The Scientist as Rebel

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An illuminating collection of essays by an award-winning scientist whom the London Times calls “one of the world’s most original minds.”

From Galileo to today’s amateur astronomers, scientists have been rebels, writes Freeman Dyson. Like artists and poets, they are free spirits who resist the restrictions their cultures impose on them. In their pursuit of Nature’s truths, they are guided as much by imagination as by reason, and their greatest theories have the uniqueness and beauty of great works of art.

Dyson argues that the best way to understand science is by understanding those who practice it. He tells stories of scientists at work, ranging from Isaac Newton’s absorption in physics, alchemy, theology, and politics, to Ernest Rutherford’s discovery of the structure of the atom, to Albert Einstein’s stubborn hostility to the idea of black holes. His descriptions of brilliant physicists like Edward Teller and Richard Feynman are enlivened by his own reminiscences of them. He looks with a skeptical eye at fashionable scientific fads and fantasies, and speculates on the future of climate prediction, genetic engineering, the colonization of space, and the possibility that paranormal phenomena may exist yet not be scientifically verifiable.

Dyson also looks beyond particular scientific questions to reflect on broader philosophical issues, such as the limits of reductionism, the morality of strategic bombing and nuclear weapons, the preservation of the environment, and the relationship between science and religion. These essays, by a distinguished physicist who is also a lovely writer, offer informed insights into the history of science and fresh perspectives on contentious current debates about science, ethics, and faith.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Readers should view The Scientist as Rebel as a science project of their own. Dyson 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...readers will have no difficulty recognizing rebellion of the most valuable kind in this enlightening collection and will eagerly engage with it." —The Philadelphia Inquirer

“Dyson offers a lovely collection of essays from his writing for The New York Review of Books. Part 1 and 3 focus on scientists and rebels, while parts 2 and 4 are a reminder that science could be more rebellious and radical than it is. The 29 individual chapters are organized into four categories: contemporary issues, war and peace, history of science, and personal reflections...Recommended.” –Choice

"Physicist and futurist Dyson embodies the ideal of the scientist as iconoclast. In this spirited collection, he muses on the ethics of nanotech and genetic engineering, the crucial role of amateurs in science, and the richness of "nature's imagination." Provocative, touching, and always surprising." Steve Silberman, Wired Magazine

"In an eclectic but deeply satisfying collection, Dyson, a prize-winning physicist and prolific author ... expresses his precise thinking in prose of crystal clarity, and readers will be absolutely enthralled by his breadth, his almost uncanny ability to tie diverse topics together and his many provocative statements ... his writings on Einstein, Teller, Newton, Oppenheimer, Norbert Wiener and Feynman will amuse while presenting deep insights into the nature of science and humanity. Virtually every chapter deserves to be savored." —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Dyson is a clear and compelling writer, gifts highlighted in this collection of 33 previously published, and frequently updated essays and reviews. Organized into sections on contemporary issues in science, war and peace, history of science and scientists, and personal and philosophical ruminations, these works demonstrate Dyson’s far-ranging interests and skill in writing for educated and curious generalists, qualities that ensure this volume’s wide appeal. Some readers may feel a thrill reading Dyson’s comments on military strategy; others may prefer Dyson’s thoughts on such physics-related people and issues as Isaac Newton, Edward Teller, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman, Norbert Wiener, and string theory. But whatever a reader’s passion, Dyson’s emphasis on rebels within science rather than upholders of the status quo makes the book especially satisfying."Steve Weinberg, Booklist

Praise for Dyson:

