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The Scientist as Rebel

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An illuminating collection of essays by an award-winning scientist whom the London Times calls “one of the world’s most original minds.” From Galileo to today’s amateur astronomers, scientists have been rebels, writes Freeman Dyson. Like artists and poets, they are free spirits who resist the restrictions their cultures impose on them. In their pursuit of Nature’s truths, they are guided as much by imagination as by reason, and their greatest theories have the uniqueness and beauty of great works of art.Dyson argues that the best way to understand science is by understanding those who practice it. He tells stories of scientists at work, ranging from Isaac Newton’s absorption in physics, alchemy, theology, and politics, to Ernest Rutherford’s discovery of the structure of the atom, to Albert Einstein’s stubborn hostility to the idea of black holes. His descriptions of brilliant physicists like Edward Teller and Richard Feynman are enlivened by his own reminiscences of them. He looks with a skeptical eye at fashionable scientific fads and fantasies, and speculates on the future of climate prediction, genetic engineering, the colonization of space, and the possibility that paranormal phenomena may exist yet not be scientifically verifiable.Dyson also looks beyond particular scientific questions to reflect on broader philosophical issues, such as the limits of reductionism, the morality of strategic bombing and nuclear weapons, the preservation of the environment, and the relationship between science and religion. These essays, by a distinguished physicist who is also a lovely writer, offer informed insights into the history of science and fresh perspectives on contentious current debates about science, ethics, and faith.

400 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2006

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About the author

Freeman Dyson

77 books361 followers
Freeman Dyson was a physicist and educator best known for his speculative work on extraterrestrial civilizations and for his work in quantum electrodynamics, solid-state physics, astronomy and nuclear engineering. He theorized several concepts that bear his name, such as Dyson's transform, Dyson tree, Dyson series, and Dyson sphere.

The son of a musician and composer, Dyson was educated at the University of Cambridge. As a teenager he developed a passion for mathematics, but his studies at Cambridge were interrupted in 1943, when he served in the Royal Air Force Bomber Command. He received a B.A. from Cambridge in 1945 and became a research fellow of Trinity College. In 1947 he went to the United States to study physics and spent the next two years at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., and Princeton, where he studied under J. Robert Oppenheimer, then director of the Institute for Advanced Study. Dyson returned to England in 1949 to become a research fellow at the University of Birmingham, but he was appointed professor of physics at Cornell in 1951 and two years later at the Institute for Advanced Study, where he became professor emeritus in 2000. He became a U.S. citizen in 1957.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 65 reviews
Profile Image for Jimmy Ele.
234 reviews90 followers
December 4, 2016
Nice book of essays divided into 4 parts. Contemporary issues in science, War and Peace, History of science and scientists, and personal and philosophical essays. All of the essays were highly entertaining.
Profile Image for Jason.
124 reviews
April 1, 2009
In the future we will live on comets which will be covered in enormous trees.
Profile Image for Herve.
93 reviews210 followers
May 29, 2012
Freeman Dyson is a strange scientific blend of wise and moderate conservatism and pioneer of iconoclasm. He advocates cold analysis but loves what is strange. I just read The Scientist as Rebel, a wonderful book where everyone can find his or her share of intellectual stimulation.

Any relationship with innovation or entrepreneurial high-tech (my hobby)? Very little directly, and the subject is closer to my other readings books about reflexions on science (Smolin, Ségalat for example). There are actually many connections between scientific research and technology innovation, not the least being the question of creativity. Another tenuous link: he is the father of Esther Dyson, famous venture-capitalist in Silicon Valley.

Failure is another example. In an interview Dyson gave before writing this book said about its role: “You can’t possibly get a good technology going without an enormous number of failures. It’s a universal rule. If you look at bicycles, there were thousands of weird models built and tried before they found the one that really worked. You could never design a bicycle theoretically. Even now, after we’ve been building them for 100 years, it’s very difficult to understand just why a bicycle works – it’s even difficult to formulate it as a mathematical problem. But just by trial and error, we found out how to do it, and the error was essential. The same is true of airplanes.” From "Freeman Dyson’s Brain" (Wired)

In this book, Dyson writes about ethics, religion, climate change and about scientists as different as Gödel, Erdös, Hardy, Oppenheimer, Feynman of course, Teller the indefensible, and Thomas Gold whom I had never heard of. The chapter is called “A Modern Heretic.” Gold has covered topics as diverse as
- the physiology of the ear (validated 30 years later despite resistance of many kinds),
- the instability of Earth’s axis of rotation,
- the abiotic origin of natural gas and oil, (i. e. not derived from the degradation of living creatures)
- the existence of life within the Earth’s crust,
- the interpretation of pulsars.
He had no fear of making mistakes on such topics as
- the steady state universe,
- the moon’s surface being covered with a fine rock powder.
Gold was “an intruder but certainly not an ignorant” and added that “science is not fun if the scientist is never wrong.” I just found another blogger article on Gold: The Radical Ideas Of Thomas Gold.

