to the disruption caused by the electromagnetic pulse, plus the dangers of a catastrophic nuclear accident taking out a sizable portion of the US. But the plan was, nevertheless, given serious consideration. Project Orion was conceived when atmospheric nuclear tests were commonplace and the power of the atom promised us all a bright new tomorrow. Or oblivion. Life was simpler then.

In the early 1960s, common sense prevailed and the project was abandoned, but the idea of nuclear-powered spaceships has never gone away. In fact there are several in the cold depths of space right now.”

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“First time we tried it, the thing took off like a bat out of hell”:

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Freeman Dyson has been writing for years about an indefinite point in the future when biotech enthusiasts will be, à la their Homebrew Computer Club ancestors, tinkering in their garages, not creating new gadgets but new life forms. DARPA is, unsurprisingly, beating the hobbyists to the punch, as it did with computers and the Internet. From Meghan Neal at Vice:

“Ye sci-fi writers hard up for new material should spend an hour or so perusing the Defense Department’s 2015 budget proposal, especially the section covering the far-out research projects underway at DARPA, where the agency’s mad scientists are working to develop brain-controlled drones, biowarfare, engineer new life forms, and possibly attempt immortality.

If last year was the year of battlefield robots, cyborg soldiers, and weaponized drones, it looks like the next couple years will see the Pentagon gearing up for a deep dive into biotech. DARPA announced today it now has a unit devoted to studying the intersection of biology and engineering, the Biological Technologies Office.

The agency is betting that the next generation of defense tech will be take a cue from natural life, and as such one of the major focuses of the new unit will be on synthetic biology. It’ll ramp up research into manufacturing biomaterials, turning living cells, proteins, and DNA into a sort of genetic factory.

The goal is to create man-made, living supermaterials, prorammed through DNA code, that can be used for next-gen mechanical and electrical products, self-repairing materials, renewable fuels, solar cells, and so on.”

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In a New York Review of Books essay, Freeman Dyson writes with his typical grace about a new volume which argues that erroneous scientific theories are a natural and necessary thing. An excerpt:

Brilliant Blunders, by Mario Livio, is a lively account of five wrong theories proposed by five great scientists during the last two centuries. These examples give for nonexpert readers a good picture of the way science works. The inventor of a brilliant idea cannot tell whether it is right or wrong. Livio quotes the psychologist Daniel Kahneman describing how theories are born: ‘We can’t live in a state of perpetual doubt, so we make up the best story possible and we live as if the story were true.’ A theory that began as a wild guess ends as a firm belief. Humans need beliefs in order to live, and great scientists are no exception. Great scientists produce right theories and wrong theories, and believe in them with equal conviction.

The essential point of Livio’s book is to show the passionate pursuit of wrong theories as a part of the normal development of science. Science is not concerned only with things that we understand. The most exciting and creative parts of science are concerned with things that we are still struggling to understand. Wrong theories are not an impediment to the progress of science. They are a central part of the struggle.

The five chief characters in Livio’s drama are Charles Darwin, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Linus Pauling, Fred Hoyle, and Albert Einstein. Each of them made major contributions to the understanding of nature, and each believed firmly in a theory that turned out to be wrong.”

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I’m perplexed by Freeman Dyson’s carefree (careless?) views about environmentalism. I know Earth must ultimately be disposable, but we needn’t hurry the process. But I love reading his essays in the New York Review of Books. From his latest piece, a consideration of Jim Holt’s new volume about modern philosophers, a history of his perplexing relationship with Ludwig Wittgenstein, first as reader, then as student:

Wittgenstein, unlike Heidegger, did not establish an ism. He wrote very little, and everything that he wrote was simple and clear. The only book that he published during his lifetime was Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, written in Vienna in 1918 and published in England with a long introduction by Bertrand Russell in 1922. It fills less than two hundred small pages, even though the original German and the English translation are printed side by side. I was lucky to be given a copy of the Tractatus as a prize when I was in high school. I read it through in one night, in an ecstasy of adolescent enthusiasm. Most of it is about mathematical logic. Only the last five pages deal with human problems. The text is divided into numbered sections, each consisting of one or two sentences. For example, section 6.521 says: ‘The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of this problem. Is not this the reason why men, to whom after long doubting the sense of life became clear, could not then say wherein this sense consisted?’ The most famous sentence in the book is the final section 7: ‘Wherof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’

I found the book enlightening and liberating. It said that philosophy is simple and has limited scope. Philosophy is concerned with logic and the correct use of language. All speculations outside this limited area are mysticism. Section 6.522 says: ‘There is indeed the inexpressible. This shows itself. It is the mystical.’ Since the mystical is inexpressible, there is nothing more to be said. Holt summarizes the difference between Heidegger and Wittgenstein in nine words: ‘Wittgenstein was brave and ascetic, Heidegger treacherous and vain.’ These words apply equally to their characters as human beings and to their intellectual output.

