Dr. Fred Bortzbooks

Review of The Scientist as Rebel

by Freeman Dyson

(New York Review Books, $27.95, 376 pages, December 2006)

Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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Opening "The World on a String," the 19th of 29 collected book reviews, essays, and speeches in his The Scientist as Rebel, physicist Freeman Dyson quotes pre-World War I British Prime Minister Herbert Asquith. According to Dyson, Asquith was frequently on the receiving end of "provocative statements and awkward questions" from "an obstreperous young politician" by the name of Winston Churchill, leading the P.M. to lament, "I wish I knew as much about anything as that young man knows about everything."

That statement, writes Dyson, precisely expresses his reaction to coverBrian Greene's 2004 book The Fabric of the Cosmos; and it captures equally well the reaction of many readers to Dyson's work. Though the Princeton professor is now 83 years old, his style and ideas are still as fresh and provocative as when he was a 24-year-old postgraduate fellow at Cornell.

That was where Dyson first encountered Richard Feynman (1918-1988). Feynman, readers discover as they assemble the various themes of this challenging collection in their heads, is the paradigm of scientist as rebel.

Benjamin Franklin was the American prototype. "Franklin's triumph as a rebel," writes Dyson in the preface, "resulted from the fact that his rebellion was not impulsive but was carefully thought out over many years.... As a rebel he remained a conservative, aiming not to destroy but to preserve as much as possible of the established order of society."

The first item in the collection is the title piece, a 1992 lecture on the role of reductionist thinking in the 21st century. In the 20th century, Dyson's own science of physics had followed a reductionist path in which disparate theories were unified, leading to deep understanding built on the foundation of a few simple concepts.

But reductionism was the outcome, not the driving force, of the revolution in physics, Dyson argues. "Science is a mosaic of partial and conflicting visions" with one common element, "rebellion against the restrictions imposed by the locally prevailing culture." It is, he concludes, "a human activity, and the best way to understand it is to understand the individual human beings who practice it."

Science is neither the passive collection of facts nor the formulation of theories alone. It is the result of question-driven observation and speculation leading to a context for understanding nature.

Readers should view The Scientist as Rebel as a science project of their own. Dyson's asks his audience not for agreement but only for their active engagement with his original and provocative notions.

Their questions need not be his questions, and they may dispute his conclusions. But they will be stimulated, challenged, entertained, and enlightened about topics as varied as science, politics and the arms race. They will discover unique perspectives on religion, global warming, and even the paranormal. They will see the humanity of the oft-demonized Edward Teller and the failures of the iconic Albert Einstein.

Dyson's greatest strength is reductionism in the best sense of the word. He builds bridges that join seemingly unrelated ideas and fields (such as Churchillian challenges and string theory). His bridges not only connect, but also open up new intellectual territory for exploration. He wrote a Nobel-worthy paper pointing out the equivalence of Feynman's novel pictorial representation of the quantum mechanics of electromagnetic phenomena and the complex but conventional mathematics of Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomanaga.

Unfortunately for Dyson, Nobel Prizes are never shared by more than three recipients. But fortunately for readers, Dyson shares his insight in a memorable essay called "This Side Idolatry." The title is drawn from Ben Jonson's writing about his mentor, William Shakespeare.

"I was the learned and scholarly student who came from England to Cornell University in 1947 and was immediately entranced by the slapdash genius of Feynman," Dyson writes. "With the arrogance of youth, I decided that I could play Jonson to Feynman's Shakespeare. I had not expected to meet Shakespeare on American soil, but I had no difficulty in recognizing him when I saw him."

Likewise, readers will have no difficulty recognizing rebellion of the most valuable kind in this enlightening collection and will eagerly engage with it.

Physicist Fred Bortz practices science by writing about it in numerous books for young readers and in reviews of current science books for adults.