Freeman J. Dyson

A conversation with Freeman J. Dyson; A-Bombs, Space Chickens and God

In the small world of literary science writing, there are few authors as prolific and original as Dr. Freeman J. Dyson, 76, the British-born theoretical physicist, astrophysicist and author of books on scientific matters.

Like Stephen Jay Gould and the late Carl Sagan, Dr. Dyson is a highly credentialed scientist: he has been a professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., for 47 years. He enjoys a huge readership, with seven books, including his meditation on the new technologies, ''The Sun, the Genome and the Internet.''

One of his marks as a writer has been his willingness to engage in speculative writing that, at times, seems to border on science fiction. It was Dr. Dyson who suggested sending microbes and spores into space in a kind of colonization effort to make the universe a ''more interesting place.'' And it was he who imagined ''space chickens,'' high-tech poultry with the genetically engineered capacity to wing their way through the cosmos.

Dr. Dyson has long used his expertise to investigate how science affects issues of war and peace. His 1984 best-seller, ''Weapons and Hope,'' discussed the rationale of nuclear weaponry. It was partly his work in this area that won him this year's $948,000 Templeton Prize ''for outstanding originality in advancing the world's understanding of God or spirituality.''

Dr. Dyson answered questions in his cluttered office several weeks after receiving the award.

Q. The play ''Copenhagen'' focuses on a visit Dr. Werner Heisenberg, head of the Nazi atomic bomb program, made to his former mentor, Niels Bohr, in Denmark in 1941.

In the play, as in reality, the two men took a walk in the park and had a conversation that ended in anger. What actually took place during that stroll is the Rashomon-like puzzle at the heart of the play. Did Heisenberg try to pick Bohr's brain on scientific problems? Was he trying to manipulate his former professor into encouraging the Allies not to build an atomic bomb? Or was he trying to pass on information, or even disinformation, to the Allies through Dr. Bohr? Freeman Dyson, you knew these men -- what do you think really happened in Copenhagen?

A. I have my own theory, which may, of course, be totally wrong.

I think Heisenberg was trying to get Bohr to agree that the development of an A-bomb was something that the physicists of the world should agree to not participate in. Heisenberg was in a position where he could quietly decide ''this doesn't make sense.'' And Bohr had once been in a strong position, too. But by 1941, it was much too late. By that time, they were enemies.

There was a moment earlier when something like that might have had a chance. In January of 1939, there was an international meeting when fission was first proclaimed and when the idea of building atomic bombs was in the air. Scientists could have gotten together then and decided, ''This is something that should not be done.'' Before the war started, nobody really wanted to create an A-bomb. What pushed them, of course, was fear, once the war started.

Q. After Germany's defeat, Werner Heisenberg hinted he had deliberately failed to build a nuclear weapon. Do you think that's true?

A. To a great extent, it is. Heisenberg never claimed to have obstructed anything. But he didn't give the project the kind of push it needed.

In countries where bombs were made, there always was at least one scientist who really made a push. Heisenberg was the one who might have done that in Germany. Of course, his not pushing was convenient because Hitler wasn't all that interested anyway. If Hitler had been interested, Heisenberg's position might have been different.

Q. Your latest foray into science policy involves opposition to the newest version of the Strategic Defense Initiative. What is the core of your critique?

A. I oppose it because the system doesn't work, mostly because it can be easily outwitted. A very primitive spoofing will take care of it: just not letting you know where you have to shoot. If you know where a target is, you can kill it. It's not easy, but in principle, you can do that. But if you don't know where it is, it's hopeless.

So all the attacker has to do is to make sure that you don't know where the target is, and that's rather easy. All he has to do is hide the missile among a bunch of balloons. That solves the problem from the point of view of the attacker. It is easy to use other kinds of decoys as well as balloons.

