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Freeman Dyson Has Died (nytimes.com)
1238 points by ChickeNES on Feb 28, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 248 comments

About 4 years ago, I was a grad student in astrophysics at Princeton. Dyson worked at the Institute for Advanced Study which, while not officially part of the university was essentially an extension of the various departments (shared colloquiums, any researcher there was a valid thesis adviser, etc.).

The grad students have a tradition (or used to) called “Thunch” (Thursday Lunch) where they invite someone to come have lunch and hang out every week. It was by far one of the highlights of my life — maybe 10 people in the room max, eating pizza, shooting shit with some of the most impressive and accomplished people you could hope to meet — Nobel prize laureates, Neil deGrasse Tyson, famous authors, whoever would respond to our invitation (people tended to say yes). Dyson was one of them. At the time he was already like 92 years old, dressed in a suit, occasionally using a handkerchief, and this guy had just published a result in Nature. The guy was SHARP at 92. Nicest, most interesting person I have ever met. Knew Einstein from his early days at IAS. Worked on an early version of the space program that looked into launching people into space with large spring loaded contraptions that were to be propelled with nuclear weapons. Those were the days I guess...

So sorry to see he’s gone, the guy was a living legend.

He would sometimes eat lunch with us postdocs (just randomly, on a whim) when I was a postdoc at IAS. He would always have something interesting to say or ask, generally about science but often offbeat or unexpected -- you couldn't help but notice both his wide-ranging intellectual interests (our field was not quite within his main expertise) and his very gracious manner in starting conversations that both he and we would learn from.

Thanks for sharing — yea completely agree, it’s always so much fun to be around people like Dyson. There’s more like him at Princeton (and everywhere else, I was at university if Illinois for undergrad and the story is the same there), they just get a kick out of being curious, and always are genuinely interested to learn and hear new things, no matter how old they get. Such a pleasure to be around — they aren’t bitter or insecure, they don’t have anything to prove, they just think that some things are just so gosh darn cool, and that fun energy is contagious.

I had a professor in graduate school like that. He was probably 70 and did natural product chemistry.

Unlike the other professors who were hard asses because: 1) they were still making a name for themselves or 2) they dealt with it in grad school, so you should too, he was the friendliest, most curious person. You could be a 2nd year undergrad and if you asked an interesting question, he’d get genuinely excited about it.

I've met him and his other daughter. They are/were wonderful people.

There were a lot of "solutions" using nuclear weapons looking for a problem. There was a proposal to blow a new canal through nicaragua, to blast harbors into Alaska, etc. My roommate's father showed me his paper that anticipated fracking: drill a deep well in oil shale, through a small nuclear weapon in the bottom, blow it up and watch as the pressure and heat extract the oil and have it flow through the fractured rock back to your oil well.

He almost got to test it.

Nuclear fracking was tested as part of the larger series of tests called Operation Plowshare. You can read about the first gas extraction test here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Gasbuggy

If I remember correctly, the tests worked, in that they produced a large amount of gas from tight rock formations. However the gas was mildly radioactive and it was thought that it would not be marketable.

In a similar vein there’s a story and YouTube video of Russians plugging an out of control burning oil well with a small nuke.

Edit. It was a gas well here’s the link https://youtu.be/S57Xq03njsc

RIP Freeman Dyson. Apologies for drifting from main thread, fell for the oldest trick in the HN book.

Successfully. I wonder if that trick will ever be needed again in the future. It sounds like they had a special situation with a thick layer of permeable rock on the surface preventing them from capping it.

Minor point concerning "anticipated fracking" - hydraulic fracking dates from no later than the late 1940s, as you can see from this 1949 paper: https://www.onepetro.org/journal-paper/SPE-949001-G .

"THE ATOM UNDERGROUND" is an educational video, available from https://archive.org/details/32212AtomUnderground (undated; likely late 1960s). It includes some video from the 1967 test of Project Gasbuggy that matthewmcg mentions.

Total was floating the idea of doing just this in Alberta a recently as the past decade. The science really seems to work but the idea of a small nuclear explosion in your backyard (on purpose is a hard sell (even for the relatively open-to-nuclear French!)

> I've met him and his other daughter.

This seems somewhat impolite. If you've met her one would presume you would remember her name. I would expect she wouldn't like being referred to as simply an 'other daughter'.

Also, Dyson had five daughters including Esther. Not two.

Actually, he was one of the main motivators for me to do something which I just finished today: to explain what Maxwell's equations mean in simple terms. I read his paper a few months ago explaining why Maxwell's equations were so hard to grasp, and I was awe struck at how great of a writer and communicator he was: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/4317784_Why_is_Maxw...

Rest in piece Mr. Dyson - you're a legend and you'll always be remembered.

Is this a manuscript you just finished? I’d love to read it if so.

It's actually a guide which tries to explain Maxwell's equations in a visual / intuitive manner - you can find it here: https://github.com/photonlines/Intuitive-Guide-to-Maxwells-E...

Some friends invited him to dine with us as undergrads at Princeton – he came, was sparkling and smart, told us about his eccentric "metabolism before replication" ideas about the origin of life, and was just wonderful to listen to and talk with. He is a true intellectual hero of mine, and the world is much poorer for his absence.

He left behind a wealth of ideas and works that will live on. His generation of scientist are all true pioneers that broke so much ground in science. They have left the world a richer place.

What a legend. I met him briefly at the "Festival of inappropriate technology" in the UK some years back. When I asked if project Orion (nuclear powered rockets) should have gone ahead he said (paraphrasing from memory): All big engineering projects killed people, but it probably wasn't worth the extra radiation in the atmosphere.

Not the worst idea ever... tbh

Project Orion: http://www.projectrho.com/public_html/rocket/enginelist3.php...

Given what we have available to us. It gives us the most propulsive force. Lots of hard problems to solve :)

What makes some people remain sharp at old age ? My observation is it can be attributed to practicing intellectually challenging jobs continually. For example Don Kunth, Marvin Minsky are and were sharp. Is this observation a surviour ship bias or is it mostly genetics ?

Actually someone I know who knows Minsky says that Minsky wasn't really sharp towards his later years [that said, he still mentored students, and the Nectome cofounder was one of his last students]..

Neil deGrasse Tyson?

NDT came to Thunch several times, but unfortunately not while I was there -- we exchanged e-mails (I was responsible for booking the Thunch guests) and he was excited to come, made tentative plans, but it ended up not working out. The guy is pretty busy these days. He was a post-doc at Princeton back in his research days, so he still keeps in touch with the department every now and then.

so what you're saying is that we have nuclear trebuchets?

> the guy was a living legend.

And now he's a legend.

“It is remarkable that mind enters into our awareness of nature on two separate levels. At the highest level, the level of human consciousness, our minds are somehow directly aware of the complicated flow of electrical and chemical patterns in our brains. At the lowest level, the level of single atoms and electrons, the mind of an observer is again involved in the description of events. Between lies the level of molecular biology, where mechanical models are adequate and mind appears to be irrelevant. But I, as a physicist, cannot help suspecting that there is a logical connection between the two ways in which mind appears in my universe. I cannot help thinking that our awareness of our own brains has something to do with the process which we call "observation" in atomic physics. That is to say, I think our consciousness is not just a passive epiphenomenon carried along by the chemical events in our brains, but is an active agent forcing the molecular complexes to make choices between one quantum state and another. In other words, mind is already inherent in every electron, and the processes of human consciousness differ only in degree but not in kind from the processes of choice between quantum states which we call "chance" when they are made by electrons.” ― Freeman Dyson

That quote is mindblowing. I don't think I've ever heard an argument for free will on a sub-atomic level. It never crossed my mind that that was a position someone could conceivably hold. But it's weirdly comforting- it almost feels religious- and I'm now thinking about how that would affect emergence.

It feels especially religious to me as a Hindu. A lot of Hinduism talks about a so called "sense of existence" - a vitalising, fundamental "thing" that permeates inanimate and animate beings. The quote reminded me a bit of that.

It also reminds me of Arthur Schopenhauer’s concept of ‘world as representation of (universal) will’

The sad thing is that it takes someone quite smart (or let’s say someone with an abstract mind more or less) to understand how mediocre this idea essentially is.

Mediocre in what sense?

Conway (yep, that Conway) and Kochen elaborate on this in the Strong Free Will Theorem:


Isn't that a fundamental misunderstanding of the definition of "observer" in quantum physics? To "observe" is to cause a quantum system to interact in such a way that collapses probabilities. Whether there is a living observer is totally irrelevant.

Unless ... there is no observer at all: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Superdeterminism

I would say this is considered an open question.

AFAIK the details are unknown (e.g. what constitutes the boundary between the “measuring” system and the one that’s being “measured”), but the “alive”-ness of the observer is definitely known to be irrelevant.

Only for non-physicists and physicists wondering about things outside of physics.

it is “the measurement problem”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Measurement_problem

if I remember correctly, this paper specifically tries to prove that those are the same

I don't know where I first heard that view, but I've long thought it was the only one that was plausible - where else could free will come from? is it supposed to sneak into physics somehow at a higher level?