Dyson has written a challenging, exciting book, and I can only encourage its discovery!
Profile Image for Laura.
1,237 reviews120 followers
May 20, 2012
I was startled recently by having three friends of mine respond with polite incomprehension to the name “Freeman Dyson.” I can’t remember not knowing who Freeman Dyson was. I may live in a world where, for one of the first times in my life my fandom is appreciated and my president is on the right side of history, but I still, apparently, live askew. I told the third one he was a “science hero.”

It also made me realize that I hadn’t actually read any books by Dyson. This may not have been the best one to start with. It’s a collection of previously published essays, some with postscripts, covering war and peace (from the perspective of a guy who did geek stuff for the RAF during WWII and a nuclear engineer who is deeply anguished about the bomb), history of science (from the perspective of a man who ran with Feynman, Von Neumann, Teller, and Oppenheimer, helped develop nuclear power plants and – why I can’t remember the first time I heard his name-- came up with the Dyson Sphere), and contemporary issues (from a guy who helped make modern history). It’s not an exploration of a big idea; it’s lots of pieces plucked out of context and put together. A good bus book, but not a deep read.

It did introduce me to the idea that we could engineer trees that could live on comets as part of a terraforming project, which is AWESOME. Also, that I live in a world where, once upon a time, the State of California could ask someone like Richard Feynman to review their high school science and math text books. Given what’s going on in textbooks these days, I felt a pang of envy.

I also came away with the feeling that Dyson as a deep streak of contrariness that we are lucky he found a non-destructive outlet for. In a weird way, he reminded me of a certain contrarian I used to work with (and perhaps will again), who once picked a week-long fight with an Englishman over the fact the UK had moved to the metric system.
Profile Image for Philipp.
632 reviews188 followers
October 7, 2014
Very interesting collection of essays - most of them start out as book reviews (for example, on Teller's autobiography, or Dennett's Breaking the spell), but since the New York Review of Books lets you write 4000 to 5000 words, Dyson often uses the book review as a starting point to philosophize about the book's field, the history of the field, his ideas and viewpoints, the relationship between the field and society, the possibility of evil, etc. The essays are grouped into three parts - war and science's part in the Second World War, the history of science (with Newton, Feynman, Teller etc.) and religion. Religion is my least favorite part, possibly because my interest into religion is so low.

I especially like Dyson's penchant to connect seemingly unconnected fields, and how quick he starts to "think big" without any fear of looking ridiculous (remember the Dyson sphere?) - I'm a fan of the concept of using genetically modified trees to terraform the inside of asteroids. I admire scientists who do not develop a "tunnel view" of their chosen field and stay interested in everything.

Now I got about 20 more books to read...
Profile Image for Nick Black.
Author 1 book738 followers
May 17, 2008
Amazon 2008-04-12

A beautiful collection of magnificent essays -- I cried once, added six or seven books to my wishlist (Dyson seems to have read everything written this century, and plenty more), and found plenty to agree with. Look forward especially to Dyson's more esoteric influences, for instance his several pages spent quoting William Bradford's Of Plimouth Plantation.
5 reviews1 follower
July 19, 2018
Dreadfully shallow; a self-serving rehash of bad to mediocre science book reviews with some highly misguided forays into social science. Also, surprisingly dated. Never lived up to its promising title.
Profile Image for Mikel Mancisidor.
16 reviews3 followers
March 7, 2009

El libro, de 375 páginas, es una recopilación de 29 artículos, ponencias o prólogos, más o menos largos, que este lúcido autor de 85 años ha publicado en medios como The New York Review of Books (la mayoría) u otros más especializados como Nature o el American Journal of Physics.

Los textos no nos presentan sus contribuciones científicas sino sus reflexiones más generales sobre el papel de la ciencia y los científicos en nuestro mundo, sobre sus retos y límites, sobre la guerra y la paz, o sus recuerdos de personalidades conocidas (entre ellos los más grandes físicos del XX: Einstein, Feynman, Oppenheimer, Schroedinger) o momentos históricos vividos (segunda guerra mundial, proyecto Manhattan, guerra fría, globalización…).

