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.




Pratap R C said...

> Hardware processes info and
> software embodies it.

I have been perplexed by an idea. When a hardware computes, electrical energy is converted to other forms of energy (mainly heat energy). Now energy can neither be destroyed nor be created. So if the computation creates a result, an order, or even intelligence - have we created result, order and that intelligence without consuming energy ? If not is there something called computation energy or information energy ? It becomes more perplexing when we have self modifying, self improvising softwares.

> I think by the time caste,
> religion and other differences in
> earth are well settled

To cover the scope of this article (and the book may be), the question of well settled should be physiological not just philosophical. Isn't it ?

> “geometrical point”
> It is a “math abstraction” that
> exists only in the world of
> Euclid’s geometry!

If by integrating
* a point we get a line
* a line we get a plane
* a plane we get a space
Is it then possible to create a physical world out of nothing. That is, if point is a nothing :)

chinnu said...

great read as ever and enjoyed the euclid part for it was meant for people like who are not too familiar with many of the concepts mentioned...

Mukund Srinivasan said...

In general, as someone like the author attempts to build a "logical" bridge between philosophy and technology, there seems to be extra-terrestrial presence or activity associated with it! Whether these are sought to be means of attempting to break barriers, I am not able to fathom, but one thing is clear - Infinite in All dimensions, seems to bring in an interesting concept like diversity to explain lack of boundaries i.e. infinite theory. I am now looking forward to reading this book by Dyson. Thanks for the sneak preview, Madhu-san!

Thirukumaran T said...


Recently read Carl Sagan's Gifford Lecture Series titled The Varieties of Scientific Experience : A personal view of the Search for God. Looks like Freeman's could be counter to Clar's. Not sure when Freeman delivered his lectures, Carl did it in 1985. I have to say I read book with a predilection the only intention is to know what other side is saying in scientific parlance. Glad you told me about Freeman's

Carl too is of the view entire Universe itself is an organism and it going through its own evolution.

For him life is strange combo of amino acids. While arguing amino acids evolved to organism, he comes up with amazing google. To produce simplest of enzyme say 100 molecules of 20 aminoacids (20 different types of beads but one single necklace of 100 beads), he goes on show that we have 1 chance out of 10130. Having stumbled with astronomical number Carl says just we need not get 20 aminoacids at the right sequence in all 100 places but just 5 places is enough to produce life and comes up with a convenient figure of 205 which is around 3 million time since life started evolving, which seems to be a reasonable figure to him .

Being a man of his stature Carl systematically presents/adduces to prove his point that humans are lump of molecules and evolves from few elements over vastly galactic time scale and reduces religious experience to chemically induced hallucination. The point where most of the hardcore reason oriented guys stumble and fumble is consciousness. How combination of molecules may be in billions in number conjure this experience of consciousness? Mere argument that 1011 neurons and 1014 synapses will end up having consciousness is hard to digest. He concedes with AI we may come up with some answer in future.

Carl quotes Fred Hoyle and N C Wickramasinghe counter "it is no more likely that origin of life occur spontaneously by molecular interaction is similar to a Boeing 747 being spontaneously assembled when a whirlwind passed over junkyard". Carl painstakingly argues that 747 came up after series of evolution right from Wright brothers' biplane. I think Hoyle and Wickramasinghe have found a chink in Carl's armour which he is not willing to accept.

Thomas Young proved Light is wave. Einstein proved Light is particle(photon) but could not disprove Light is not wave. Neil Bohr said whether you are interpreting the phenomenon as particle or wave depends on way in which phenomena is observed. At quantum level they say its all probability and nothing is certain. It depends on observed and observer similar to mystics's perception and perceiver. Heisenberg succinctly puts - If we can think we can picture what is going in the Quantum domain, that is one indication that we have got it wrong.

My take is so many scientific things (like water, atmosphere, earth tilted angle while revolving around Sun) in so many sequences and combinations have to be in perfect harmony for life to exist. To me Universe/Life as whole is zillion times more than Sum of its parts be it at molecular or atomic or subatomic levels.


Mohanakrishnan said...


I can't say that I have read much physics after my college days - but this book appears to be quite interesting. It was a surprise that he thought migrating to other planet was a real possibility - I thought it was still a far away dream.

I would like to see your response to Pratap's comment on Law of conservation of energy :-)

vivisa said...

Nice review again Madhu-san. The 'anthropic principle' reference caught my eye. It has been referred/resorted to by many great thinkers (both atheists and believers). Am reminded of the dialogue between Tagore and Einstein in this context.

Madhu Parthasarathy said...

Thanks sAgar San
Can you share the conversation link or point to the book which may interest rest of the readers also

Madhu Parthasarathy said...

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vivisa said...

This is a link to the conversation between Tagore and Einstein. I do not know the authenticity of the source, but the density of the exchange and its showing a clear distinction between the scientific-western philosophy and an essentially human[e] Indian approach, does lend credibility.

Unknown said...


Nice writeup.

Some of the issues mentioned here, especially SuperString theory and Evolution are still debatable theories. It looks like there is lot of opposition for Superstring theory as it does not predict anything and hence cannot be disproved. Or atleast that is how I understood the argument to be. Evolution is also being debated and many scientists have also joined the debate.

Pratap R C:

But every instruction consumes energy doesn't it?

பகலவன் கிருஷ்ணமூர்த்தி said...

Looks interesting. I should check this book out sometime. Thanks Madhu..!

Madhu Parthasarathy said...

Hi All
Now there is a book on Freeman Dyson.
Maverick Genius: The Pioneering Odyssey of Freeman Dyson
Author: Schewe, Phillip F