Another plausible view is that it never sneaks in. Nondeterminism would only lead to free will if the mind somehow controlled the nondeterministic outcomes. We know the brain can't do that, so it's clearly a metaphysical question if you want to go further (the mind would have to be an agent distinct from the brain.) The answer to a metaphysical question is not always "no," but you will never be able to prove it.

I don't get this argument. If your mind deterministically makes a given decision in a given circumstance then that's what your mind decided to do. Another mind would make a different decision. That seems like your mind determined the outcome and that sounds like free will?

The decision is the result of mechanical interactions of the atoms your brain is made of. Unless the mind controls the atoms it’s simply a projection of them. A lot of people are uncomfortable with that idea, but this discomfort is also only a projection and the atoms don’t give a damn about it. Where is the freedom exactly?

I guess I think the atoms are the mind so if the atoms make the decision the mind makes the decision.

I think the GPs point is that the decision is less about free will and more about programming that has taken place through the lifetime of the host.

For example if someone asks me if I want tea or coffee and I know I don’t like coffee then I’m always going to choose tea irrespective of my free will.

This is just a crude example though, our psychology is infinitely more subtle. We are a subject to our experiences and those experiences start out against our control (due to us being kids). We are also a subject to our biology. If your body produces too much of one chemical or not enough of another then our moods could be drastically affected. We have cravings that are often chemical. Diet also plays a part too.

So much of what we think of as “free will” is actually circumstance that happened before the decision and biological states happening elsewhere in your body.

sure... but that means the three options are: "free will exists in atomic physics" "free will doesn't exist" "free will exists but cannot be studied". I find only one of these to be an acceptable answer.

One of those answers may be acceptable, but their acceptability cannot be studied.

yeah but you could make this argument about anything. For example: Bacteria can cause disease. Disease is metaphysical. Disease does not exist.

these are not generally considered to all be equally plausible!

> where else could free will come from?

The more we know about the brain and mind, the less hiding room is left for free will and we haven't found it yet. It's looking pretty likely that free will just doesn't exist.


I think most physicists are either religious ("sneaks in at a higher level"), or believe that free will does not exist; from a physics perspective you are no different than the smartphone in your pocket.

This is fairly well-known stance and the intersection of consciousness and quantum decoherence is something people talk about quite a bit. Check out Sean Carroll's stuff for a lot of good discussion on this.

This idea is more or less the crux of Leibniz' Monadology.


I might be misinterpreting the quote but is he saying that he believes quantum particles carry at least some small degree of “consciousness” which compounds to the degree of “consciousness” we experience at our scale?

Sounds like Dyson believed in, or hoped for, free will, in that mind would affect the randomness that quantum physics involves. I think it would be great if it was so because the alternative would be that we are just machines. But I fear that the mind does not have that type of influence on it's fundamental parts...

Though I could be wrong, I believe his point was that consciousness - the mind - is the randomness underlying quantum physics.

If the brain cannot consciously reprogram itself, why does studying work?

I thought the observer effect of particle physics fell out of favor. This author gives a pretty persuasive argument that, at least from a theoretical physics point of view, consciousness does not create the universe.


It has, at least if you mean the hypothesis that the wave function is collapsed by consciousness. This doesn't rule out theories of panpsychism and panprotopsychism (or even rule those theories in?), but I don't find the arguments in favor of them convincing. I think it's plausible, but I'm skeptical. I'm also skeptical that quantum mechanics plays an important role in consciousness (beyond the role it plays in the rest of biology, and everything else in the universe), though I think that's more plausible.

Dyson was a brilliant person, but I disagree with his quote there. I think we may develop a deep theory of consciousness (including solving "the hard problem") within the next century which will put some of these debates to rest.

Here's another article that introduces the idea of panpsychism:


What a beautiful quote, thank you for sharing.

Lucretius, some 2000 years ago, based on a completely different kind of atomism, believed something very similar. Free will was due to random events on the atomic level, what he called clinamen (the swerve).

"The Swerve" is a great name for my punk band.

This makes me think of how the story in The Expanse is proceeding.

Started writing "later” in life:

“Life begins at 55, the age at which I published my first book,” he wrote in “From Eros to Gaia,”

Never got his PhD. Taught physics at Cornell.

Thoughts on climate change:

"Relishing the role of iconoclast, he confounded the scientific establishment by dismissing the consensus about the perils of man-made climate change as “tribal group-thinking.” He doubted the veracity of the climate models, and he exasperated experts with sanguine predictions they found rooted less in science than in wishfulness: Excess carbon in the air is good for plants, and global warming might forestall another ice age."

Lots worth reading in the NYT obituary.

I think Dyson was misunderstood in his criticism of climate science - he admitted that he didn't study the science itself, but he was concerned about how the scientific culture in the field seemed to be working

From his quotes, it sounds like he had a pretty strong opinion on climate science, and wasn't commenting merely on "cultural" topics.

> Indur Goklany has done a careful job, collecting and documenting the evidence that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere does far more good than harm. To any unprejudiced person reading this account, the facts should be obvious: that the non-climatic effects of carbon dioxide as a sustainer of wildlife and crop plants are enormously beneficial, that the possibly harmful climatic effects of carbon dioxide have been greatly exaggerated, and that the benefits clearly outweigh the possible damage.

I consider myself an unprejudiced person and to me these facts are obvious. But the same facts are not obvious to the majority of scientists and politicians who consider carbon dioxide to be evil and dangerous. The people who are supposed to be experts and who claim to understand the science are precisely the people who are blind to the evidence... I hope that a few of them will make the effort to examine the evidence in detail and see how it contradicts the prevailing dogma, but I know that the majority will remain blind... How does it happen that a whole generation of scientific experts is blind to obvious facts?


What I appreciated about Dyson's view of climate change is that he doesn't jump to the conclusion that change is bad and should be feared. I'm not myself saying it is good, but it was the point I appreciated most in his view.

When I read articles about species dying, ice melting, etc, I think to myself "what would it be like to travel to and live on that strange new world, with less ice, different species, wild weather?"

At the same time I've converted pasture into hedgerow and I plan to bury the wood in trenches.

I also appreciate the ability of alt-righters to the question the status quo; but I am unquestionably sure about the lack of their intelligence (which is usually the same thing that feeds their confidence).

>> Excess carbon in the air is good for plants, and global warming might forestall another ice age.

How is it not "rooted in science" that excess carbon is good for plants? We're already seeing significant global greening, and yields are up. Excess CO2 also reduces the amount of water the plants need.

It's akin to saying "Why is everyone concerned about this Volcano erupting? Plants will flourish in the resulting rich, volcanic soil"

The statement is completely true, but it misses the point as to why people are concerned and glosses over a lot of negatives.

The Goklany report that Dyson was discussing deascribes the evidence for many of the potential negatives. I don't vouch for the quality of the report one way or the other but I just skim-read it and it addresses the potential costs of increased CO2 directly.

edit: the report has 18 pages on the benefits and 12 pages on the costs of elevated CO2.

I interpret his point being less about denying that some people will be harmed by global warming but that most (or 'all') people will be.

I agree with what I think Dyson believed: that it's NOT obvious that global warming is net-negative (long term).

Another ice age would be pretty terrible too.

Global warming is a net negative for all people if the rate of change exceeds the rate at which we can adapt our society. That shows up in our economy as a cost, and when costs exceed revenue, society runs into trouble regardless of whether the atmosphere is 15% more conducive to plant growth.

The most obvious cost is the threat to densely populated real estate along coasts as sea level rises. You have to build sea walls or move. Building walls is a huge direct cost. But forced moving creates huge indirect costs as the price of real estate above the new waterline soars--at the same the people with land under the waterline all file flood insurance claims (or go bankrupt).

Freeman Dyson was a brilliant physical scientist, but the problems of global warming will be primarily social, not physical.

How much would you spend (or spend to convince the government to spend) to keep your billions-of-dollars-worth-of-real-estate viable?

Building sea walls is a trivial cost compared to moving (and giving up the real estate to the sea). Ask the Netherlands - 26% of the country is below sea level - up to (or down to) 6.7m below.

The Deltaworks project did not have a trivial cost, and the Ministry of Water in the Netherlands is deeply concerned about how we will mitigate further sea level and river level rises.

"Altogether the Delta Works cost nearly 5 billion Euros." http://www.deltawerken.com/The-Delta-Works/1524.html

"The South Holland coast region is home to approximately 4 million people who live below normal sea level" https://www.ice.org.uk/what-is-civil-engineering/what-do-civ...

Roughly 1300 Euros per person protected. How much would it cost to move those people? And what is the total value of the real estate where they live/work/farm?

So yes, "Building sea walls is a trivial cost compared to moving (and giving up the real estate to the sea)."

Moving a city over a number of decades is more of an inconvenience than a disaster. You would tear down most buildings every 50 years anyway.

Some of the disaster scenarios seem to assume people would just stay as the water rose, until they all drowned, shortest people first.

> Another ice age would be pretty terrible too.

OK, but the next rational step would be to ask which scenario is presenting the greater risk. Just raising an issue without following through is not helpful, and, I am sorry to say, that is what Dyson tended to do on this issue.

