Top boffin Freeman Dyson on climate change, interstellar travel, fusion, and more

Freeman Dyson, Image: The Register
The life of physicist Freeman Dyson spans advising bomber command in World War II, working at Princeton University in the States as a contemporary of Einstein, and providing advice to the US government on a wide range of scientific and technical issues.

By Andrew Orlowski|The Register

He is a rare public intellectual who writes prolifically for a wide audience. He has also campaigned against nuclear weapons proliferation.

At America’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Dyson was looking at the climate system before it became a hot political issue, over 25 years ago. He provides a robust foreword to a report written by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change cofounder Indur Goklany on CO2 – a report published [PDF] today by the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF).

An Obama supporter who describes himself as „100 per cent Democrat,“ Dyson says he is disappointed that the President „chose the wrong side.“ Increasing CO2 in the atmosphere does more good than harm, he argues, but it is not an insurmountable crisis. Climate change, he tells us, „is not a scientific mystery but a human mystery. How does it happen that a whole generation of scientific experts is blind to obvious facts?“

We invited Dyson to talk about climate change and other matters, including a question from your correspondent’s kids – how will we do interstellar travel?

You were being invited to help solve problems in an era when things looked pretty grim, and those problems looked insoluble, during the Cold War, and before Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution. Now we’ve conquered a lot of these, but there seems to be an unquenchable thirst for apocalypse.

[Laughs] Yes. I don’t know why, it’s a mood of the times. I don’t understand that better than anyone else. It is true that there’s a large community of people who make their money by scaring the public, so money is certainly involved to some extent, but I don’t think that’s the full explanation.

It’s like a hundred years ago, before World War I, there was this insane craving for doom, which in a way, helped cause World War I. People like the poet Rupert Brooke were glorifying war as an escape from the dullness of modern life. [There was] the feeling we’d gone soft and degenerate, and war would be good for us all. That was in the air leading up to World War I, and in some ways it’s in the air today.

The years before 1914 were a tremendously promising time. Russia was getting richer, [but then] the whole thing fell apart. It’s comparable today – we’ve done a much better job with feeding the world and if you look at the number of desperately poor people, it has been decreasing quite steadily.

The most important thing at the moment is China getting richer. What the rest of the world is doing doesn’t really matter.

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