Es estos artículos descubrimos a un científico preocupado por la responsabilidad de su profesión con la paz, el desarrollo y el entendimiento entre los pueblos; un físico interesado en la historia, en la literatura o en las religiones; un hombre sabio que se pregunta por las grandes cuestiones de los tiempos que le ha sido dado vivir. Hay ideas atrevidas, osadía, alegría por conocer y por compartir, ilusión y sentido del humor en este libro.

Me ha gustado mucho el libro. Me ha gustado su pasión por la ciencia compatible con el respeto a otros saberes, compatible con la modestía al considerar los límites de la ciencia y la tecnología para afrontar los grandes retos del futuro y compatible con la necesidad de otras áreas del conocimiento y sobre todo de los valores y la ética para resolver las cuestiones claves de este siglo XXI.

Hay muchos que creen que un gráfico o una fórmula pueden abarcar toda la infinita complejidad del comercio internacional o del desarrollo humano. Hay muchos que creen que un par de datos supuestamente incontrovertibles pueden resolver cuestiones complicadas y llenas de aristas como el de la energía nuclear o el de la biotecnología, reduciendo el problema a una cuestión técnica que ellos creen resuelta por los expertos. Para todos ellos este libro debería ser un ejemplo de modestia intelectual de quien realmente sabe -50 años trabajando sobre cuestiones nucleares, reactores y centrales-, pero además es sabio.

De muy recomendable lectura para científicos y humanistas, para expertos y para cualquier ciudadano medianamente curioso.

Además está muy bien escrito y traducido y editado (¡lástima de la ausencia de algunas tildes!).
Profile Image for Ari.
714 reviews71 followers
May 11, 2016
This is a collection of Dyson's essays, book reviews, and similar short work. The quality ranges from good to excellent, and I was moved by several of the pieces. I particularly liked the pieces about Feynman and Teller, both of whom were personal friends of Dyson's.

There's some overlap with "Disturbing the Universe", but I read the two back-to-back and never felt impatient with the redundancy.
7 reviews33 followers
February 20, 2013
Precious insights from science, religion, art, and poetry into how we ought to evolve respectfully and responsibly with planet earth.
Profile Image for Brendan.
114 reviews20 followers
November 3, 2020
I just walk around in my life assuming that everyone knows the name of Freeman Dyson. I’ve found out multiple times in my life that this is simply not the case. When he died earlier this year, I spent most of the day curled up on my couch watching some of his lectures, reading some of his papers, and just generally enjoying his spirit as my own personal act of remembrance. There was something in the way he spoke and wrote that spoke to his deep well of kindness (similar to the playfulness found in Feynman’s writings). I was happy to find that in this collection as well.

There is no reason why this should be good. While I enjoy reading book reviews, reading a collection of reviews for books I haven’t read back-to-back-to-back shouldn’t be an enjoyable experience. Somehow Dyson is able to make it one by barely talking about the books at all. Instead, he imbues each piece with his own personal essay about the importance of science, his meeting(s) with the author or the subjects, or those other scientific oddities that made him the icon that he was.

“If science ceases to be a rebellion against authority, then it does not deserve the talents of our brightest children. I was lucky to be introduced to science at school as a subversion activity of the younger boys. We organized a Science Society as an act of rebellion against compulsory Latin and compulsory football. We should try to introduce our children to science today as a rebellion against poverty and ugliness and militarism and economic injustice.”

A beautiful sentiment, especially for those who feel that science is for the staid minority in their white lab coats and tousled hair. The tousled hair may be a requirement, but the rest can vacate the premises. However, it wouldn’t be a Dyson book without an image of the fantastic future.

“Once leaves can be made to function in space, the remaining parts of a tree—trunk, branches, and roots—do not present any great problem. The branches must not freeze, and therefore the bark must be a superior heat insulator. The roots will penetrate and gradually melt the frozen interior of the comet, and the tree will build its substance from the materials which the roots find there. The oxygen which the leaves manufacture must not be exhaled into space. Instead it will be transported down to the roots and released into the regions where humans will leave and take their ease among the tree trunks. One question still remains. How high can a tree on a comet grow? The answer is surprising. On any celestial body whose diameter is of the order of ten miles or less, the force of gravity is so weak that a tree can grow infinitely high. Ordinary wood is strong enough to lift its own weight to an arbitrary distance from the center of gravity. This means that from a comet of ten-mile diameter trees can grow out for hundreds of miles, collecting the energy of sunlight from an area thousands of times larger than the area of the comet itself. Seen from far away, the comet will look like a small potato sprouting an immense growth of stems and foliage. When humans come to live on the comets, they will find themselves returning to the arboreal existence of their ancestors.”

