197. FREEMAN DYSON ON OPTIMISM
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.
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