He's gone, so this isn't really the place for this discussion at all.

However, I'm glad this is mentioned and how it shows that there are a lot of intelligent people who have concerns with the current science debate. Consensus isn't science, it's politics, and challenging ones ideas is how we both reinforce the truth as well as dispel myths.

He was a genius and an inspiration for many people, why can't we just admit that he was wrong in one accessory domain (relative to his work and legacy) and not turn him into a romantic Don Quixote fighting against the "bad politics-based consensus" of climate change?

There is a prize winning physicist in my area who was arrested for starting a major brush fire. He plugged multiple extension cords together to power an electric fence and the overheating of the cords started the fire. Intelligence does not apply to every possible topic. Trusting the consensus of people trained in an area is always better than discounting that consensus because someone with little to no expertise on the subject challenges their ideas.

> Trusting the consensus of people trained in an area is always better

That's what they said when Galileo Galilei was on trial for not trusting the "consensus" about geocentric view of the world.

To use a more recent example, that's what they said of Dr. Barry Marshall who discovered that it was Heliobacter Pylori, and not "stress" that's causing ulcers in the stomach. Dude was very nearly laughed out of his field, to the point where he had to take the unconventional step of infecting himself with h. pylori to prove the point, and then curing himself of it with antibiotics.

In a politicized field especially, it can very easily cost one their scientific career if they "disagree with consensus" if one is less prominent than Dyson, whereas "agreeing with consensus" is strongly beneficial.

Galileo didn't get into trouble because of a general consensus, he got into trouble because he made fun of the Pope. It was straight up authoritarianism that put him on trial, not his scientific position.

I think you'll find those people were actually trained in their respective fields and not fielding essentially uneducated opinions, however.

Why isn't this an appropriate venue for this discussion? It seems perfectly germane.

Agree. Can't imagine Freeman himself having any problems with his stance on the issue being discussed now (or at any other time).

> Consensus isn't science, it's politics,



It's just annoying that some snooty reporter is trying to shit on this great man's legacy by speaking of things they do not understand.

The situation is more complex than that. Plants with accelerated metabolism and growth from increased CO2 burn through minerals and other nutrients so fast that they experience a kind of crash that leaves them stunted and vulnerable.

> Never got his PhD

"Freeman Dyson, renowned physicist and educator, today (May 17) received an honorary doctor of science degree at Clarkson University"

An honorary doctorate doesn't mean anything. If it did, no one would bother trying to earn the real thing.

One could be officially called Dr. after getting honorary degree

Not generally, no. Richard Stallman titles himself "Dr", which upsets many people. More details and subtleties here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Honorary_degree

Sure, but it still doesn't mean anything.

I was able to see him speak recently in San Diego, he will be missed!

I particularly enjoyed being immersed in the ethos of engineering, which is very different from the ethos of science. A good scientist is a person with original ideas. A good engineer is a person who makes a design that works with as few original ideas as possible. There are no prima donnas in engineering.

Dyson said this while describing his time working on the Orion project. It had a profound effect on me and it has always stuck with me.

"When I listen to the public debates about climate change, I am impressed by the enormous gaps in our knowledge, the sparseness of our observations and the superficiality of our theories"

"We have no reason to think that climate change is harmful if you look at the world as a whole. Most places, in fact, are better off being warmer than being colder. And historically, the really bad times for the environment and for people have been the cold periods rather than the warm periods."

"...the computer models are very good at solving equations of fluid dynamics but very bad at describing the real world. The real world is full of things like clouds and vegetation and soil and dust which the models describe very poorly."


What is important is that Dyson has quotes, but I'm not aware of any published work by him on the problem (by "published", I don't mean peer-reviewed, arXiv etc would be fine too). This means that he probably never really put his hands on the problem as a working scientist.

I'd rather remember Dyson for his significant contributions to physics, rather than for something he did not contribute to.

the ridiculously hot summers in Australasia resulting in bushfires, famine and drought... seas taking over the cities are all demonstrable effects of climate change.

Did he live in UK? Yea the winter was milder I guess.

There are plant species that are dependent upon fire for reproduction. Such species begin to die if all fire is suppressed.







When the Iraqis set the Kuwait oil wells on fire as they left, it was predicted that they would burn for years and be a global environmental disaster. They were put out in six months. This was never celebrated. The news just moved on to something with more drama.

In the aftermath of the fires, the combination of ash and water used to put many of them out caused the desert to bloom like no one had seen in at least twenty years. This also was not widely promoted as some kind of good news.

When I was pursuing environmental studies, there was a cartoon in one of my textbooks depicting microbes giving off oxygen and some of the microbes protesting that they were destroying their environment and needed to stop. Microbes that off-gassed oxygen are how we got an oxygen atmosphere on earth.

One of my professors once said "We're like fleas on the butt of a dog trying to figure out which way the dog is going."

The truth is we don't really know as much as some people like to pretend we do and we do present stories in a biased fashion. The people who are convinced we are hurtling towards our doom generally don't want to have a rational discussion of the evidence. They are too busy trying to insist that our lives are in imminent danger and there's no time for rational discussion, we must do something to stop this.

> When I was pursuing environmental studies, there was a cartoon in one of my textbooks depicting microbes giving off oxygen and some of the microbes protesting that they were destroying their environment and needed to stop. Microbes that off-gassed oxygen are how we got an oxygen atmosphere on earth.

Yes, that is called the Great Oxidation Event [1] and it was the Earth's first major extinction event.

The microbes were absolutely correct that their environment was being destroyed. The Earth then shifted to a new atmospheric makeup and new life blossomed but it was still a termination event for most life that existed prior to the event.

> The truth is we don't really know as much as some people like to pretend we do

Yes. Which means we shouldn't run a giant experiment with the atmosphere and the oceans. This is called the precautionary principle: if you're doing something that may result in systemic disaster then it's better to not do it. People who say that this giant global experiment won't do any harm (or go further and say it will be beneficial) are pretending knowledge that they don't actually have.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Oxidation_Event

Thank you for the link to The Great Oxidation Event and for the name of it. Have an upvote for that perfectly chromulent information.

I didn't realize that about the original predictions for the Kuwaiti oil well fires, that's interesting.

They are still cleaning up the oil from the sands on the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia 30 years later though.

It was predicted that the fires would burn from two to five years before losing pressure and going out on their own, optimists estimating two years and pessimists estimating five while the majority estimated three years until this occurred.


You seem definitely better informed on the subject than I am (and on other subjects btw!) But I can't help but point out that the wiki quote talks about the time needed for the fires to go out by themselves, and the 6 months were for them to be extinguished.

Still something to be celebrating I suppose, but less of an inconsistency.

Presumably, I'm older than you. I was actually watching this on the news at the time it was happening.

At that time, it was not framed as "if nothing is done and we stand idly by and watch it burn." It was framed as "We simply don't have the manpower to resolve this and it's likely that many of these hundreds of oil well fires will end up simply burning themselves out while we try to get to them because the scale of this is just beyond what we have capacity to try to fix."

Then crack teams from around the world converged on Kuwait and developed new techniques on the spot that were more efficient and effective.

> The truth is we don't really know as much as some people like to pretend we do and we do present stories in a biased fashion. The people who are convinced we are hurtling towards our doom generally don't want to have a rational discussion of the evidence. They are too busy trying to insist that our lives are in imminent danger and there's no time for rational discussion, we must do something to stop this.

This comment is essentially self-refuting, since it would mean that you don't know as much as you like to pretend you do, and you are presenting a story in a biased fashion. Considering that its evidence includes a second-hand account of what one of your professors saying we are fleas on the butt of a dog, I'm gonna put it squarely in the "stories" category.

When I want to know what is happening with the climate and fires, I'm gonna trust billions of CPU hours of simulations based on computational fluid dynamics, numerical methods, satellite observations, and the laws of thermodynamics, economic modeling, and the scientific peer review process just a little bit more than the model your professor presents. Yeah, Earth is complicated. Fleas? Not helping the discussion.

> They were put out in six months. This was never celebrated.

Red Adair was already a celebrated oil well firefighter in the 1960s, when 'Hellfighters' was filmed. His fame continued to grow. I remember a number of pieces praising Red Adair Company and others involved in putting out the Kuwait oil well fires. Putting out an oil well fire with a jet engine made for eye-grabbing news.

Obituaries about him include praise like this, from CBS, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/hellfighter-red-adair-dies-at-8... :

"Thanks in part to his expertise, an operation expected to last three to five years was completed in nine months, saving millions of barrels of oil and stopping an intercontinental air pollution disaster."

I therefore think you exaggerate when you write "never celebrated."

Do you have a citation for the desert bloom? I looked, but couldn't find any mention of it. Since much of the water for putting out the fires was sea water, pumped in reverse through oil pipes, I'm curious about salt water could be beneficial to a desert bloom. Was it downwind moisture?

