A Many-Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe

Overview

Freeman Dyson’s latest book does not attempt to bring together all of the celebrated physicist’s thoughts on science and technology into a unified theory. The emphasis is, instead, on the myriad ways in which the universe presents itself to us--and how, as observers and participants in its processes, we respond to it. "Life, like a dome of many-colored glass," wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley, "stains the white radiance of eternity." The author seeks here to explore the variety that ...

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A Many-Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe

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Overview

Freeman Dyson’s latest book does not attempt to bring together all of the celebrated physicist’s thoughts on science and technology into a unified theory. The emphasis is, instead, on the myriad ways in which the universe presents itself to us--and how, as observers and participants in its processes, we respond to it. "Life, like a dome of many-colored glass," wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley, "stains the white radiance of eternity." The author seeks here to explore the variety that gives life its beauty.

Taken from Dyson’s recent public lectures--delivered to audiences with no specialized knowledge in hard sciences--the book begins with a consideration of the practical and political questions surrounding biotechnology. As he seeks how best to explain the place of life in the universe, Dyson then moves from the ethical to the purely scientific. The book concludes with an attempt to understand the implications of biology for philosophy and religion.

The pieces in this collection touch on numerous disciplines, from astronomy and ecology to neurology and theology, speaking to the lay reader as well as to the scientist. As always, Dyson’s view of human nature and behavior is balanced, and his predictions of a world to come serve primarily as a means for thinking about the world as it is today.

University of Virginia Press

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Editorial Reviews

T.J. Nelson

Dyson, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, is no lightweight. Although personally humble, he has made fundamental contributions to quantum physics and mathematics. His scientific status and his pacifist views have made him a darling of left-wing opinion outlets like The New York Times. But in these books, Dyson demonstrates that his ability to think critically and skeptically and his commitment to the truth often outweighs his politics...Dyson's great strength, whether he realizes it or not, is his ability to find problems we didn't think of, and imagine outlandish and sometimes impractical solutions...His powerful imagination sees the world as a spectacular explosion of irreducible phenomena.

Publishers Weekly

Physicist Dyson, now retired from Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, attempts too much in this brief volume. He addresses three themes: "the human and ethical consequences of biotechnology"; "the place of life in the universe"; and the "implications of biology for philosophy and religion." The seven short chapters consist of recent speeches that are not particularly well linked. Unlike some of his earlier works (e.g., The Scientist as Rebel), which dazzle the reader with insight and make intellectual connections across a wide array of subjects, this volume is somewhat quirky and superficial. A self-professed heretic, Dyson argues that "the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated," but his analysis is far from compelling. In proposing a simple way to prospect for life in the universe, he theorizes that herbivores and carnivores may be present on objects in the Kuiper Belt and the Oort Cloud, and may be constantly migrating from object to object. Dyson is most interesting when he defines "theofiction," a genre by writers such as Olaf Stapledon and Octavia Butler, that arises from science fiction but where the vision "is primarily religious rather than scientific." But even here, he falls short of his previous high standard. (Aug.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813929736
  • Publisher: University of Virginia Press
  • Publication date: 2/4/2010
  • Series: Page-Barbour Lectures
  • Pages: 176
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Freeman J. Dyson, Professor Emeritus of Physics from the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton University, is a member of the national Academy of Sciences and fellow of the Royal Society of London. His books include Infinite in All Directions, Origins of Life, and The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet.

University of Virginia Press

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Table of Contents

Preface ix

1 The Future of Biotechnology 1

2 A Debate with Bill Joy 27

3 Heretical Thoughts about Science and Society 43

4 A Friendly Universe 61

5 Can Life Go On Forever? 83

6 Looking for Life 103

7 The Varieties of Human Experience 131

References 155

Index 159

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