free html hit counter Peak Oil Debunked: 197. FREEMAN DYSON ON OPTIMISM

Wednesday, December 28, 2005


Freeman Dyson is a great futurist. He conceived of the Dyson sphere (a sphere of solar collectors positioned around the sun to allow an advanced civilization to harvest the sun's energy efficiently). He has also worked on spacecraft driven by nuclear explosions, and developed mathematical ideas about the distant future of mankind (the Omega Point). At the same time, he is a very decent and down-to-earth human being.

Freeman Dyson

In this 2003 interview, he tells why he is an optimist:
You describe yourself as an optimist - why is this?

The reason I'm optimistic is easy to see; it's because I came through the 1930s. I was a teenager in the 1930s, when things were from every point of view much worse than they are today. We had a terrible economic depression, millions of people out of work, much more than now, we had Hitler to deal with, another World War coming up, which we all expected to die in - I didn't expect to survive World War II. We all expected it to be worse than World War I, and World War I was a terrible tragedy for England.

It was really a time to despair - even little things like pollution, England was filthy then compared to what it is now. I remember in London if you put on a clean shirt in the morning it was black by the evening around the collar and the cuffs. The air was filthy, the water was filthy, the Thames was so polluted that nothing could live in it - well, it's all been improved very greatly. It took just fifty years of careful attention to detail - those pollution problems are curable. The present generation has forgotten all that, they seem to think that just because pollution exists, it's a disaster. I would say the opposite, it's an opportunity for doing better.

So there are many reasons, but I think having lived through bad times is the main reason. World War II was bad enough, but it was nothing like as bad as we expected. We had read Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and he starts out with anthrax bombs - well, we expected anthrax bombs, there's nothing new about anthrax. It never happened, so we were lucky.

In all sorts of ways we were lucky; of course England had a better war than many places. But still, it was a tough war and nevertheless we survived, so, having lived through that, I can't take the present problems so seriously. I think none of the present-day problems are as bad as what we faced then.

And you see science and technology as being part of the solution?

It has been, yes, especially if you go to China and countries in Africa. They have a very different view of science because they know they absolutely need it. You can't imagine China in its present state of economic growth without modern technology, and of course China has got enormously more prosperous just in the last ten years. They have a very positive attitude toward technology, including genetic engineering.

The same is true of the people I know in Africa. For them, science really is a necessity of life. They don't have such mixed feelings about it.

Do we have a job to do as scientists here in the rich world, to persuade people that the doomsaying isn't necessarily correct?

Yes - but I don't try to impose my views on everybody. It's quite good to have some people to go around preaching gloom and doom, but I don't happen to agree with them. And I think it's unfair if we try to impose those views on the Chinese and the Africans.Source
-- by JD


At Wednesday, December 28, 2005 at 10:02:00 AM PST, Blogger Quantoken said...

Dyson's idea of the so called "Dyson Sphere" is one which is ridiculous beyond proportion. I wonder why no one has ever refuted his ridiculous idea.

To build a dyson sphere at the radius of the sun-earyth distance, for example, the radius would be 1.5x10^11 meters, meaning a surface area of 4*PI*R^2 = 2.83x10^23 square meters. The sphere can not be too thin if it needs to support its own weight and not collapse onto the sun. Let's say it's a solid structure of 10 kilometer thickness, with a density approxitately of the waters, i.e., 1000 kg per cubic meter. Then the whole dyson sphere would have a total mass of 2.83x10^30 kg.

We know the total mass of the whole solar systen, including the sun itself, is only 2x10^30 kg. Constructing a dyson sphere would cost far more mass than what's available in the whole solar system.

Now look at the efficiency factor. Each suqare meter of dyson sphere is 10 km thick and weigh 1x10^7 kg. And it collects no more energy than a regular 1 square meter solar panels, i.e., about a hundred watts or so. How much energy does it cost to refine and manufacture 1x10^7 kg of speciality material for the dyson sphere? And how long does it to pay back that energy at mere a hundred watts?


At Wednesday, December 28, 2005 at 10:49:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear J.D.
To a76 year old guy like me who just wants to know whats happening your posts are always uplifting.Now you come with Mr. Dyson with his wonderful outlook on life. You just made my day. I, like a billion Chinese believe that with the use of science the world can accomplish much of its energy goals as it has in the past with the knowledge and tools it had.

At Wednesday, December 28, 2005 at 12:54:00 PM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

quantoken, you may be right, but DOES IT MATTER? This post was not about Dyson spheres.

(Though there's no reason you couldn't make a partial Dyson sphere, or one with a much smaller radius than the Earth's orbit. Dyson's original idea was not of a solid structure but of an immense number of individual objects in close-together orbits.)

