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I like big books.

A Many-Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe (Page-Barbour Lectures)

A Many-Colored Glass (Page-Barbour Lectures) - Freeman John Dyson Dyson writes well enough, but this collection of essays is hit and miss. I feel a bit out of turn being overly critical or analytical of such an accomplished physicist, philosopher and thinker, but there are some profoundly naive and superficial conclusions and reasoning in a couple of the essays that distracted from the brilliant thoughts in some of the others, particularly the sections on the "Friendly Universe" in which Dyson tries to rationalize the paradox of order in a world dominated by the second law of thermodynamics and its tendency toward disorder and the essay on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

What does work is that Dyson is tremendously well-read and deeply thoughtful in fields outside theoretical physics. One might argue that a lot of his speculations into biotechnology and other fields are the equivalent of an amateur poking around and considering himself an expert, but this isn't so. He's very clear and direct about his lack of knowledge and that his speculations are just that. In that respect he differs from a lot of "futurists" who publish books like "The World in 2050" in which they proclaim flying cars for everyone! (I'm still waiting for the one my grandmother promised me I'd have by the time I was twenty when I was ten.) He's realistic about the time frames for his speculations about the development of technology and the future of discovery in the realms of science. Dyson, quite rightly given the enormous mathematical and technological complexities of advances in particle and theoretical physics today, thinks that biology and biotechnology will dominate the sciences in the next hundred years. There are some heretical ideas in his speculations. Most intriguing among his predictions (or desires) is the development of an open source equivalent to genetic sequencing and engineering and the idea that science shall proliferate among the masses and become smaller, more diverse and given over to small teams versus larger research institutions, in both the physical sciences, like astronomy (where we can already see this happening) AND in biology. It's an interesting and exciting thought. Science could indeed progress by leaps and bounds as more people, especially those not brought through decades of rigorous academic dogma in specific Ph.D. programs bring new unorthodox methods and ideas to the table - and can test and verify them themselves. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that in the future genetic engineering will occupy the entertainment time of children the way video games do today, but the idea of science for the masses is thrillingly conceivable.

In short, Dyson's strength in this work rests in his ability to combine disciplines and draw parallels among opposite and paradoxical fields and models to develop new and believable paradigms for the future grounded in our experience with scientific revolutions and developments in the past. The last essay on the complementarity of religion and science is refreshing, enlightening, but half-formulated sadly. He starts off well and drifts off to the idea that literature has much more in common with religion where there was so much potential in the former idea. And that's kind of the point; Dyson's great at asking broad, philosophical and practical questions alike and A Many-Colored Glass should definitely be required reading in philosophy of science courses around the world. It's the questions, rather than the answers he presents that make this book valuable.

I was disappointed by a couple of the heavier essays in the work that I was looking forward to immensely. The chapter on the search for extraterrestrial life is extremely narrow and falls prey to the same weaknesses that the chapter on religion did. He starts with some great questions about what life might look like and what type of life might be most common to practically tailor or search for it, then goes into an overly detailed and narrow plan to execute said-search. Same goes for the essay on Life in an old universe tending toward heat death, in which he sets up a great framework, but fails to deliver and bungles an explanation of entropy.

Still, if you have an interest in the philosophy of science or want to hear a respected scientist's views on the future of the field, this is an interesting read.