Friday, May 4, 2012

Infinite in ALL directions by Freeman J Dyson

Freeman J Dyson is an eminent physicist and this book is a collection of lectures he gave as a part of Gifford lectures series which has been happening for more than a century based on Gifford’s will. The prime focus of the lecture series is to “promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology”. If someone is a Gifford lectures speaker, that in itself indicates where that person stands in his scholarly achievements. Dyson has worked with some of the world’s most respected scientists. When you work with the best minds as well as work hard for about seven decades in the same or related area, the output is bound to be astonishing.

While the scope of the book is technically unlimited, the core message can be summed up not even in a sentence but in a word: DIVERSITY. The range he covers is also really wide – akin to catching the lighting in a bottle!

Like E.O.Wilson, Dyson is a serious proponent of diversity. A sample snap shot:  “God loves diversity. Prevalence of evil is the price we pay for diversity”. Let us see some nuggets which are picked up randomly from the book.

Everything in the universe seems to be related to everything else in some way – if it doesn't appears to be, perhaps we have not thought long and hard about it. {Please see the photo taken by P.Varadarajan on his trip to Alaska which conveys this message. Since photo cannot be included in comments,I attached it in the main post after reference } Dyson relates super strings and the butterflies. (FYI: Super-string is something that would form the basis for electrons, protons and other fundamental particles). He reasons (1) everybody has seen the butterflies – no one has seen super-string (2) from the scientific point both are poorly understood (3) butterflies are at the extreme end of concreteness and superstrings are at the extreme end of abstractness. He goes on in detail about both.

Life is an evasive thing to define. Dyson manages to define it as two logically separate activities: Metabolism and Replication. To quote him: “Cells can reproduce, but molecules can only replicate”. Hardware he says has to exist before software(!) and gives an example of pocket calculator which was there before software. Hardware processes info and software embodies it. Hardware is the host and its survival is a precondition for the survival of parasites. His view is not too different from biology’s view that sees life in two skills (1) ability to create an order (2) ability to replicate and then goes on to DNA /RNA driven explanations.

He strongly believes it is a question of time humans would start migrating to other planets. When life starts spreading to other planets, comets, asteroids we would face the same question as our ancestors who left forests of chimps in order to evolve. Shall we externally retain our common bodily shape or diversify into various intelligent species based on where we migrate? Only difference I see, from forests of chimps to man, our evolution was not planned and conscious whereas here, it may be. It may knock out the surprise element. But if it is well thought out and carried out as carefully controlled experiment, then why not? I think by the time caste, religion and other differences in earth are well settled and peace is about to rein in, this kind diversification may start. Then, we would embark on next generation of fighting. On the other hand, I could visualize the software services manager who has to handle a request from one of this team members, something like “Hello, I am fed up with earth. I need an onsite assignment at Jupiter, else I would like to quit.” J By the way, at that time on-site would imply outside of earth, just as it is now outside of the country. I surmise, this manager has to find something at least in one of the many moons of Jupiter – well, the search area is going to be huge.

This book has so many fundamental concepts thrown in including anthropic principle, super strings, Oort cloud and a host of such things. If you try to fathom all of that, it may prove daunting. Euclid had such a difficulty about 2000 years back. He wanted to convey the idea of “geometrical point” and ended up with neat definition as “A point is one which has no parts and has no magnitude”. It is not at all helpful for someone who is totally ignorant of geometry and wanted to understand what “point” is all about. It is helpful only when you go past the definition and start relating to how points are related in space, circles, planes etc. It is a “math abstraction” that exists only in the world of Euclid’s geometry! So, it is better to pose a question “How points fit the overall logical system?”  Same approach is advised to avoid the long detours. Just ask yourself “How these concepts fit the overall message?” – and you will be fine. For people who are innately depth intensive or deep dive category, a dilettante feeling is inevitable.

I used to think sci-fi and such genre of books are so much into future it has no immediate relevance to be useful. After reading a few works of Dyson, I am now tempted to think it is well worth the effort due to the mental liberation it afforded me. It would be really helpful if you read such a book before going to an off-site meeting where you would discuss the next 3 years plan.

I would say, Dyson followed the Neil Bohr advice: “One should never write more clearly than one can think”.

Thanks for reading so far.