At Wednesday, December 28, 2005 at 4:22:00 PM PST, Blogger Quantoken said...

It does matter. If the best of Dyson's ideas can be easily refuted, then the rest of his fantasies are not worth a penny.

I want to emphasis a point that technology progress is not playing magic. Everything humen ever invented or will invent in the future obeys all the physics laws exactly and do not exceed physical limit imposed by those physics laws. There can be no exception. Everything is contained within a bottle. We live in a world where limited resource is available for our consumption and we must live within the limit thus set for us.

Any space based energy solution, whether it is dyson sphere or something else, all involve huge structures to harvest just a relative small amount of energy. Thus considering how much energy it costs to build those huge structure at the first place, all those idea are just fantasies and are never worthy solutions.

You guys keep having the kind of fantasy that you can simply wave a magical wonder of technology, and your solution occurs miraculously, at zero cost to you. That's not how reality works. Every thing and every technology has a cost, and when you count in the cost, most of the ideas can be eliminated immediately because the benefits are not worth the cost.


At Wednesday, December 28, 2005 at 5:07:00 PM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why bother with Dyson Sphere? When fusion is ready in about 50 years it will be more than enough to provide energy for any advanced civilisations on earth.

If I have to bet my life on future technologies, I would bet on fusion anytime then those space fantasies...

I wonder why JD & Co keep fantasising space energy when fusion is just around the corner… ok a long corner but still far more realistic than any space energy technologies.

At Wednesday, December 28, 2005 at 6:15:00 PM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well I think in the interests of balance JD you need to post something from a great Pessimist.. Is there any? No I don’t think there is…

At Wednesday, December 28, 2005 at 7:17:00 PM PST, Blogger Quantoken said...

I disagree with you regarding fusion versus space technology. There is currently no fundamental technology difficulty in reaching out to space. We have already reached into space. The only remaining obstacle is scale up the technology: instead of sending a 100 kg probe, you need to send something many orders of magnitude larger. It is not to say the technology obstacle is not guge. It is a huge obstacle but nevertheless it is not a fundamental one.

Meanwhile, I do not think fusion will be practical in 50 years. We have already spend 50 years without much progress. I do not think another 50 years will be enough.

You've got to understand that EVEN within the extreme conditions at the core of the Sun, fusion is still happening at an EXTREMELY low rate. An average hydrogen atom has only a 50% chance of fusion, over 5 billion years, in the sun. That's the reason why the sun can burn continuously for 5 billion years and only roughly half of the fuel has been spent.

Such low reaction rate, is certainly far from adequate for an artificial fusion device. So you are talking about a condition which is much higher temperature and pressure than even the core of the sun, and maintain that for long durations, in order to get some decent fusion reaction rate.

At the end of day, first the fusion technology will not become available soon enough to save us from the depletion of fossil fuel. Second, even if it becomes available, the enegy invested to build and maintain the machine plus refining the deuterium material may still be far exceeding the eventual energy outcome. So it may not even be practical.


At Wednesday, December 28, 2005 at 10:47:00 PM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

JD thinks we're gong to power our globalized economy by setting up power stations on the moon.

Roland thinks we're going to download our concsiounesses into computers and teleport them across the galaxy.

Omnitir thinks jobs in the "creative industries" are going to be viable after peak oil

JD has also explained oil could go over $2,000 a barrel and the cost of shipping food would not change signifincantly.

Now he claims as reputable the guy who says we're going to build a sphere the size of the sun.

I see a pattern here that leads me to believe this blog is some type of giant practical joke. Round up all the loonies into one corner of the internet or something seems to be the plan.

At Thursday, December 29, 2005 at 7:19:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Systematically destroying all hope for anything ever being possible is certainly what got us where we are today, with what could have been called a supercomputer 30 years ago being the size of a packet of sugar today!!
I say give up, and let it all take it's course! don't hope, because that might involve some physical work or maybe a leap of faith here or there.
Maybe it's all try maybe oil will peak and we'll all die horribly, and maybe debunking is just a way of trying to keep some hope that really wrong? but wait with hope comes things like self confidence and determination and maybe even faith in something beyond
some bleak times, and if we are doomed then that hope is all we have, and it might just get some of us through why try to systematically destroy it?

At Thursday, December 29, 2005 at 3:05:00 PM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

apparently, you don't know much about hot fusion here on Earth.

I) The fusion process attempted here on Earth is not the same as in the sun. The sun fuses four protons into a helium core, as opposed to the Deuterium-Tritium process in tokamak reactors

II) I don't know about the energy consumption of building a fusion plant, but it's most likely huge. However, refining seawater and lithium into deuterium and tritium has an energy yeild in the tens of thousands.