“One of the world’s most original minds.”–London Times

George Johnson
It’s debatable whether anyone’s book reviews — even those as thoughtfully discursive as Dyson’s — belong embalmed between covers, but The Scientist as Rebel can be perused for a sampling of his iconoclastic takes on a science that sometimes seems to be turning into an establishment of its own. So much has been written about the grand quest to unite quantum mechanics and general relativity into a theory of everything — “to reduce physics,” as Dyson puts it, “to a finite set of marks on paper” — that it’s bracing to consider his minority view: that the existence of a compact set of almighty equations may be a dogma in itself.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
In an eclectic but deeply satisfying collection, Dyson, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and prolific author (Weapons and Hope), presents 33 previously published book reviews, essays and speeches (15 from the New York Review of Books). Dyson expresses his precise thinking in prose of crystal clarity, and readers will be absolutely enthralled by his breadth, his almost uncanny ability to tie diverse topics together and his many provocative statements. In the title essay, Dyson writes, "Science is an alliance of free spirits in all cultures rebelling against" the tyranny of their local cultures. In a 2006 review of Daniel Dennett's book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Dyson, himself a man of faith, takes issue with Dennett's quoting of physicist Stephen Weinberg that "for good people to do bad things-that takes religion." The converse is also true, says Dyson: "for bad people to do good things-that takes religion." Three of the best chapters (reprinted from Weapons and Hope) deal with the politics of the cold war. And his writings on Einstein, Teller, Newton, Oppenheimer, Norbert Wiener and Feynman will amuse while presenting deep insights into the nature of science and humanity. Virtually every chapter deserves to be savored. (Dec.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Now in his eighties, with a long and venerable career that includes a Nobel prize in physics, Dyson (physics, emeritus, Inst. for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ) is a patriarch of contemporary American science. His collected essays and popular science books (e.g., Disturbing the Universe) have been very influential in this genre. At first glance, this new collection of reviews and essays, most published in the New York Review of Books, would seem a contrived addition to his corpus. However, it is through his reviews socioscientific commentaries, really that Dyson explores a broad context of science that will remind readers familiar with his writings of his brilliance, iconoclasm, and expansiveness of mind. The 33 essays are organized into four topical categories: "Contemporary Issues in Science," "War and Peace," "History of Science and Scientists," and "Personal and Philosophical." Perhaps the most prevalent theme is that science and humanism go hand in hand and that consequently the studies of art, science, religion, politics, and more are inextricably intertwined. Though somewhat patchwork, this collection does represent Dyson's evolving thoughts and, despite a few quibbles about consistency of scope and redundancies in relation to previous works, it is a good read that should be popular with fans of this genre. Suitable for general readers in public and undergraduate libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 8/06.] Gregg Sapp, Science Lib., SUNY at Albany Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
British-born polymath physicist Dyson (The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet, 1999, etc.) addresses the most controversial issues of the day with a sharp mind unblunted by time. Most of these previously published essays originally appeared in the New York Review of Books. Dyson enriches them with insightful personal recollections from a score of notables. He remarks on Edward Teller's extraordinary kindness to students, describes what it was like to be Richard Feynman's student and in a particularly moving essay portrays Robert Oppenheimer as a genius whose flaw was restlessness. Among the recurring topics: why Albert Einstein was a "revolutionary" but Jules Henri Poincare was a conservative; the question of whether science is driven more by tools or ideas; why science is inexhaustible. The book's four sections-"Contemporary Issues in Science," "War and Peace," "History of Science and Scientists," "Personal and Philosophical"-contain information about the author's life, and the general tone is optimistic. He believes that biological engineering will inevitably be enlisted to enhance species or even create new ones (microbes that clean up pollution, for example) and that humans will colonize space. Himself an agnostic, Dyson sees a place for religion in society and even supposes that there may be something in the paranormal. Studded with wondrous gems-and just enough provocation to stimulate debate.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781590172162
  • Publisher: New York Review Books
  • Publication date: 11/14/2006
  • Series: New York Review Books Collections Series
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 1,062,042
  • Product dimensions: 5.83 (w) x 8.51 (h) x 1.03 (d)

Meet the Author

Freeman Dyson has spent most of his life as a professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, taking time off to advise the US government and write books for the general public. He was born in England and worked as a civilian scientist for the Royal Air Force during World War II. He came to Cornell University as a graduate student in 1947 and worked with Hans Bethe and Richard Feynman, producing a user-friendly way to calculate the behavior of atoms and radiation. He also worked on nuclear reactors, solid-state physics, ferromagnetism, astrophysics, and biology, looking for problems where elegant mathematics could be usefully applied.

Dyson’s books include Disturbing the Universe (1979), Weapons and Hope (1984), Infinite in All Directions (1988), Origins of Life (1986, second edition 1999), The Sun, the Genome and the Internet (1999), The Scientist as Rebel (2006, published by New York Review Books), and A Many-Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe (2010). New York Review Books will publish Dreams of Earth and Sky, a new collection of Dyson's essays, in April 2015. He is a fellow of the American Physical Society, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a fellow of the Royal Society of London. In 2000 he was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 19, 2006


    This is a delightful collection of short stories well, it is really a collection of book reviews written by the author in recent years for *New York Review*. But each of them was edited and brought up to 2006. Some of the revisions were in response to reader correspondence. In any case, I was sorry when I reached the end, and I am hoping for more. The author Freeman Dyson (author of ¿Disturbing the Universe¿) has a unique talent for bringing the characters and the protagonists to life, and many of the stories are inspired by the author¿s own experiences, and some are biographies of scientists (Feynman, Oppenheimer, Teller, and more) and others of people Dyson met in his career or in his life. Dyson ponders and answers the question: ¿Why do some scientists like Einstein gain cult status, while others like Poincare are forgotten by the public?¿ This lovely little book is a gem, and it is proof that it is possible for the same person to be a brilliant scientist and a great story teller at the same time observing the world we share, and helping us reflect on big questions of war and peace, on the environment, on space flights, and on whether there might be intelligent life out there. The book is divided into five chapters, the last one consisting of Biographical Notes. Each of the four real chapters consists of a handful of stories (sections, essays or reviews) which can stand alone. A sample of titles of the sections: Can Science be Ethical? (the gap between rich and poor, and more.) Bombs and Potatoes. (reflections, and recollections from WWII work on the nuclear bomb.) Russians. (starting with History and ending with recollections of persons Dyson met in Russia.) The Force of Reason. (a rebel from the Manhattan Project, WWII work on the nuclear bomb.) Seeing the Unseen. (the beginning of atomic physics.) The World, the Flesh, and the Devil. (I will not spoil the plot on this one!) Religion from the Outside. (I will let you find out for yourself!) PS.: Freeman Dyson devoted a good part of his life to science: I recently opened a whole volume of ¿Communications in Mathematical Physics¿, entirely devoted to the research and the advances pioneered by Dyson. Review by Palle Jorgensen, November 2006.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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