Wittgenstein’s intellectual asceticism had a great influence on the philosophers of the English-speaking world. It narrowed the scope of philosophy by excluding ethics and aesthetics. At the same time, his personal asceticism enhanced his credibility. During World War II, he wanted to serve his adopted country in a practical way. Being too old for military service, he took a leave of absence from his academic position in Cambridge and served in a menial job, as a hospital orderly taking care of patients. When I arrived at Cambridge University in 1946, Wittgenstein had just returned from his six years of duty at the hospital. I held him in the highest respect and was delighted to find him living in a room above mine on the same staircase. I frequently met him walking up or down the stairs, but I was too shy to start a conversation. Several times I heard him muttering to himself: ‘I get stupider and stupider every day.’

Finally, toward the end of my time in Cambridge, I ventured to speak to him. I told him I had enjoyed reading the Tractatus, and I asked him whether he still held the same views that he had expressed twenty-eight years earlier. He remained silent for a long time and then said, ‘Which newspaper do you represent?’ I told him I was a student and not a journalist, but he never answered my question.

Wittgenstein’s response to me was humiliating, and his response to female students who tried to attend his lectures was even worse. If a woman appeared in the audience, he would remain standing silent until she left the room. I decided that he was a charlatan using outrageous behavior to attract attention. I hated him for his rudeness. Fifty years later, walking through a churchyard on the outskirts of Cambridge on a sunny morning in winter, I came by chance upon his tombstone, a massive block of stone lightly covered with fresh snow. On the stone was written the single word, ‘WITTGENSTEIN.’ To my surprise, I found that the old hatred was gone, replaced by a deeper understanding. He was at peace, and I was at peace too, in the white silence. He was no longer an ill-tempered charlatan. He was a tortured soul, the last survivor of a family with a tragic history, living a lonely life among strangers, trying until the end to express the inexpressible.”

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From Freeman Dyson’s 2011 New York Review of Books piece about James Gleick’s The Information, a passage about the uncertain nature of science and knowledge in the Digital Age, the “noisiest” epoch in humankind:

“The information flood has also brought enormous benefits to science. The public has a distorted view of science, because children are taught in school that science is a collection of firmly established truths. In fact, science is not a collection of truths. It is a continuing exploration of mysteries. Wherever we go exploring in the world around us, we find mysteries. Our planet is covered by continents and oceans whose origin we cannot explain. Our atmosphere is constantly stirred by poorly understood disturbances that we call weather and climate. The visible matter in the universe is outweighed by a much larger quantity of dark invisible matter that we do not understand at all. The origin of life is a total mystery, and so is the existence of human consciousness. We have no clear idea how the electrical discharges occurring in nerve cells in our brains are connected with our feelings and desires and actions.

Even physics, the most exact and most firmly established branch of science, is still full of mysteries. We do not know how much of [Claude] Shannon’s theory of information will remain valid when quantum devices replace classical electric circuits as the carriers of information. Quantum devices may be made of single atoms or microscopic magnetic circuits. All that we know for sure is that they can theoretically do certain jobs that are beyond the reach of classical devices. Quantum computing is still an unexplored mystery on the frontier of information theory. Science is the sum total of a great multitude of mysteries. It is an unending argument between a great multitude of voices. It resembles Wikipedia much more than it resembles the Encyclopaedia Britannica.”

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Perhaps I’m a pessimist but based on information in “The Coming Age of Wonders,” Rudy Rucker’s 1997 Washington Post review of a Freeman Dyson book, I’m predicting a war in the year 3000 between the people of Saturn and those of Jupiter. An excerpt from Rucker’s piece:

“Going further into the future, Dyson says that sometime around the year 3000, our descendants will have dispersed over the whole solar system. Due to the vast size of this space, our population could become many millions of times as large. ‘No central authority will be able to regulate their activities or even be aware of their existence. The process of speciation, the division of our species into many varieties with genetic endowment drifting gradually further apart, will then be under way.’ Thanks to genetic engineering, human speciation will happen at an explosive pace and ‘our one species will become many.’

