Freeman Dyson was one of the most brilliant and productive scientists in the world during his long life. But he was also a climate change skeptic. Bert Bigelow discusses this tension.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Freeman Dyson was one of the most brilliant and productive scientists in the world during his long life. A Nobel laureate for his work in physics, he made significant contributions in many other scientific fields. But one of his most famous “contributions” was his openly skeptical view on global warming.

This is a common theme these days, where otherwise great people do or believe problematic things. Do these beliefs or actions invalidate everything else about them?

Dyson died two years ago at 96. In an entertaining and provocative article in The Atlantic several years before the scientist’s death, Kenneth Brower took a journey into the mind of Freeman Dyson. I am resurrecting it in memory of a truly great, if eccentric, individual.

In it, Brower asks, “How could someone as smart as Dyson be so dumb about the environment?” Of course, many skeptics agree wholeheartedly with Dyson’s stance, and hold him up as evidence that all those climate experts are wrong.

Brower had known the Dyson family for many years and had many conversations with the great man. He was in a unique position to understand Dyson’s position on this issue.

First, he explained that Dyson is an eccentric…not an unusual trait for an individual who may well be a genius. In interviews with Dyson’s co-workers, he found that although they greatly admired him, his ideas were frequently “off the wall.” They were never sure whether to take him seriously. 

In the 70s, he was working with a NASA-funded group designing a spaceship that would be propelled by exploding atom bombs! The program was finally canceled with the first START treaty that banned nuclear explosions in the atmosphere. But before it ended, Dyson was working on the ultimate version, powered by hydrogen bombs. It weighed 240 million tons and traveled at 6000 miles per second, almost 22 million miles per hour. But Dyson had a problem with the design. He needed some mass to eject out the back of the ship, propelled by the H-bomb explosions, and he didn’t want to carry any extra weight along. So he proposed using the feces of the crew. As Brower put it:

“Riding a thermonuclear shit storm, his ark would carry several thousand colonists to Alpha Centauri on a 150-year voyage.”

Brower asked the engineer who recalled this hilarious episode if he thought Dyson was serious.

“No,” said the engineer. He laughed merrily at the memory. Then suddenly he stopped. His face went thoughtful. “Well, you never know,” he said. “You can’t tell with Freeman. You have to be cautious.”

“Was he serious?” I asked Ted Taylor several days later. Taylor, an expert in the miniaturization of nuclear bombs, was the head of Project Orion and Dyson’s closest friend on the team.

“I don’t think so,” Taylor said, after several moments of hesitation. “In his characteristic way, he wanted to push something to the limit. H-bombs, per unit of energy, are a lot cheaper than A-bombs. They’re also a lot hotter, a lot more energetic.”

Dyson himself, when I put the same question to him, was dismissive. “The starship was like an existence theorem in math,” he said. “It was to prove if you could do it. I never really believed in it.”

Dyson bases his skepticism of global warming on his doubts about the validity of the atmospheric models used by climate experts that predict the dire consequences. He freely admits that he is not a climate expert, and won’t argue the details of the issue. He just doesn’t think the experts know either.  He doesn’t deny that the planet is warming, but he doesn’t see it as anything to worry about.  In one interview he said:

“I went to Greenland myself, where the warming is most extreme,” he said. “And it’s quite spectacular, of course, what you see in Greenland. But what is also true is, the people there love it. The people there hope it continues. It makes their lives a lot more pleasant.”

As Brower pointed out:

…this is no consolation to the creatures that live there. I recently returned from reporting on diminishing sea ice and the decline of penguin populations and krill stocks on the Antarctic Peninsula, the western side of which, over the past half-century, has been warming at five times the world’s average rate. I feel obligated to put in a word for the elephant seals, fur seals, crabeater seals, leopard seals, whales, penguins, albatrosses, petrels, and other members of that cold-adapted, krill-dependent fauna.

When asked if humans had been kind to the planet, Dyson replied, “Yes, I would say, on the whole, yes.”

This is such a mind-boggling statement that it took Brower several paragraphs to enumerate examples throughout the history of human activity that have damaged and destroyed ecosystems. Since Gilgamesh logged the cedar forests of the Fertile Crescent 4700 years ago, man has waged war on the planet, polluted the air, water, and land, in many cases making it unhealthy, and in some cases uninhabitable for plants and animals alike.

Finally, Brower examined several possible explanations for Dyson’s stance on global warming.  Is it just contrariness? Dyson loves playing the Devil’s Advocate it seems. Or is he just conducting another “thought experiment,” like the shit-powered H-bomb starship? Is he just another nutty professor, notwithstanding his brilliance in esoteric fields like quantum electrodynamics (for which he received a Nobel Prize)? Or is he, at age 80, succumbing to senile dementia?

The author rejected all of these, and posits that Dyson is a believer in the technological fix for everything:

Freeman, for his part, seems to have settled more deeply into his own secular religion, becoming a prominent evangelist of the faith. He is in such a scientific minority on climate change that his views are easy to dismiss. In the worldview underlying those opinions, however—in the articles of his secular faith—he makes a kind of good vicar for a much more widely accepted set of beliefs, the set that presently drives our civilization. The tenets go something like this: things are not really so bad on this planet. Man is capable of remaking the biosphere in a coherent and satisfactory way. Technology will save us.

Such thinking sends shivers up and down my spine. It conjures up images from those old science fiction movies with the mad scientist, building doomsday machines that will destroy the earth. As much as I admire modern technology, I think mankind still needs to respect the natural systems of our planet and exercise great caution in meddling with them. A little humility would help.

Pride goeth before a fall.

Bert Bigelow graduated from the University of Michigan College of Engineering, then pursued a career in electronic systems and software design. He has always enjoyed writing, and since retirement, has produced short essays on many subjects. His main interests are in the areas of politics and religion, and the intersection of the two. You can contact him at bigelowbert@gmail.com.

Avatar photo

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...