It was far easier to find publications like "Remediation of Oil Contaminated Sludge and Soil in Kuwait":

"The destruction of oil fields in Kuwait during the Gulf War resulted in unprecedented large environmental damage. More than 500 oil lakes were formed covering more than 49 km2 area. The volume of contaminated oily sludge’s and soil, which needs to be treated in Kuwait, is estimated to be more than 20 million m3 ... Within Burgan, all lake beds, particularly the ones near the city of Ahmadi and in the working areas such as gathering centers in the oil field, are considered to be a threat to human health and harmful to all types of life, including native flora and fauna."

an "Ecology of Arabian deserts" (doi:10.1007/1-4020-3970-0_5 )

"Lakes of oil deliberately released in Kuwait by the Iraqi Armyin the 1991 Gulf War were up to 2.5 m deep and contaminated the environment, as well as the north-eastern shores of Saudi Arabia. The movement of armies and their vehicles during the first Gulf War in 1991 and the Iraq war in 2003–2005 has caused the fragile desert pavements laid down over thousands of years to be broken and destroyed over large areas of north-eastern Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and many areas of Iraq. This caused a dramatic increase in the number of violent sandstorms and dust storms, new dunes blocked roads in northern Kuwait (El-Baz, 1992), and pilots reported a doubling of dust storms following the Iraq–Iran war in the 1980s."

so I also would like to know how well benefits like the desert bloom balances the many better-known negative effects.

Do you have a citation for the desert bloom?

It was something I saw in a print magazine a long time ago. I can't cite it.

It's easy to pull out a single phrase, like "never celebrated," and nitpick it. In comparison to the handwringing in the news at the time about the imminent global catastrophe we were facing, the success of getting it out out and averting the level of global atmospheric catastrophe that was expected wasn't really celebrated.

We did the same with Y2K. The world expected a financial meltdown. People were stockpiling guns and give years of flour in their basements and then it became "Gosh, I can't program my VCR."

We take success for granted. We don't celebrate that we have 7 billion people with long life expectancy and high standard of living compared to 200 years ago. Instead, we complain about overpopulation and global warming and how we are hurtling towards our doom.

"How to lie with statistics" is a terrific book about how we can take the same data and say different things with it. We tend to frame it quite negatively.

In the end, none of us is getting out of here alive. We're all just dancing on this Earth for a short while.

There are people literally trying to find ways to solve death and wondering if we can be frozen and brought back and so forth. We're never satisfied and there's some evidence that it's partly because we choose to focus on the negative and with 7 billion people there no shortage of bad news, but not because things are necessarily actually worse in absolute terms.

"It's easy to pull out a single phrase, like "never celebrated," and nitpick it."

Sure. And it's easy to exaggerate. Why not say "underappreciated"?

"People were stockpiling guns and give years of flour in their basements"

Sure. And yet no one I knew did that. If one points to extremes and ignore the average case, isn't that an exaggeration?

"Instead, we complain about overpopulation"

Perhaps because Norman Borlaug was right in saying "But the frightening power of human reproduction must also be curbed; otherwise the success of the green revolution will be ephemeral only."

"it's partly because we choose to focus on the negative"

Perhaps you are the one to see a desert flower bloom in the midst of great environmental damage. Does that mean the damage is not there and there's nothing to do?

Famine in Australasia?? No idea where you got that. I live in NZ.

His point is, for every place that gets worse, someplace else will get better.

Small consolation if you live in one of the former places, of course. But he's not wrong. Earth as a whole is a bit colder than it would be in the best of all possible universes.

Other effects like ocean acidification are harder to hand-wave away. I hate cold weather, myself, but it's not just about terrestrial climate.

His point has been debunked time and time again. "Better" is a definition for the organisms that may inhabit a certain environment.

Under no reasonable time frame for human existence is his claim even close to valid.

His point has been debunked time and time again. ... by arguments that themselves are subject to debunking. You've used a thought-terminating phrase here.

The fact is, we've been coming out of an ice age for the past several millennia, and life has generally gotten better as a result. The rate at which that process happens is very important, though. If Dyson did overlook any important counterpoints, that seems like a big one.

Yeah, he's overlooking the entire field of climate science and all the associated environmental sciences that predict to an amazing level of detail the impact of climate change in each and every imaginable location in the planet.

We know exactly what the Arctic is going to look like and its impacts. We have known and are observing the melting of glaciers in the Alps, Andes and Himalayas to catastrophic effects in downstream environments.

Anything is subject to debunking if you're unwilling to look at the most sophisticated evidence available. Unfortunately, there is no model that will tell you that a 4 degree increase in average temperature won't end most of human society as we know it.

If you read the literature it's clear that model determinations of very high climate sensitivity (4°C, 5°C, 6°C and up) have increasingly been determined to be in error.

Moreover, “Contrary to popular accounts, very few scientists in the world – possibly none – have a sufficiently thorough, 'big picture' understanding of the climate system to be relied upon for a prediction of the magnitude of global warming. To the public, we all might seem like experts, but the vast majority of us work on only a small portion of the problem.” (Roy Spencer)

So? The predictions of the current heating have been spot on for models that are 20 years old.

I'm sorry but I'm not gonna take seriously people who want to criticize model sensitive as a reason to ignore climate change when the current glacial melt, the ongoing ocean acidification and all the phenomena that have already been unleashed by the existing levels of climate change continue unabated.

He lived in Princeton NJ. In the last several years, it has stopped snowing in the winter in central NJ. Direct consequence of global warming messing up the arctic air currents.


> Droughts are caused by depleting the water supply, not by warm weather. Warm weather increases rain.

It also increases evaporation an even the size and geography at play they don't even come close to cancelling out.

>>seas taking over the cities >Has not happened.

I'm sure Jakarta would like a word.

>It also increases evaporation

Which increases rain, as I said. The most highly productive ecosystems on the planet are hot. Rainforests are not scary bad things to be afraid of. California is running out of water because they draw too much water, not because of CO2. Huge portions of the planet are currently drawing water from aquifers and natural reservoirs faster than they refill, and rely on that inherently unsustainable practice to irrigate crops. In a few decades, we could see massive starvation in India as water runs out. And instead of even TALKING about this problem much less promoting sustainable agriculture, climate hysteria distracts from it so it goes unaddressed, allows these problems to continue, then blames them on CO2.

>I'm sure Jakarta would like a word.

Blaming every flood on "climate change" is precisely the problem. Has the number of floods increased? No. Has the severity? No. Has sea level rise accelerated? No. Have hurricanes increased in size or severity? No. Yet every time any of these events occurs now, we're blasted with "look its climate change how dare you deny it!" in the media.

>>the ridiculously hot summers in Australasia

> Are no hotter than many other years, decades ago.

Well there is a whole damn Wikipedia article about the subject if you are into reading. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Climate_change_in_Australia

And yeah, the summers are ridiculously hot and are actually hotter than many other years, decades ago, and keep getting hotter. One outlier from the 1970s doesn't invalidate the overall trend that it's fucking hot as hell, year after year. The outliers from those decades are the new normal now. Droughts are multi-year trend. And yeah, that's climate change, dude.

>>seas taking over the cities

> Has not happened. The rate of sea level rise has been stable for the 120 years we have good data. It has not accelerated.

Bull [https://www.sbs.com.au/news/never-seen-anything-like-that-ve...]. Fucking [https://www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2019/08/08/analysis-s...]. Shit [https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2680/new-study-finds-sea-level...].

>>are all demonstrable effects of climate change

> None of them are. They are things people insist MUST be caused by "climate change", but do so only using "common sense", rather than any actual evidence. Demonstrable requires evidence, not "common sense".

Please go argue with the thousands of people whose work the distilled news articles and Wikipedia articles are based on. They aren't sitting around churning out hackernews comments using "common sense" but are undertaking a very serious and organized scientific effort to understand just what the fuck is going on instead of absurd denialism.


> Wikipedia is not science.

That Wikipedia article has 158 sources cited. You? Zero.

> Repeating it won't make it so.


I mean, you can go trawl through the data yourself. The graph is in the last expandable fold. The page describes the data collection practices, peer review, the entire god damn thing right there. But you know what? You don't care. Because it's gonna be another bullshit thing, one after another---oh that's not real data. That's not science. That's fake news, lalalala, you don't wanna hear it, and on and on and on.

> Why? What possible benefit would that have

Well TBH trolls like you have a net negative effect on the entire discourse and the culture here. I generally don't think it's good for the culture for people to engage trolls, but egad, I stepped on a landmine and here we are. It's not good when the community has to spell it out in black and white, but what I am basically saying is, stop embarrassing yourself and don't bother commenting if you can't offer anything positive. You haven't offered one goddamn source or citation, just your feelings. Please spare us!

Freeman Dyson did speak out against climate alarmism. He provides some insightful counterpoints to the prevailing APW narrative, particularly about taking models on faith & the provisional nature of science. Given he was directly involved with some of the initial climate models, it's an interesting take on how models of complex nonlinear systems often oversimplify reality with assumptions. It seems like good general wisdom re: models in any domain exhibiting similar complexity & nonlinearity.


Thanks for the link. I watched a bit of that.