As well as there being many more people, the quality of human experience may change. ‘Some of our descendants will be eager to explore the delights of collective memory and collective consciousness, made possible by . . . radiotelepathy. The experience . . . will enormously enlarge art, science, religion and history. . . . Those who have experienced the merging of memory and consciousness into a larger mind may find it difficult to communicate with those who still rely on spoken or written words. Those who have been part of an immortal group-mind may find it difficult to communicate with ordinary mortals.'”

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In “How to Dispel Your Illusions,” a NYRB piece from December 2011, Freeman Dyson writes about Daniel Kahneman’s reliance in objective information over subjective analysis, using as an example the work of noted pediatric anesthesiologist Virginia Apgar. An excerpt:

“Kahneman had a bachelor’s degree in psychology and had read a book, Clinical vs. Statistical Prediction: A Theoretical Analysis and a Review of the Evidence by Paul Meehl, published only a year earlier. Meehl was an American psychologist who studied the successes and failures of predictions in many different settings. He found overwhelming evidence for a disturbing conclusion. Predictions based on simple statistical scoring were generally more accurate than predictions based on expert judgment.

A famous example confirming Meehl’s conclusion is the ‘Apgar score,’ invented by the anesthesiologist Virginia Apgar in 1953 to guide the treatment of newborn babies. The Apgar score is a simple formula based on five vital signs that can be measured quickly: heart rate, breathing, reflexes, muscle tone, and color. It does better than the average doctor in deciding whether the baby needs immediate help. It is now used everywhere and saves the lives of thousands of babies.”

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Apgar is lauded by actress (and nurse) Kathryn Crosby, year unknown:

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I posted a video once about Immanuel Velikovsky, an outsider scientist whose work was impressively elaborate nonsense. A charismatic guy, he befriended some of the greatest minds of the 20th century, including Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan and Freeman Dyson. In Dyson’s recent New York Review of Books piece, he remembers his friendship with Velikovsky. An excerpt:

After I came to America, I became a friend of Immanuel Velikovsky, who was my neighbor in Princeton. Velikovsky was a Russian Jew, with an intense interest in Jewish legends and ancient history. He was born into a scholarly family in 1895 and obtained a medical degree at Moscow University in 1921. During the chaos of the Bolshevik Revolution he wrote a long Russian poem with the title “Thirty Days and Nights of Diego Pirez on the Sant Angelo Bridge.” It was published in Paris in 1935. Diego Pirez was a sixteenth-century Portuguese Jewish mystic who came to Rome and sat on the bridge near the Vatican, surrounded by beggars and thieves to whom he told his apocalyptic visions. He was condemned to death by the Inquisition, pardoned by the pope, and later burned as a heretic by the emperor Charles V.

Velikovsky escaped from Russia and settled in Palestine with his wife and daughters. He described to me the joys of practicing medicine on the slopes of Mount Carmel above Haifa, where he rode on a donkey to visit his patients in their homes. He founded and edited a journal, Scripta Universitatis atque Bibliothecae Hierosolymitanarum, which was the official journal of the Hebrew University before the university was established. His work for the Scripta was important for the founding of the Hebrew University. But he had no wish to join the university himself. To fulfill his dreams he needed complete independence. In 1939, after sixteen years in Palestine, he moved to America, where he had no license to practice medicine. To survive in America, he needed to translate his dreams into books.

Eleven years later, Macmillan published Worlds in Collision, and it became a best seller. Like Diego Pirez, Velikovsky told his dreams to the public in language they could understand. His dreams were mythological stories of catastrophic events, gleaned from many cultures, especially from ancient Egypt and Israel. These catastrophes were interwoven with a weird history of planetary collisions. The planets Venus and Mars were supposed to have moved out of their regular orbits and collided with the Earth a few thousand years ago. Electromagnetic forces were invoked to counteract the normal effects of gravity. The human and cosmic events were tied together in a flowing narrative. Velikovsky wrote like an Old Testament prophet, calling down fire and brimstone from heaven, in a style familiar to Americans raised on the King James Bible. More best sellers followed:Ages in Chaos in 1952, Earth in Upheaval in 1955, Oedipus and Akhnaton in 1960. Velikovsky became famous as a writer and as a public speaker.