III) The pressure in tokamak reactors is close to vacuum, nowhere near the immense pressure inside the core of the sun.

IV) Progress in fusion has not been as fast as the most optimistic scientist have predicted at their time. However, improvements in the fusion triple product (density*temperature*time) has for decades improved faster than micro processors (!) In fact, real fusion has been achieved albeit for very short durations (on the order of a few seconds). A bigger reactor (like ITER which is now being built) is needed to progress further.

I have a lot of documentation for the above mentioned claims on my computer, but I can't seem to find all of them on the internet right now.

Personally, I'm very enthusiastic about fusion energy and I believe it's quite possible to speed up the development process by throwing more money at it. But if it takes until 2050 before they get it right I think renewable energy will be much cheaper by then.


At Friday, December 30, 2005 at 12:33:00 AM PST, Blogger Quantoken said...

I am fully aware that the artificial fusion is different from that on the sun, but it's just some technical detail which does not change the big picture that fusion, which is merging of smaller nuclear into bigger one, must happen at enormous pressure and temperature.
Your claims are invalid. Your No. III contradicts your No. IV, if you notice that for free gas pressure equals density times temperature, differ by a constant multiplier.
I do not have data what kind of condition they have been able to achieve so far. But all I know is computer chips became commercially practical since the first generation, meanwhile, fusion is still a very long way away from becoming even feasible, least to say commercially practical.

At Friday, December 30, 2005 at 1:21:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"It does matter. If the best of Dyson's ideas can be easily refuted, then the rest of his fantasies are not worth a penny."

Isn't this the same thing you berate JD for? Attacking the person talking instead of what they are saying?

We aren't talking about Dyson's Sphere (wow, scientists theorizing about stuff, better call in the troops)

At Saturday, December 31, 2005 at 10:48:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

what kind of retarded baby would think that dyson thought the dyson sphere could be built in the near future. it's star trek, post-singularity shit. just a thought experiment. you huge retarded baby with no penis.

At Saturday, December 31, 2005 at 10:49:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

that was for quantdorkus

At Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 10:51:00 PM PST, Blogger Roland said...

I'm sick of people saying things like "we live in dangerous times," or "it's a hard world we live in" or "the world is going to the dogs". It's not. Despite the massive increase in population since the 1930s, the world is far far better than it was then, as Dyson said. Make of this what you will, but stop complaining, particularly if you live in the rich world.

At Monday, January 2, 2006 at 6:24:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My third and fourth claim do not contradict each other. First of all, the ideal gas equation you talk about does not apply to plasmas as found inside fusion reactors.

Secondly, even if the ideal gas equation did apply, you misinterpret it. Temperature times gas constant defines the ratio between pressure and density, it does not say that pressure has to be high for density to be high. If your interpretation were correct, an aqua lung (200 bar / 3000 psi) would be glowing red-hot.

The density inside the largest fusion reactor (the JET in UK) was approximately one millionth of atmospheric pressure (Source).

Check out the source for documentation.

It is true that microchips have been more succesful, but I think that can be attributed to the fact that they were immediately faster at repetitive, trivial mathematical operations.

There's no guarantee that fusion will ever be (economically) feasible. However the potential is too great to ignore, at least in my opinion. That been said, I'd rather see renewable energy (wind, terrestrial solar, etc.) thrive.


At Wednesday, January 4, 2006 at 9:50:00 AM PST, Blogger Nick said...

quantoken, you haven't really given the Dyson sphere careful attention.

First: "it collects no more energy than a regular 1 square meter solar panels, i.e., about a hundred watts or so." Solar energy is about 1,300 watts per sq meter at the earth's orbit. The atmosphere reduces it to 1,000, and solar cell efficiency used to be 10% which gives the 100 watts(commercial cells, like Sunpower, are now 20%, and they're likely to be 50% in 10 years). A dyson sphere may or may not have an atmosphere problem, but 100 watts is way off.

Second, a 10 km thickness is a wild guess. Make it 1 km, or less, if you want. Make it a collection of orbiting strip-like bands, which could be 10 meters.

No one has refuted it, because it can't be - There are no laws of physics being violated. There's no point in putting a lot of energy into practical engineering details - this is just a thought experiment about distant possibilities.

At Saturday, February 11, 2006 at 1:19:00 AM PST, Blogger Roland said...

this is just a thought experiment about distant possibilities.