Freeman Dyson's opinion is one of skepticism, not denial. Unfortunately I don't think he's deeped in the science or the messiness of climate modeling, so I think he's just not an expert here. Bright, even eminent scientists can be wrong, even in their areas of expertise. For example, Ernst Mach was famous for not believing atoms exist, even declaring it loudly after having heard a lecture by Boltzmann. Einstein firmly opposed the nondeterminism underlying quantum mechanics, refusing to believe that physics is not deterministic (this is the source of his famous "God does not play dice" quote.)

> Australasia resulting in bushfires

Ah yes, the same fires started by loony arsonists to promote climate change hysteria.

> seas taking over the cities are all demonstrable effects of climate change

The sea level raise has been approximately 3 inches from the 1993 level. That is much less than the change due to the tides.

and the city of Ur use to be right on the coast, but now it's way inland. The Ganges River use to lead right up to Red Fort and now it doesn't.

The location of certain geological features or bodies of water is a really poor indicator of environmental damage, because these things have changed constantly throughout time.

However the tons of plastic we dump into the oceans, the lakes of sludge outside of Chinese factory cities and the massive amounts of e-waste shipped every year to Africa where kids and adults extract metals and plastic in very unsafe conditions and smelters should be of great concern to everyone.

There is environmental disaster looming, and so much of it is much more radically evidence than CO2. We need to stop over-consumption. Consumerism and planned/negligent obsolescence is destroying this planet. Solving for the real problems will also reduce CO2, but focusing on CO2 is like trying to cure the sniffles when you're dying of the Flu.

Well said.

It’s important environmentalists consider the whole and do cost benefit analyses of intervention.

I see much less of a cost to quality of life in reducing planned obsolescence and increasing the reusability of things than I do in decreasing carbon emissions wholesale. The transportation benefits of gasoline are enormous, and it makes less sense to restrict something so practical and beneficial than it does to try to reduce something as wasteful and pointless as intentionally making a product difficult to repair and maintain long term.

I’m very sympathetic to Dyson’s criticism of the status quo, although I don’t know enough to have an opinion on whether carbon emissions may be beneficial on net. He advocated for practicality rather than dogmatic belief, and was interested in simple interventions like changing land management and tilling practices if carbon emissions are actually as detrimental as are being touted, rather than dramatic energy reduction or conversion to expensive and currently less viable energy sources.

Regardless of whether or not people believe CO2 is on net beneficial for the planet, I think he was right in calling out the difficulty in having an apolitical, non-interested and practically minded perspective on climate change and environmental impact that goes against dogma. The science should speak for itself, and any candid and open good faith discussion to determine whether alternative perspectives are valid should be welcomed. Dyson’s argument that carbon emissions are probably good on net might be wrong, but his position was in good faith and well constructed. Any such position should be transparently engaged with rather than dismissed as uneducated.

Well, all that matters is the level at high tide, right? Everything near the seashore is constructed on that basis.

I agree. There are also spring and neap tides, so the important level is the high tide of a spring tide.

But if the wind is blowing from the sea/river to the land, it can increase the level, specially during a storm, in some places a few meters. And the waves during a storm can be also a few meters high. [Hi from Buenos Aires! https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sudestada ] So a few inches was never enough to ensure that your city will not be flooded.

Those points may have been true when he said them. "The models are bad" becomes less true over time. Also, since the ice age was so bad for humans, it's forgivable that a non-expert would think that going further in the same direction could be helpful.

I think it’s unfair to call Dyson a non-expert. Climate science was not his speciality, and he was humble about his relation to it and quick to point out that there are people more familiar with the current state of the field than him, but he was involved in important early climate studies. From Wikipedia:

> Around 1979 Dyson worked with the Institute for Energy Analysis on climate studies. This group, under Alvin Weinberg's direction, pioneered multidisciplinary climate studies, including a strong biology group. Also during the 1970s, Dyson worked on climate studies conducted by the JASON defense advisory group.

There have been lots of advances in modelling complex systems, but it’s notoriously difficult to find models that work beyond a short timeframe. Dumb simple models often work better than cutting edge, complicated, much more realistic ones simply because there are less variables to get wrong. And every time you make an advance, the assumed accuracy of the model’s long term predictions needs to be reset: if model A predicted 1 year accurately, and you improved it so model A.1 predicted the next year accurately, you don’t have a model that accurately predicted 2 years; there is still only 1 unknown year that was predicted, and A.1 was just as accurate/inaccurate as model A at predicting that unknown year whether or not it took that past year into account.

We’ve seen how easy it is for sophisticated and complex models of chaotic systems like the stock market to fail despite people’s faith in them. His point seems as prudent now as back then; I think some systems are a lot more complicated than we’d like, and that we should have enough hubris to acknowledge that and be constantly testing our assumptions against empirical data.

He didn’t dismiss the value of models in helping understand chaotic systems, he was just wary about their long term predictions. And that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re wrong, only that they should not be taken as Gospel for anything beyond a fairly short time frame.

Unfortunately, he acted like a non-expert when he hand-waved away quantitative arguments. Being wary of long-term predictions does not in any way justify using claims that are not even predictions, in any scientific sense, to argue for the opposite outcome.

I disagree about him hand-waving away quantitative arguments.

I’ve watched a number of relatively lengthy interviews and presentations he’s given that have been about or have touched on the topic of climate change, and he consistently references measurements of carbon’s effects and emphasizes the importance of real world measurements. His criticism is of abstract models of climate that attempt to make long term predictions.

If you’re most familiar with his positions through quotes and third hand reporting, I encourage you to listen to videos of him. I found him quite enjoyable to listen to. He was not the partisan he was sometimes painted as, although he was interviewed by people that were, but rather seemed genuinely curious and interested in truth and exploration.

Here are a few videos.




His core claims appear to be that A) Increased CO2 has measurable, beneficial effects B) CO2 is one of many factors contributing to a complex system effecting climate that we don’t fully comprehend C) The positive or negative effects of climate change we’re observing depend on the region D) It is better to create a wide range of practical engineering solutions to deal with the effects of a changing climate than to think we can fully control it or know what effect our interventions or lack thereof will do in the future.

Some of those claims might be wrong, but I think it’s inaccurate to say they weren’t scientifically based.

The A, B, C and D are exactly the sort of places where he raises an issue and then starts handwaving over the quantitative questions that should be the next step, while at the same time dismissing and even belittling the work who have looked into these issues in more detail. For example, when he claims effects will balance out, it is just his opinion - he does not offer a quantitative scientific justification. He starts with something that is science-based, but he doesn't follow through.

There is also something of the motte-and-bailey fallacy when he claims that the modeling is not accurate enough to be trusted, while also telling us how things are going to work out.

A few years ago, I asked Freeman Dyson what we should teach our children so there would be more Freeman Dyson's. He gave a surprising answer.

He said we should teach children to genetically "play" with plants. He thought we needed that kind of creativity as a human species if we would ever be able to populate the asteroid belt. He said that most of the surface area of the solar system is in the asteroid belt -- but the only way we could really live out there was if we could create warm blooded plants.

Freeman at his best [1] when he is thinking blue thoughts [4,5] in the blue plane. Thermogenic plants have already evolved [2]. We need to make them grow an anti-desiccant film and be more efficient like living stones [3].




[4] Alan Kay's explanation of Arthur Koestlers creative thinking (link will follow later).

John Cleese explains how [6]. Point of view is worth 80 IQ points, the best way to predict the future is to invent it.

[5] Arthur Koestler (link will follow later).

[6] John Cleese explains why in a funny way.

Not OP. This seems to be the best "blue thought" explanation I can find: https://tekkie.wordpress.com/2007/07/11/redefining-computing...

Definitely not in common use - the parent comment is a top ranking result for a variety of relevant-seeming searches.

Isn't the large total surface area of the asteroid belt overwhelmed by drawbacks like unusability of most of it for most purposes (uneven, unstable, unshielded, etc.), and the fact that humans do really poorly in microgravity?

Those drawbacks are only true on some (possible) timescales. The biggest drawback currently, for human settlement of the asteroid belt, is that we can't afford to send anyone there!

Freeman Dyson's the person after which the Dyson sphere is named, so the current (relative) "unusability" of asteroids or the fact that humans currently seem to "do really poorly in microgravity" are 'just' additional obstacles to be overcome sometime in the future from the perspective in which space megastructures are possible.

One question I really hope we can answer someday: exactly how little gravity do humans need before it becomes too "micro"? Can humans stay healthy on Mars? On the Moon? On Ceres or Enceladus or Pluto or Charon or yet smaller bodies?

But yeah, I don't think "surface area" is the right angle to look at. More like "volume within a sufficient depth". A lot of (most?) asteroids and comets consist primarily of water ice, and water happens to be pretty darn good at radioactive shielding, so if we build habitats inside the asteroids we'd have a solid chance of significantly addressing that particular hazard (and also have plenty of water for drinking / agriculture / fuel).

That sounds about right. You should check this out of haven’t yet https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Expanse_(TV_series)

Thanks for reminding me that I really need to get around to starting Season 4!

The second part of this story is that he said he was inspired by the Little Prince. Specifically, the low gravity Wells, making it possible to jump from planet to planet ..

Infinite in All Directions is still one of my favorite science books.

