George Dyson

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A bunch of my favorite articles from the first half of 2012. All available for free.

  • How to Survive the End of the Universe,” (Andrew Grant, Discover): Fascinating account of how humans can escape oblivion as our solar system changes over the next few billion years.
  • Was Frankenstein Really About Childbirth?“ (Ruth Franklin, The New Republic): Provocative piece that makes a strong case that the dread of childbirth was a major impetus for Mary Shelley’s classic.
  • One’s a Crowd” (Eric Kleinberg, The New York Times): Great Op-Ed piece about the increasing number of people living alone.
  • How the U.S. Lost Out on iPhone Work (Charles Duhigg and Keith Bradsher, The New York Times): A deep and penetrating explanation of the complicated forces at play in job outsourcing.
  • The Power of Habit“ (Charles Duhigg, Slate): An excerpt from the author’s bestseller of the same name which explains how Pepsodent became omnipresent.
  • We’re Underestimating the Risk of Extinction” (Ross Andersen, The Atlantic): I didn’t necessarily agree with the premise (or conclusions) of this interview with philosopher Nick Bostrom, but I enjoyed its intelligence immensely.
  • Hustling the Cloud” (Steven Boone, Capital New York): Wonderful piece about a bleary-eyed, middle-of-the-night search for free Wi-Fi–and anything else that would seem to make sense–in a time of dire economic straits.
  • Craig Venter’s Bugs Might Save the World” (Wil S. Hylton, The New York Times Magazine): Fascinating examination of the titular biologist, who wants to make breathing bots that will cure the world’s ills.

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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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Timed to the publication of his new book, Turing’s Cathedral, George Dyson is interviewed by Kevin Kelly in Wired. The opening:

Wired: Because your father, Freeman Dyson, worked at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, you grew up around folks who were building one of the first computers. Was that cool?

George Dyson: The institute was a pretty boring place, full of theoreticians writing papers. But in a building far away from everyone else, some engineers were building a computer, one of the first to have a fully electronic random-access memory. For a kid in the 1950s, it was the most exciting thing around. I mean, they called it the MANIAC! The computer building was off-limits to children, but Julian Bigelow, the chief engineer, stored a lot of surplus electronic equipment in a barn, and I grew up playing there and taking things apart.

Wired: Did that experience influence how you thought about computers later?

Dyson: Yes. I tried to get as far away from them as possible.

Wired: Why?

Dyson: Computers were going to take over the world. So I left high school in the 1960s to live on the islands of British Columbia. I worked on boats and built a house 95 feet up in a Douglas fir tree. I wasn’t antitechnology; I loved chain saws and tools and diesel engines. But I wanted to keep my distance from computers.” (Thanks Browser.)

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In the European, science historian George Dyson, son of physicist Freeman Dyson, is interviewed about evolution and innovation. An excerpt from the Q&A:

The European: Is the Internet increasing the innovative potential of mankind? 

Dyson: It is very easy to be a pessimist: There is no good music anymore, no good art. But maybe we have to recognize that innovation is still happening, albeit in very different ways. We might feel that all that time people spend on Facebook is a great loss for the creativity of the human species, but maybe that is not true.

The European: I expected a somewhat different answer: We used to have only human intelligence, and now that has been supplemented by computational intelligence. So we would expect the potential for innovation to become supplemented as well. 

Dyson: Yes and no. The danger is not that machines are advancing. The danger is that we are losing our intelligence if we rely on computers instead of our own minds. On a fundamental level, we have to ask ourselves: Do we need human intelligence? And what happens if we fail to exercise it?

The European: The question becomes: What progress is good progress? 

Dyson: Right. How do we maintain our diversity? It would be a great shame to lose something like human intelligence that was developed at such costs over such a long period of time. I spent a lot of my life living in the wilderness and building kayaks. I believe that we need to protect our self-reliant individual intelligence—what you would need to survive in a hostile environment. Few of us are still living self-reliant lives. That is not necessarily a bad thing, but we should be cautious not to surrender into dependency on other forms of intelligence. I am a historian of science, I believe in preserving the past.

The European: Are there any predictions for the future we can make, based on these lessons from the past? 

Dyson: The universe is a probability space in which possible things can happen. Over the last fifty years, we have developed a combined human-computational intelligence that is able to search that space at a tremendous rate. But we have no way to predict what might happen in the future to that space of possibilities. The whole idea of species might be called into question. Darwin called his book On the Origin of Species, but evolution really isn’t limited to species. The next step might be the end of distinct species and the beginning of a more symbiotic life.” (Thanks Browser.)


In 2002, George Dyson recalls the spectacular Project Orion:



The American Dental Association recommends that you read Afflictor.

These are my personal favorites in the popular Science/Tech category:

  • Is Google Making Us Stupid? (Nick Carr, The Atlantic)
  • The World Without Us (Alan Weisman)
  • Proust Was a Neuroscientist (Jonah Lehrer)
  • The Turing Cathedral (George Dyson, Edge)
  • The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Richard Holmes)
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