This past spring I had the great fortune of attending three events of some scientific importance at Arizona State University. The first was an ASU “BEYOND” lecture by world renowned scientist Freeman Dyson. At 87 years of age, he remains a thought leader in the scientific community, and an active professor of physics at Princeton.
Freeman was invited to be the final guest for the 2011/12 BEYOND lecture series, and what an incredible presentation he gave. Despite what most would assume to be too many years past his prime, Freeman is engaging, witty, both brilliant and fluid in his deliver as well as accurate in his information.
He discussed the four sciences to come from the post-WWII technological revolution: computer science, nuclear science, genome studies, and space travel.
Freeman wove a wonderful storyline which tied these four subjects into one narrative, with side notes and personal experiences which were both memorable and engaging.
He told a story of the fun of being in London when Hitler was delivering bombs affixed to the nose of V2 rockets. Because they were supersonic, they hit the ground before you heard them coming. Freeman joked (about a subject most would not dare joke about) that if you felt the earth shake then you knew you had lived through another round for the delayed scream of the vehicles was a welcomed sound.
He went on to say that had not Wernher Von Braun invented the rocket which Hitler used to destroy London, Hitler would have likely invested his resources into a massive air force instead, and his chances of winning, or at least carrying on the war much greater. As each V2 rocket was about the same cost of a plane, Hitler’s biggest mistake (according to Von Braun) was to continue to destroy non-military targets when he could have dominated the air space.
Of course, Von Braun was later welcomed to the U.S. where he helped establish the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, now operated by Caltech for NASA.
Freeman Dyson’s personal stories included conversations with the inventor of the computer who once said the U.S. would never need more than 18 computers, one for each major branch and function of the U.S. government. He shared that computing has such an incredibly creative foundation due to something not originally conceived–software. It is this interface layer which gives modern computers such a diverse range of functions, as compared to the first systems which were programmed directly for just one function at a time.
His did not hold back when he shares his disappointment with nuclear science, for he lived through an era in which it was believed that nuclear energy would provide unlimited power for the world, literally altering economies and leveling the playing field between the wealthy and the poor. The assumptions about the true costs of nuclear power were of course completely inaccurate. Even today, France is heavily powered by nuclear generators and yet it’s economy is by no means better off than its neighbors nor any developed nation which relies upon coal, oil, natural gas, or geothermal.
Finally, he spoke of the tremendous potential of the human genome project and the capacity we will have to begin to understand life, our function within our ecosystem as well as our own behavior, once we complete the genome sequencing of the entire biosphere in the coming ten years. The data, according to Freeman will be approximately 1 petabyte—the instruction set to produce nearly every living species on earth (and a growing number which are extinct) on a set of drives which literally fit in your briefcase or school bag.
No one fifty years ago in the post World War II era could have possibly understood the ramifications of the computer, nor our propensity for exploration of our own behavior, as we understand it now.