"Science and religion are two human enterprises sharing many common features. They share these features also with other enterprises such as art, literature, and music. The most salient features of all these enterprises are discipline and diversity. Discipline to submerge the individual fantasy in a greater whole. Diversity to give scope to the infinite variety of human souls and temperaments. Without discipline there can be no greatness. Without diversity there can be no freedom. Greatness for the enterprise, freedom for the individual- these are the two themes, contrasting but not incompatible, that make up the history of science and the history of religion."

"Infinite In All Directions" is right here in my current reading stack next to Loren Eiseley's "All The Strange Hours"... they live on through their written words and all the lives they touched.

Freeman Dyson exposed and explained Richard Feynmans genius to the world, but he had better blue thoughts (see my other links in this discussion) than Feynman had ("Plenty Of Room At The Bottom"), on a par with Alan Kay's blue thoughts.

He imagined the Dyson Sphere that set me on my path to Science, Carl Sagan just gave the last push.

He imagined the space chicken and the Kuiper belt/Oort cloud plants.

His carbon cycle ideas have still not been researched seriously.

His essay on the origens of life (started by Gödel) are still ringing in my brain.

His view of big Napoleon versus small tabletop science is a very valid analysis of our current crises in science and his solution is to be kind to the mad scientists and heretics.

By far his best interview is https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EBjVHLBEsHI&list=PLzLGaX_Jvm.... It is also on bittorrent and Peertube.

The rest of the Glorious Accident series is worth it as well, especially the group discussion at the end.

Blue thoughts?

"The technologies which have had the most profound effects on human life are usually simple. A good example of a simple technology with profound historical consequences is hay. Nobody knows who invented hay, the idea of cutting grass in the autumn and storing it in large enough quantities to keep horses and cows alive through the winter. All we know is that the technology of hay was unknown to the Roman Empire but was known to every village of medieval Europe. Like many other crucially important technologies, hay emerged anonymously during the so-called Dark Ages. According to the Hay Theory of History, the invention of hay was the decisive event which moved the center of gravity of urban civilization from the Mediterranean basin to Northern and Western Europe. The Roman Empire did not need hay because in a Mediterranean climate the grass grows well enough in winter for animals to graze. North of the Alps, great cities dependent on horses and oxen for motive power could not exist without hay. So it was hay that allowed populations to grow and civilizations to flourish among the forests of Northern Europe. Hay moved the greatness of Rome to Paris and London, and later to Berlin and Moscow and New York."

A free and original thinker, who wrote well. An intellectual powerhouse with immense humility. He will be sorely missed.

Here are some of his most interesting tidbits (For a man like Dyson, I'm sure there's more)

1. Birds and frogs: https://www.ams.org/notices/200902/rtx090200212p.pdf (On two kinds of intellectual personalities)

2. The Scientist as a Rebel (essay collection): https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/51431.The_Scientist_as_R...

3. He has been thoughtfully articulate in his perspective on religion. While I can't find an appropriate link right away, definitely worth checking out.

Quotes/Excerpts: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Freeman_Dyson

What a loss. There's a fantastic and epic interview with him on youtube here[1]. He tells stories of famous people he knew, meeting Wittgenstein, arguing with Teller, going on a road trip across the country with Feynman etc. Solid gold stuff.

I've heard occasional attacks on him over the bombings of Dresden and Hamburg. But I think this is worth a read[2]. He speaks very frankly about what they did and his involvement. It's clear how he felt about it, but he never tries to make excuses for himself. That impressed me about his character in a way that's hard to explain.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLVV0r6CmEsFzDA6mtmKQE...

[2] http://www.bible-researcher.com/dresden/dyson.html

A couple of years ago I got interested in an old paper of his, "Continuous Functions Defined on Spheres", where he proves that for any continuous function defined on the sphere, there are four points forming an equatorial square (ie four points equally spaced along some great circle) on which the function takes equal values.

Interestingly, this theorem can be used to prove the Wobbly Table theorem, that any square table can be rotated on a (possibly bumpy) floor so that all four legs touch the ground simultaneously.

I found the theorem interesting, and it has the flavor of the Borsuk-Ulam Theorem (commonly explained as "there are always a pair of antipodal points on the Earth that have the same temperature and pressure"), but it bugged me that the proof was not at all similar to the standard proofs of the Borsuk-Ulam Theorem.

So I found my own proof of Dyson's theorem, in the spirit of the Borsuk-Ulam Theorem. Wrote it up but didn't publish traditionally — it's at https://haggainuchi.com/wobblytable2.html — but it never occurred to me to send it to Dyson or that he might be interested.

Too late now, sadly.

My favorite thing about Dyson was that, in the middle of doing atomic research, he plotted a graph of the total number of nuclear tests done every year, and saw that it was increasing exponentially - which caused him to reverse his position on the use of nuclear devices, and argue to cancel his own project and all similar projects.

from Dyson's 1962 memo on the Test Ban Treaty:

"The choice, whether or not to accept a test-ban agreement, is thus not a choice between two static situations, one without testing and the other with testing at some constant rate. This choice seems rather to be, either to stop tests, or to continue to double the rate of testing every three years ad infinitum."

What an incredible life Freeman Dyson had. The next time you have an hour free, I'd urge you to watch this autobiographical lecture he gave in 2011, "On living through four revolutions". In it, he describes his experience witnessing and participating in (1) the development of space travel, (2) nuclear energy, (3) molecular biology & the genome, and (4) computers. In addition to being absolutely fascinating and insightful, this talk does a fantastic job of showing off his wonderfully dry sense of humor!


I guess it's time to reread Starship and the Canoe - a great book about Freeman's nuclear weapon powered spaceship and his son George's interest in building boats. I thoroughly enjoyed it 25+ years ago.

Noted physicist slain by oldest foe, gravity:

"Mia Dyson says her father, at the age of 96 still regularly went to his office at Princeton University. On Wednesday, on such a visit, she says he suffered a fall and died of his injuries Friday morning."

TBIs and elder falling are a terrifying source of morbidity and mortality. So many old people start their terminal decline when they fall, for no particularly good reason. (Even when it doesn't immediately kill them, it can contribute to a downward spiral of ill health, less activity, and iatrogenics.) Who knows how much longer Dyson could have lived if his foot hadn't slipped?

Or to look at it from a different angle, their fall is caused by their old age decline which in turn triggers their terminal decline. I've seen it throughout my family, once confined to bed at old age one's decline accelerates quickly. It's perhaps that the lack of movement that has some spiraling effect on their health. More and more people should not stop doing sports when they get older, they should do sports less vigorously as they age but movement regime should stay.

I wonder how much of this depends on how big a change there is in movement?

Would a lifelong couch potato for whom their post fall movement is only a few percent less than what it was before the fall be less affected than someone who had been very active before their fall and had to cut their movement by 95%?

My mother who is 83 works out with a trainer who focuses on the elderly 3 times a week. All they do is stretching and balance exercises. To paraphrase her, at this age not falling is far more important then 45 minutes on the exercise bike.

Yes, mobility and balance are sometimes overlooked with the regular bike exercises. Simply walking provides both if done properly (on a treadmill is not exactly the same thing for balance but better than none). I sometimes see some elders hiking and wish to be just like that at their age.

Yes, good point. On the other hand I wonder if there is any person who aged well who had been a couch potato their whole life. I've seen very old people who were no longer very active but had been very active throughout their life. They still had some light and slow walks on a daily basis !!

Movement helps with digestion is something I learned from firsthand experience. Due to a broken leg I was confined to a bed for nearly 2 months and remember bowel movements were extremely affected. Movement helps with arthritis, helps the brain, helps the bones.

Also, the lymph system requires breathing and movement from the body's muscles to help move fluids and remove waste from the body.

From what I've seen in the elderly, yes. It's just just the inactivity, but also the positioning. I suspect your lungs don't drain the same way, more of your body is subject to contact pressure for longer periods, and how blood flow works against gravity changes.

Sports would be great, but simply getting out for a walk every day makes a huge difference.

I am not sure how long it'd take to become socially acceptable, but I would bet we could make robotic tails for the elderly to help with balancing... accelerometer, motors and a few counterweights, controller and battery.

A lot of people have psychological hurdles to even using a cane. Something like "I raised N children, I powered through my career, I have been a strong independent human being as far as I can remember, why should I use a cane?"

I work with seniors, and even walkers/canes aren't surefire answers. In my facility, with roughly 500 seniors, we still have at least 2 major falls a month with people using walkers. We had a hip fracture last week with someone using a walker because they decided to take a sharp turn and just tipped over. They certainly help, but I've seen falls happen that wouldn't have happened were a walker not in the equation at all.

You occasionally see Richard Guy walking around our mathematics department with hiking poles. The man hiked a mountain in his 90s, but he's 103 now and it seems those days are past. It reminds me to watch where I'm going, lest I end a living legend.

For sure, something like a wearable airbag (if you couldn't tell someone was wearing it) would be an easier sell. In either case people would have to actually remember to put them on and keep them on. Of course, it's sad to think that not wanting to accept you're aging would prevent us from taking steps to live longer, but we humans are a stubborn bunch.

> why should I use a cane?

To beat young whippersnappers!