Rest in peace, Freeman Dyson. I will revisit your work often.
Profile Image for Martin Hernandez.
828 reviews29 followers
November 23, 2019
Freeman DYSON es una de las mentes más creativas y brillantes de la generación de físicos teórico y matemáticos que terminaron de darle forma y aplicación a la mecánica cuántica. Entre los conceptos más fascinantes que ha imaginado destaca el "árbol Dyson", una hipotética planta genéticamente modificada, parecida a un árbol y capaz de crecer en la superficie de un cometa; estas plantas podrían producir una atmósfera respirable dentro de los espacios huecos en el cometa, creando de esta manera un habitat autosostenible que le permitiría a una pequeña colonia de seres humanos vivir en el sistema solar exterior. Otro concepto, quizá más conocido, es la "esfera Dyson", una megaestructura hipotética construida alrededor de una estrella, la cual permitiría a una civilización avanzada aprovechar al máximo la energía lumínica y térmica del astro. Yo conocí este concepto en la excelente novela Los Ingenieros del Mundo Anillo, del gran escritor de ciencia ficción Larry NIVEN.
Este libro es la recopilación de una serie de conferencias y reseñas de otros libros que el autor dictó o escribió entre 1964 y 2006, sobre todo entre 1999 y 2006. Las conferencias generalmente fueron pronunciadas en eventos en celebración de alguna de las muchas personalidades a las que DYSON conoció personalmente, y abundan en anécdotas y comentarios personales. Por otra parte, las reseñas son magníficas; en general, aborda el tema del libro desde una perspectiva más amplia, con abundantes referencia a otros libros. También incluye muchos comentarios sobre la obra previa de los autores. Si bien todas las reseñas son muy interesantes, algunas me gustaron tanto que me dieron ganas de leer los libros reseñados, lo que significa que, como crítico de libros, ¡DYSON hace muy buen trabajo!
Profile Image for Luke Steere.
251 reviews4 followers
January 3, 2020
A collection of book reviews and essays celebrating scientists’s contrarian thinking:

On teaching:
To my remark that I had done nothing amiss, [Einstein’s teacher] only replied, “Your mere presence soils the respect of the class for me.”

Feynman on textbooks, worksheets, and a lot of other ideas: He became particularly concerned that teachers using the manuals might penalize children who came up with original ways of solving problems.

On labor:
Samuel Gompers:
What does labor want?
We want more schoolhouses and less jails,
More books and less guns,
More learning and less vice,
More leisure and less greed,
More justice and less revenge,
We want more opportunities to cultivate our better nature.

On war:
The cult of military obedience and the cult of weapons of mass destruction are two of the great follies of the modern age.

Tolstoy: And for the last thirty years of his life he preached the ethic of nonviolence in its most uncompromising form. He demanded that we not only refuse to serve in armies and navies but also refuse to cooperate in any way with coercive activity of governments. Revolutionary action against governments was forbidden too; those who oppose a government with violence cannot lead the way to the abolition of violence.

I told how, when it became clear in 1944 that there would be no German bomb, only one man, of all the scientists in Los Alamos, stopped. That man was Joseph Rotblat. [He helped begin the Pugwash conference where he] worked indefatigably to unite scientists of all countries in efforts to undo the evils to which Los Alamos gave rise. I remarked how shameful it was that the Nobel Peace Prize...had not been award to him.

Loaded with cultural connections, like this excerpt from TS Elliot’s Little Gidding:
And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment.

Profile Image for Jason.
10 reviews3 followers
May 9, 2020
The best way to describe this book is "the philosophy of science." From its publication in 2006, it is remarkably foretelling of the information, biology, and biotechnology revolutions the next few decades have brought. But the source of its meditation is on the past century of physics, from the influence of science in WWII, exploration of space, religion, and the lives of luminaries: Einstein, Feynman, Wiener, Oppenheimer each of whom led a different scientific revolution with rebellion against traditional thought.

It was great pleasure to read a philosophical (and poetic, lots of metaphorical poems) account of what science is, was, and will be. From the dichotomous styles of research (baconism vs. cartesianism), thinkers (hedgehogs vs. foxes), progress (Khunian vs. Galison), and life styles (for instance Oppenheimer vs. Feynman). I particularly enjoyed Dyson's distillation of scientific revolutions (Godel, Hindenburg, Newton, string theory) down to approachability for a non-physicist like myself.

Each chapter has Dyson's book reviews to understand more about each subject. I've added about 5 more books to my shelf as a result. In particular, "The world, the flesh, and the devil: An enquiry into the future of the three enemies of the rational soul" by Desmond Bernal whose lab Crick worked in during the discovery of DNA. This is the first sentence:

"There are two futures, the future of desire and the future of fate, and man's reason has never learnt to separate them."