Q. You've long advocated travel to Mars. Have you been discouraged by the many mishaps NASA's Mars program has suffered?

A. No, not at all. I'm a great fan of Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I think it's wonderful they've begun taking risks. They launched six space missions in six months, which is absolutely wonderful. And of course, if you launch at that speed, you take risks and you risk failure. I thought they ought to be losing one out of three. If they were running the thing the way I'd like them to, they ought to lose two or three missions every year probably. To me, that's a sign that they are doing things right.

Q. Why are you highly critical of the space shuttle program?

A. I see it as a real tragedy. It was supposed to be a compromise between the requirements of getting stuff into space cheap and human adventure. But doing that is like trying to design a railroad where you have passenger and freight traveling on the same train.

We should have something much more flexible for the humans, something more like a sports car than a Greyhound bus. It should be a high performance spacecraft so that the people could actually go somewhere. You could go to the moon, learn how to live on the moon. I think it would be good television, as well. It would be popular. The shuttle is a bore. The shuttle is not going anywhere. It's stuck in one low orbit and that's all it can do.

Q. A few years back, you published a proposal in The Atlantic Monthly suggesting that future human missions to Mars might carry ''warm-blooded plants'' which would be genetically engineered to grow their own greenhouses. ''Warm-blooded'' plants?''

A. If you want to have a settlement on Mars, you'd better have plants and animals that can live there.

That seems to be the key to any sort of practical colony: plants that grow their own greenhouses. It's like a turtle growing its own shell. You sow the seeds on Mars. You have to pick a place where there is water underground. They put their roots down. Then, they build a greenhouse and they maintain a greenhouse independently. Of course, we are many years away from that. The science isn't in place yet.

Q. What was your take earlier this summer, when you saw the announcement of the human genome mapping?

A. The genome statement was mostly hype but that is not important. The important thing is that we now have the tools to sequence all kinds of animals and plants and microbes -- as well as humans. It is not important that we didn't actually finish the human sequence yet.

Q. The two big revolutions of the past 20 years have occurred in genetics and computer technology. You are as much a futurist as a scientist. Did you see either of them coming?

A. Well, the genetic revolution, that was obvious as soon as one saw the double helix. But the Internet, I certainly never heard of it before it happened. It still surprises me that it has taken over the world much more than we expected. It used to be just this little Arpanet that my friends were on and that connected various military bases with each other. We never thought of it as something that would take over.

Q. Do you ever feel bad that you were left out of the Nobel Prize given to Richard Feynman, Sin-itiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger given for work that all of you did on electromagnetism in the quantum world?

A. I don't feel that in the least. All I did then was tidy up work that other people had done. It was fun to do, and that was great. The other thing is, I've been so lucky. I've had this tenured job here at the Institute for Advanced Study, and I couldn't have asked for anything more. I have the freedom to do what I want . . . bright people to talk to every day.

Q. Yet, despite all the genius in situ here at the institute, one senses you feel a real affinity for the practical people of science, engineers and the like. Is that true?

A. I like people who are working on practical things and who are working in teams. It's not so important to get the glory. It's much more important to get something that works. It's a better way to live. If you are trying to solve the big problems by pure thought, it's very solitary and it's very competitive and the people who don't succeed are mostly unhappy.

Q. You've lived a life in science and you have been quite happy?

A. Yes. Because I've jumped around many times, and I've never become obsessed with any particular thing.

The other point goes back to what we were discussing about the generation that grew up in the shadow of World War I: my generation took such a tragic view of life. We started out with this deep conviction that life was tragic and that one better make the best of it. One didn't expect anything to come out right. If you start out with a tragic view of life, then anything since is just a bonus.

We did, after all, survive, and we created a world that is moderately peaceful. I take it as a bonus that we only have about eight countries with nuclear weapons at the end of the 20th century, instead of the 50 that we expected. Another bonus is that nobody has used a nuclear bomb in anger since Nagasaki.

By CLAUDIA DREIFUS, August 1, 2000 The New York Times Company