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/08/26/business/tech/d...: “Devolution? Keio University team designs wearable robotic tail to help elderly keep their balance”

Ooh, that one is fancy! But looks like it will need some refinement to be untethered.

Make them look like dinosaur tails, sell them with a dinosaur hat, market them through grandkids!

You might be interested in the Gravity Research Foundation[1]. It was founded in 1948 by Roger Babson, who also founded Babson College. Babson described gravity as "Our Enemy Number One" and blamed it for the drowning death of his sister. He hoped the foundation would lead to the discovery of an anti-gravity material.

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravity_Research_Foundation

Yes, I was alluding to that. The proposed methods are crazy, but there is a valid point in there, particularly for TBIs and falls.

Everyone dies of something. At the high end of geriatrics, with immune system decaying and bones hollowing out, nearly everything is a fatal risk.

A bad fall can kill anyone. Non-elders usually are more durable and have better reaction time though.

I suspect reaction and bracing may matter more than human scale durability given sucker punches are especially dangerous because the body doesn't react or attempt to shield any vitals. Clearly healthy young men aren't durable enough to never die that way.

In the case of elders the decline in reflexes may matter more - although they certainly do take injuries worse.

What an interesting perspective to consider and a statement on human fragility, especially in the context of such a great man.

Unfortunately, no matter how great you are, you are still a few pounds of grayish peanut butter in a calcium jar.

head trauma ?

oh.. Traumatic Brain Injury.

good point, let's make elders angle protection trendy and desireable

I love his "Web of Stories": https://www.webofstories.com/play/freeman.dyson/1. Rest in peace.

Yes, definitely marvelous. Also a Youtube Playlist. I'll put it on, go for a walk, and the time just disappears: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rs1jGsn61p8&list=PLVV0r6CmEs...

For fans of Physics Today, they have put up a link to articles authored by Dyson over the years: https://physicstoday.scitation.org/action/doSearch?AllField=...

Freeman Dyson - Scientific bad-ass. James Dyson - Vacuum cleaner bad-ass.

source: https://www.reddit.com/r/wikipedia/comments/diumi/has_anyone...

For anyone else that couldn't access it:



While at undergraduate studying physics, I once emailed Dyson asking about something he had written with regards to NASA, and what he thought the future of space travel was. I always remember he took the time to respond and email me back. Was really nice, especially as he gets no telling how many emails a day, and easily could've ignored it.

I heard him speak in 2004, when I was 17. Here's what I wrote in my LiveJournal at the time:

On Thursday, I saw Freeman Dyson speak at Cornell. He was so amazing I can't even describe it. I didn’t look at my watch once during the speech. Not long into the talk, the elderly gentleman next to me pulled a scrap of paper out of his pocket and began scribbling notes. He kept writing until the end of the speech. I glanced behind me during the question-and-answer period, and noticed that Schwartz Auditorium was so full that people were standing in the balcony and sitting on the railings just to hear Dyson.

The text of Dyson’s speech would have impressed any English teacher. He structured it as seven short stories, with each one slowly building on each other. The style of his writing––the way he chose his words and structured his sentences––would have been impressive if he had been giving a lecture in the humanities, much less a field stereotyped for less-able communicators. The way Dyson was able to convey the sheer wonder of science was an orgasmic experience equivalent to reading my first Carl Sagan book.

An 80-year-old physicist who had the energy of a young assistant professor, who delivered his speech fluidly and responded deftly to the audience’s questions––a scientist proficient in more than one science, and fluent enough in biology to give an entire lecture on biotechnology!!!! Oh wow...

I think last week someone mentioned the dyson sphere with a link to wiki. It said he regretted they named it after him.

Huh, I'd be curious to see that source. I know he somewhat recanted the idea of a Dyson sphere, as it is completely impractical even with unimagined technology (re: tensile strength of the materials, and preventing such a megastructure from falling into the sun whenever a rock hits it). But he later proposed the idea of a Dyson swarm, an extremely large array of solar-sucking satellites orbiting the sun as an idea that's theoretically possible even with today's technology.

One thing that's slightly interesting about Dyson Sphere's is that spherical shells of matter exert exactly no gravitational pull at any point in their interiors. That is, the integral of gravitational pull over the whole shell is identically 0 for every point inside the shell.* This goes for any force that falls off by the inverse square rule, e.g. the electrostatic force.

In short, there's no practical way to stick an atmosphere, much less a civilization composed of life forms that depend on gravity, to the inside of the sphere, even if the other engineering challenges could be overcome.

* One thing that's suddenly more interesting to me now is if the space at any point is being "pulled" equally in all directions, resulting in zero force, or if the bends in space-time cancel out. In the limit, for example, could you "tear" space-time inside a dense enough and/or heavy enough shell of matter?

think about the 2d equivalent - a ball rolls down a hill because the potential gradient directs it that way. a ball sitting on a flat pedestal isn't being pulled in every horizontal direction at once by some forces that are proportional to the height of the pedestal. it's not being pulled horizontally at all

there is zero space-time curvature within the sphere, it's "flat", so there's no force. nothing is "cancelled out", force is the derivative of energy with respect to space. it's like a 3d pedestal (or rather, a cylinder excavated from the earth with a flat bottom)

> there's no practical way to stick an atmosphere, much less a civilization composed of life forms that depend on gravity, to the inside of the sphere

Why not spin the sphere? Given the immense surface area, it wouldn't even matter that the centripetal force would only be strongest around the 'equator'.

So, the plan would be:

1. Create a giant rotating sphere around our Sun.

2. Create a ring world around the 'equator' of the inside of the sphere (i.e. a ring of walls high enough to hold in the resident's preferred atmosphere).

3. Install solar panels everywhere else.

4. Profit!

Why not just a ring, instead?

It's been done, of course...

I'm sure we're need better technology than Dyson sphere. Just another way. Human race with Dyson sphere looks like parasite virus who build giant construction to destroy the sun and get another climate change. Just look on top manager from Avatar film people like him will controls Dyson spheres. It can be another Boeing 777 Max where sphere can be broken and peoples get blackout for years or any problem with the sun. We're need another technologies for travel around universe and give energy to our ships directly from any sun and any point of the space for recharge ship power banks. I wrote below about the possible technology of the future 3D printing of the light directly on atomic level and peoples will make amazing teleports

I tried following the link on the wiki page but it actually is a dead end, so I am not sure about it anymore


His paper "Time without end : Physics and biology in an open universe" is worth a read: http://www.astro.caltech.edu/ay1/RevModPhys.51.447.pdf

A book called something like 'Quantum Mysteries for Bluffers' described his work on QED this way:

Feynman, Schwinger and Tomonaga independently discovered quantum electrodynamics. Then Freeman Dyson explained it -- to the first three!

The Times obituary mentions two books that give a sense of what Dyson was like as a thinker and conversationalist.

> He appeared in John McPhee’s book “The Curve of Binding Energy” (1974), a portrait of Ted Taylor, the nuclear scientist who led the Orion effort, and in Kenneth Brower’s “The Starship and the Canoe” (1978). In a memorable scene, Mr. Brower wrote of Dr. Dyson’s reunion with his son, George, who had turned his back on high technology to live in a treehouse in British Columbia and build a seafaring canoe.

Both books are very much worth reading.

May seem trivial but the Dyson Sphere was the most amazing thing I ever learned about though Star Trek, awe inspiring in that it really is theoretically possible for us to build in thousands of years.

No! He was a hero to any aspiring physicist.

I can’t even begin to list his accomplishments!

The obit refers to him as "Dr. Dyson". Did he ever get a doctorate?

edit: I'll leave this up for posterity, but the answer is no. The article explains the discrepancy.

"Freeman Dyson, renowned physicist and educator, today (May 17) received an honorary doctor of science degree at Clarkson University"

Are they sure he’s dead and that someone hasn’t erected a shell around him absorbing all of his radiant energy?

Bittersweet news -- but he lived a productive and long life.

I came upon parasitic numbers by researching Freeman Dyson one day. Very cool. Read up on them: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parasitic_number

Between ten and fifteen years ago I was at a colloquium featuring Leon Cooper, Craig Venter and Freeman Dyson (via video). At one point in the conversation, Dyson slumped over only to rouse a few minutes later. He rejoined the conversation without missing a beat.

Worth watching, Freemon Dyson life stories -- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rs1jGsn61p8&list=PLVV0r6CmEs...

With the exception of his views on climate change, he was probably my favourite living physicist. 94 years is an extremely good (I realise this now that I have a single grandparent left, one down before I was born) innings, but what a shame.

Orbitsville - Urbanization of a Dyson Sphere: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orbitsville

Damn, I'm doing research involving partitions right now. I used crank/rank all the time -invariants that he introduced years ago. What a shame, RIP

He was interesting character partially because he believed in God.

This is actually quite rare at the very upper echelons of the scientific community.


Seems more complicated than that

> I am a practicing Christian but not a believing Christian. To me, to worship God means to recognize that mind and intelligence are woven into the fabric of our universe in a way that altogether surpasses our comprehension

I truly appreciate thinkers who are able to think about God in their own original terms. His particular description of the notion of God is quite similar to my own, so this is quite nice to read.