Science comes down to believing in ideas deduced from nature. It's the scientist's job to espouse the correct and throw out the idealistic.
Profile Image for Devastatingwildness.
106 reviews75 followers
July 8, 2020
Para cualquier físico o para alguien interesado en la historia de la ciencia en el siglo XX y de la física en particular. Recopila una serie de conferencias, artículos y reseñas de libros agrupados en varios bloques. Hay muchos de historia dedicados a la relación de la física con la industria de la guerra y el papel de varios físicos. No sé suficiente de historia y podría juzgarlos ingenuamente pero me parecieron interesantísimos. Hay reseñas de libros de ciencia de varios tipos como biografías, divulgación de geología, matemáticas y otros. Hay bastante variedad y me ha hecho leer por primera vez sobre ciertos temas o con el punto de vista provocativo de Dyson. Lamentablemente todo lo interesante y fresco que me ha parecido el libro se iba desmoronando en varios de los capítulos finales de opiniones filosóficas y sobre religión. Aunque por muchos temas el libro me parece imprescindible para la formación intelectual de un físico y para cualquier otro interesado en los temas mencionados al aparecer testimonios de primera mano o con cierta cercanía a las personalidades implicadas.

[En revisión]
Profile Image for Lucas Arthur.
64 reviews
March 17, 2021
I actually enjoyed this more than I expected to. I suspected that Dyson's reputation as an iconoclast might make a more obvious showing, especially in the portions on climate change. But I actually found the arguments rational and reasonable, especially considering when they were written, and I agree that the earth is a complex enough system that we don't really understand whether negative or positive feedback loops will dominate as a result of our perturbations. With that said, I suspect that Dyson would agree that we need to act now.

Because the book is a collection of essays primarily from the New York Review, they cover the highlights from a wide range of subjects, making it a very efficient way to learn about a myriad of topics.
Profile Image for Voyt.
227 reviews15 followers
December 7, 2022
Musings on books by others...

..scientists, and these others often draw on others. Therefore Freeman is in majority of his essays the third party. Yet, it does not mean he has been unable of delivering extra pertinent, refreshing and surprising conclusions/comments of his own. The book is composed of four chapters:


... each of them contains several easy to follow essays. One may read them randomly (like I did) choosing accordingly to how important by title (or section) particular essay is. This book will stay in your thoughts for quite some time. Get it, fill up your brain and enjoy!
Profile Image for CR.
87 reviews3 followers
February 8, 2018
Freeman Dyson is one of those rare beings who can balance scientific accomplishment of the highest order with a humanistic writing style. This collection of essays is bound by a style that leaves a poetic sense of grace and calm even as he reviews events as catastrophic as the atomic bomb or as epic as the future of synthetic astrobiological architecture.

If anyone is wondering where I’m getting those poems from Robert Oppenheimer that I’m referencing in my upcoming mixtape: here. This book is a gem and one of the few that I plan on re-reading.
Profile Image for Repix.
2,224 reviews428 followers
March 2, 2018
Recopilación artículos, ponencias o prólogos, reflexiones en general ás generales sobre el papel de la ciencia y los científicos, sobre la guerra y la paz, o recuerdos de personalidades conocidas. Tiene partes muy entretenidas y otras mucho menos.
El autor me ha resultado un pelín antipático, sobre todo cuando proclama su amistad con alguno de la SS.
Profile Image for Norma Idalia.
4 reviews
February 27, 2021
Recopilación interesante y colección amplia de ensayos y artículos escritos por Dyson Freeman; muchos de ellos publicados previamente en el New York Review.
Me permitió aprender sobre científicos poco conocidos y me entusiasmaron las facetas de Newton que describe.
Freeman es un pensador muy original y a la vez equilibrado.
Profile Image for Wilte.
914 reviews18 followers
June 16, 2020
Well written collection of articles. I skimmed some of them, the pieces on Feynmann, on Dyson's war years, and on some other scientists (eg Edward Teller) stood out. Also nice touch: many articles had a 2016 update, what is current situation, how was the piece received.
12 reviews
September 6, 2021
Very well written by one of my favorite physicists. It touches on many subjects from the history of science to religion.
Profile Image for Vincent Fong.
84 reviews5 followers
February 20, 2022
The essays could be divided mainly into Dyson's commentary on science (review of books, and memoirs on his renowned collaborators), and war.
Dyson wrote different topics very well.
Profile Image for Almodather Awad.
139 reviews48 followers
July 9, 2023
The late physicist Freeman Dyson had a gift for popular science writing. But this collection of essays and reviews shows his literary side. He was as much a writer as he was a scientist.
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