Exactly. If anyone thinks we, or Dyson, proposed the Dyson sphere as a solution to Earth's short-term problem, that's a straw man that could power the world with biodiesel for 3000 years. (Hey, what a good idea!)

Freeman Dyson is an incredibly good futurist and thinker and his point - that technology has and is continuing to improve the lives of people who need it - is true. If you really want to live in the stone ages you shouldn't be using the internet, so go away.

As for the people who keep saying I believe in teleporting across the galaxy, you're misquoting me. Brain uploading is highly hypothetical and has nothing to do with Peak Oil.

Molecular Manufacturing (nanotechnology), on the other hand, does, because within 30 years, maybe even 20, it will allow us to produce solar panels much better than today's at almost no cost. It will also lower the cost and energy input of ventures like space industrialization. And it will be fantastic for "creative industries" because there will no longer be any mining or manufacturing sectors. If you would like to disprove this, please go research it thoroughly instead of being so lazy.

At Monday, February 4, 2008 at 12:14:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"You've got to understand that EVEN within the extreme conditions at the core of the Sun, fusion is still happening at an EXTREMELY low rate. An average hydrogen atom has only a 50% chance of fusion, over 5 billion years, in the sun. That's the reason why the sun can burn continuously for 5 billion years and only roughly half of the fuel has been spent."

Humans are targeting D+T fusion, not P+P fusion. The difference in rate coefficient is on the order of 10^26. To get a grip on just how large that error is: It is as wrong as stating that the visible universe is ~1 meter in diameter and ~4 ns old.

The rate of the reaction in the sun is carefully limited by an equilibrium between gravity and radiation pressure. If the rate of fusion grows the star expands and cools until a new equilibrium is found.

Furthermore, ICF fusion has been demonstrated long ago in test burns to have a Q factor in the range of tens to several hundreds. The technological obstacles that remain are by no means insignificant; the test burns have been with lasers of a few percent effeciency(which would in practice swallow most if not all energy gain) and repetition rates of a few times per day(needs to get up into several times per second). Diode lasers are a promising candidate(efficiency of 50% has been demonstrated); fire rate should be much better as the need for cooling is ten times less. Fast ignition fuel pellets and alternative drivers like heavy ion are currently being researched.

The JET tokamak has demonstrated a Q factor of 0.7 and it was never intended to demonstrate net energy positive operation(even at it's grand stature it's still too small). The largest technological hurdle I can see for tokamaks is that they need a very large size(and consequently power output) to be energy positive and the issues surrounding long term steady state operation are still unsolved/untested.

There have also been some promising developments in focus fusion and IEC fusion; but this is more speculative stuff than the mainstream approaches. If either of these long shots work out we'll have practical fusion prototypes in years rather than decades.

At Thursday, March 20, 2008 at 1:15:00 AM PDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't believe some of the folks on here were actually arguing dysons sphere. Being a bit of a Military Historian. I can see where he is coming from. This man lived through some rough times and he has seen alot, once more he has amassed a lifetime of knowledge.
Most of you have never lived like he has lived. Yet he is optimistic because why?? I'll put it this way. Germany as a military force was much larger than that of Britains forces. The Germans were well known for their brutal tactics and were well known for having quite a bit of air power. So we'll say Germany is "Peak Oil". Now the British could have laid down their arms and give up because there was no hope and they were all going to die!1!! (doomers)
But they did what they did at thr battle of Britain, because they had hope, they had to try and not fun away (like those doomers of peak oil who are getting off the grid) No they stayed, they fought and they won the battle. Who'd have thought. (these would be the folks who are working towards a better future today) The fact stands that doomers or pessimists never got anything doen for us. History ladies and gentlemen is up to us to write. We can change what was thought unchangable. If The battle of Britan were left up to the doomers, well then you know what would have happened. They would have have suffered and for what?? Because some group of doomers said it was so, it was written in stone. So now these people must die and they must suffer as such....No! This was a wonderful post JD. This is a breif story of a man who lived through some of the hardships. This same thing can be applied to the American Revolution.
Some though we would all die and that all hope was lost! Yet we took victory and became a nation of one. Optimism is what gets humanity through tough times. Look at FDR he was an optimist, so was Churchill. These men helped to bring us to victory, Patton, Eisenhower....Optimists.

As for this is the biggest challange we've ever faced. Not true. It will be big though, but just because this is a large challenge does not mean we should give up and instill fear into our peoples. Moral does a lot. If you don't think it does study some military history, you'll see moral is the lifeblood of a unit, an army to succeed in battle. We will have many a battles against Peak Oil, but with high moral and hope we can achive victory.
I remain optimistic for these reasons. A cause must have hope, for without hope it is not yet a cause.


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