>To me, to worship God means to recognize that mind and intelligence are woven into the fabric of our universe in a way that altogether surpasses our comprehension

Doesn't sound very falsifiable.

Born from the light and came back to the light

I think that everything is the light with different levels form of concentration. High concentration of the light transforms to physics matter. Low level of the light is vacuum, high is atomic energy, Large Hadron Collider for example. The light is universal transmitter & transformer. The light is concentrated knowledge that is transmitted from the sun to every particle of the planet and peoples, and thanks to the light, matter and a variety of life forms are created, which creates a variety of forms of matter. The idea of Christianity about the resurrection of people is magnificent, then such great people as Dyson could be resurrected, why not? But technologies are needed in new physics and medicine, which would gain access to reality at the nanoparticle level. A 3D printer that prints the light and lays knowledge into the light to recreate a person. There is a pattern that the more we get access at the micro level, the more powerful chips we can build, and more powerful chips can calculate more hashes and allow us to bring in new gigantic machines, like telescopes and spaceships, which will give access to new macro-knowledge such as dark matter and black holes of matter-time consensus, which will allow us to create new petabyte flash drives based on light, and new the light based computers will be able to burn information directly to the points of space, and what it means to materialize any object, which will provide access to new knowledge and made new grand chips & telescopes. We already partially use the light in our rooms, networks and cameras and monitors to exchange information. New theories and machines based on the light will allow creating new machines for controlling the space-time continent and copying knowledge from any space-time, and then the task of resurrecting people becomes feasible and we can transfer the consciousness of this particular person from the past without distortion. If this happens in the next 5,000 years, then Dyson saw it right. To create such machines, we need new geniuses with Dyson's light. I'm sure we are know less about physics & light, because we live on single planet in single point of universe and our theories can be expanded when we arrive to new points of universe.

He should be buried in a spherical grave! then he would always be in his dyson sphere. RIP!!

Rest in Peace. And amazing example of academic and intellectual success sans-phd.

Why does Freeman Dyson earn a black bar, and Katherine Johnson not?

I think the answer to this is that it is their site and their honour to bestow.

I believe it is rude to ask this question, mainly because you already know the answer and there is no value to be derived from the discussion; therefore it is best to simply allow people to focus on Dyson. A great scientist has died and people should be able to reflect and pay their respect to the life that he lived. It is not fair to ask people to feel the way you feel and the black bar denotes a feeling of mourning. My friends and I had a math games night to honor Katherine Johnson and it was amazing but we would never ask those of another culture to feel the same way or have the same connection with her that we did.

My interpretation of your question is that underlying it is a belief that Katherine Johnson ought to have gotten a black bar given that Freeman Dyson got one. Can you elaborate on why you think they both ought to have gotten or neither of them should have gotten one? Would you have asked why Freeman Dyson did not get a black bar if the roles had been reversed?

He’s in the Dyson sphere now.

One for the ages.

It would be great if the moderators could change the link to a non-paywalled link.

I think it would be appropriate to break out the black bar for this one.

For those not familiar: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freeman_Dyson

No black bar for Dyson. The black bars overwhelmingly go to the titans of (digital) tech rather than titans of science.

I really feel like it's worth having this discussion: the black bar for Freeman Dyson, but not for Katherine Johnson who died earlier this week.

At the time I thought it was likely because she wasn't _directly_ involved in computing and tried to write it off, but Freeman seems to be as related to the page as her. I bring it up because it really does speak to how a community decides who they want to include or not. Unless I've missed some specific guidelines, it sends unwelcoming signals to me.

just as one factoid to add, in addition to Freeman Dyson being extremely notable, his daughter, Esther, has been a well-known tech industry persona for a long time, and is probably acquainted with most everybody who is anybody out there, so... personal connection?

The community doesn't decide who gets the black bar or not, and there are no published guidelines. AFAIK it's entirely the personal preference of the admins, or possibly just dang.

Maybe Katherine Johnson just wasn't considered notable enough, or maybe the story just wasn't noticed. I wouldn't necessarily attribute it to sexism, though - there have been male obits that haven't gotten the black bar either.

I've heard of a Dyson Sphere. I had to look up who Katherine Johnson was.

I'm a woman and I'm painfully aware that women and other underrepresented groups face uphill battles to have a career at all and these battles are worthy of note in their own right.

I don't know what the solution is. I think about such things a great deal and wonder a lot what I would need to do to achieve recognition for my work and not for "a woman who did that kind of work."

I'm medically handicapped. I don't want to be remembered either as "a handicapped person who achieved something."

We don't remember Stephen Hawking that way. His work stood on its own for its merit. It didn't make news because he was wheelchair bound and did it. It would have made news even if he had been able bodied.

Certainly, a lot of underrepresented groups simply aren't getting the recognition they deserve. But I think about this problem space quite a lot and my first-hand experience has been that I tend to get attention for all the wrong reasons routed in my gender. My feeling is this is a factor in Theranos becoming such a debacle. I feel like men mostly either squee at women or dismiss them simply because they are women and women mostly don't get the kind critical engagement that helps one pursue excellence.

I don't know what criteria gets used to determine who deserves the black bar. I mostly don't think too much about that.

But I feel like this is about the worst possible way to pursue the subject.

Obits that posted get treated like a virtual wake. Discussion isn't off limits, but coming here to complain about this person getting recognition when someone else didn't seems like a pretty bad way to try to explore why the black bar is given and what we, as a society, can do to try to continue to reduce social injustice.

What on earth is this screed about.

Besides the fact Kathrine Johnson's achievements start NASA stand up outside of her race and gender (literally being trusted over computers and programs that sent people into space)

Your analogy with Steven Hawkins is so incredibly stupid and insulting.

Her race isn’t relevant just because blacks are underrepresented.


How foolish is it to act like her race is some aside like a fucking wheelchair when she lived in an era where her drinking at a certain water fountain was illegal because of her skin color.

And I mean, you don’t know about a lady who won a Presidential medal of freedom, has a building named after her by NASA, brought people back home from space safely, who was a subject of one of the most successful films of 2016 (a movie that Google shows as having almost 100x more reach than useless fiction like a Dyson Sphere btw) so what?

Kudos to the grandparent comment for doing what I wanted to do but wasn’t bold enough to.

Sure it doesn’t satisfy your delicate sensibilities that this is a post about someone dying, but damnit if I have thought the same thing, and damnit if this isn’t just as good a place as any.

There is no place where someone wouldn’t have tried to brush off their comment with some foolishness about “this is not the place”.

Because it’s never the right place or time when someone talks about something uncomfortable to you people.

I'm medically handicapped. I was comparing myself to Stephen Hawking, not Katherine Johnson.

I was talking about why I reflect a lot on such things.

You were comparing her by proxy with yourself

>”that I tend to get attention for all the wrong reasons routed in my gender.”

You’re clearly trying to imply the merit for her would be the fact she’s a black female, why even bother trying to imply otherwise

I engaged the comment with a comment of my own out of respect, not hostility. If I really desired to shut the discussion down, I would not have added to it. I would have flagged it and downvoted it.

I appear to be the highest ranked openly female member on Hacker News. I appear to be the only openly female member to have ever spent time on the leader board.

I was homeless for nearly six years. I hit the leader board about a month after getting back into housing. So I got most of that karma while homeless -- while I was extremely dirt poor and something of a social outcast.

I'm sympathetic to the OPs frustrations. I left the comment out of a desire to be supportive.

I realized I was taking a chance and the odds were fairly high that it would be wildly misunderstood to be the exact opposite of my intentions. I did it anyway because I felt it mattered.

I don't really intend to engage you further.

Here's a vote for an HN black bar. Dyson's work was incredible.

I think prevailing opinion here is that it should be left to the admins. The black bar is not a measure of the notability of someone's contributions, but rather is about their connection or impact to YC/HN (and the HN community).

Personally I agree with that. The newspapers will have great obituaries anyway.

Love the man. May he RIP. He contributed greatly in debunking climate alarmism. One of the few scientists who were brave enough to go against the annoying PC culture around this issue. Good man. He did great work.

He was the sanest mind on climate change: https://e360.yale.edu/features/freeman_dyson_takes_on_the_cl...

> Dyson contends that since carbon dioxide is good for plants, a warmer planet could be a very good thing. And if CO2 does get to be a problem, Dyson believes we can just do some genetic engineering to create a new species of super-tree that can suck up the excess.

Forever the optimist!

That is actually work-in-process. Biological engineers are trying to upgrade C3 plants to C4, improve rubisco efficiency, and other such performance enhancers for photosynthesis.

It's not so much driven by climate changes as by potential agricultural profits, though. If it were the former, they'd make an algae 2.0 and drop it in the ocean. But as C3 to C4 modification could make a hotter, drier rice with 20%-50% higher yield, that's worth a whole lot of money.

Of course, that work has been underway for decades--even before CRISPR/Cas9--and golden rice got stomped for no good reason, so even if someone made a super-Sitka-pine exclusively for carbon fixation, it could still get blocked by politics.

He put too much trust into mankind. I think it's a problem really good people have almost always; they underestimate how original they are.

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