In 1977 Velikovsky asked me to write a blurb advertising his new book, Peoples of the Sea. I wrote a statement addressed to him personally:

First, as a scientist, I disagree profoundly with many of the statements in your books. Second, as your friend, I disagree even more profoundly with those scientists who have tried to silence your voice. To me, you are no reincarnation of Copernicus or Galileo. You are a prophet in the tradition of William Blake, a man reviled and ridiculed by his contemporaries but now recognized as one of the greatest of English poets. A hundred and seventy years ago, Blake wrote: “The Enquiry in England is not whether a Man has Talents and Genius, but whether he is Passive and Polite and a Virtuous Ass and obedient to Noblemen’s Opinions in Art and Science. If he is, he is a Good Man. If not, he must be starved.” So you stand in good company. Blake, a buffoon to his enemies and an embarrassment to his friends, saw Earth and Heaven more clearly than any of them. Your poetic visions are as large as his and as deeply rooted in human experience. I am proud to be numbered among your friends.

I added the emphatic instruction, “This statement to be printed in its entirety or not at all.” A quick response came from Velikovsky. He said, “How would you like it if I said you were the reincarnation of Jules Verne?” He wanted to be honored as a scientist, not as a poet. My statement was not printed, and Peoples of the Sea became a best seller without my help. We remained friends, and in that same year he gave me a copy of his Diego Pirez poem, which I treasure as the truest expression of his spirit. I hope it will one day be adequately translated into English.•

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From “Our Biotech Future,” Freeman Dyson’s 2007 New York Review of Books essay, in which the scientist ponders the possibilities that will result from genetic engineering being conducted by the general public:

“Domesticated biotechnology, 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. New lineages will proliferate to replace those that monoculture farming and deforestation have destroyed. 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 a great many 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. The dangers of biotechnology are real and serious.

If domestication of biotechnology is the wave of the future, five important questions need to be answered. First, can it be stopped? Second, ought it to be stopped? Third, if stopping it is either impossible or undesirable, what are the appropriate limits that our society must impose on it? Fourth, how should the limits be decided? Fifth, how should the limits be enforced, nationally and internationally? I do not attempt to answer these questions here. I leave it to our children and grandchildren to supply the answers.”

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George Dyson at Edge discussing our digital revolution, still very much in its infancy, going who knows where:

“We’re still here at the big bang of this thing, and we’re not studying it enough. Who’s the cosmologist really looking at this in terms of what it might become in 10,000 years? What’s it going to be in 100 years? Here we are at the very beginning and we just may simply not be asking the right questions about what’s going on. Try looking at it from the other side, not from our side as human beings. Scientists are the people who can do that kind of thing. You can look at viruses from the point of view of a virus, not from the point of view of someone getting sick.

Very few people are looking at this digital universe in an objective way. Danny Hillis is one of the few people who is. His comment, made exactly 30 years ago in 1982, was that “memory locations are just wires turned sideways in time”. That’s just so profound. That should be engraved on the wall. Because we don’t realize that there is this very different universe that does not have the same physics as our universe. It’s completely different physics. Yet, from the perspective of that universe, there is physics, and we have almost no physicists looking at it, as to what it’s like. And if we want to understand the sort of organisms that would evolve in that totally different universe, you have to understand the physics of the world in which they are in.  It’s like looking for life on another planet. Danny has that perspective. Most people say just, ‘well, a wire is a wire. It’s not a memory location turned sideways in time.’ You have to have that sort of relativistic view of things.

We are still so close to the beginning of this explosion that we are still immersed in the initial fireball. Yet, in that short period of time, for instance, it was not long ago that to transfer money electronically you had to fill out paper forms on both ends and then wait a day for your money to be transferred. And, in a very few years, it’s a dozen years or so, most of the money in the world is moving electronically all the time.”

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George’s dad, Freeman, planning interplanetary travel via A-bomb, 1958:

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In the New York Review of Books, Freeman Dyson, who worked on nuclear-propelled spaceships among other great and scary things, reviews two new books about  Richard Feynman (one, a gekiga). In the piece, he ranks science icons of the last century. The article’s opening:

“In the last hundred years, since radio and television created the modern worldwide mass-market entertainment industry, there have been two scientific superstars, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. Lesser lights such as Carl Sagan and Neil Tyson and Richard Dawkins have a big public following, but they are not in the same class as Einstein and Hawking. Sagan, Tyson, and Dawkins have fans who understand their message and are excited by their science. Einstein and Hawking have fans who understand almost nothing about science and are excited by their personalities.

On the whole, the public shows good taste in its choice of idols. Einstein and Hawking earned their status as superstars, not only by their scientific discoveries but by their outstanding human qualities. Both of them fit easily into the role of icon, responding to public adoration with modesty and good humor and with provocative statements calculated to command attention. Both of them devoted their lives to an uncompromising struggle to penetrate the deepest mysteries of nature, and both still had time left over to care about the practical worries of ordinary people. The public rightly judged them to be genuine heroes, friends of humanity as well as scientific wizards.

Two new books now raise the question of whether Richard Feynman is rising to the status of superstar.”

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Dyson talks science at the Big Think:

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I posted something before about Freeman Dyson’s involvement with Project Orion, a 1950s effort by a group of scientists to use A-bomb explosions to propel ships into outer space. The plan was successful though international treaties preempted its use. Here’s rare footage of what it looked like.

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"Dyson and his colleagues did not want to delegate; they intended to go bombing into space themselves." (Image by Lumidek.)

Kenneth Brower has an article in The Atlantic in which he tries to get to the bottom of Freeman Dyson’s troubling views about climate change and environmental responsibility, terrain previously covered by the Times Magazine. The piece has some great info about how Dyson and a group of fellow scientists hoped five decades ago to blast themselves to Mars and Saturn with a nuclear-powered rocket, a plan that had to be scrapped after the signing of the Limited Test Ban Treaty in 1963. An excerpt:

“The period of his career that Dyson remembers most happily, the endeavor during which he believes he learned the most, began the year after Sputnik. In 1958, he took a leave of absence from the Institute for Advanced Study and moved to La Jolla, California, where he joined Project Orion, a group of 40 scientists and engineers working to build a spacecraft powered by nuclear bombs. The Orion men believed that rocketry was hopeless as a means of settling the universe. Only nuclear power had sufficient bang to propel the requisite payloads into space. The team called the concept ‘nuclear-pulse propulsion.’ From a hole at the center of a massive ‘pusher plate’ at the bottom of the craft, atom bombs would be dropped at intervals and detonated. The shock wave and debris from each blast would strike the pusher plate, driving the ship heavenward on a succession of blinding fireballs. Shock absorbers the size of grain silos would cushion the cabin and crew, smoothing out the cataclysmic bumpiness of the ride.

To the layperson, this seems exactly the sort of contraption that Wile E. Coyote, in his efforts to overtake Road Runner, habitually straps on before self-immolation. But the layperson is wrong, apparently. Specialists in the effects of nuclear explosions saw no reason Orion would not work. The Advanced Research Projects Agency, the precursor to NASA, underwrote the project, then NASA took it on, and nuclear-pulse propulsion briefly held its own against the chemical rockets of Wernher von Braun. Dyson and his colleagues did not want to delegate; they intended to go bombing into space themselves. Their schedule had them landing on Mars by 1965 and Saturn by 1970.”

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Freeman Dyson, seen here at Harvard, has never won the Nobel Prize. Running afoul of climate-change activists won't likely help on that front. (Image courtesy of Lumidek.)

The always-provocative smarties over at Edge held an event in Long Beach recently to herald “A New Age of Wonder,” as outlined by Freeman Dyson in his speeches and in an article in the New York Review of Books last August. The piece, “When Science and Poetry Were Friends,” is ostensibly a book review of Richard Holmes excellent science tome, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science.

But the 86-year-old Dyson also used the assignment to ponder whether we are at the advent of a new Romantic Age, one as reliant on biology and computers as the first was on chemistry and poetry. An excerpt from Dyson’s article:

“Richard Holmes’s history of the Age of Wonder raises an intriguing question about the present age. Is it possible that we are now entering a new Romantic Age, extending over the first half of the twenty-first century, with the technological billionaires of today playing roles similar to the enlightened aristocrats of the eighteenth century? It is too soon now to answer this question, but it is not too soon to begin examining the evidence. The evidence for a new Age of Wonder would be a shift backward in the culture of science, from organizations to individuals, from professionals to amateurs, from programs of research to works of art.

If the new Romantic Age is real, it will be centered on biology and computers, as the old one was centered on chemistry and poetry…If the dominant science in the new Age of Wonder is biology, then the dominant art form should be the design of genomes to create new varieties of animals and plants. This art form, using the new biotechnology creatively to enhance the ancient skills of plant and animal breeders, is still struggling to be born. It must struggle against cultural barriers as well as technical difficulties, against the myth of Frankenstein as well as the reality of genetic defects and deformities.

If this dream comes true, and the new art form emerges triumphant, then a new generation of artists, writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses, might create an abundance of new flowers and fruit and trees and birds to enrich the ecology of our planet.”

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