Skip to comments.Freeman Dyson's Remarkable View of the Future Is Worth Your Time To Examine
Posted on 10/16/2015 7:15:36 AM PDT by Steely Tom
A couple of days ago, there was a quite successful thread here entitled Top Physicist Freeman Dyson: Obama 'Took the Wrong Side' on Climate Change.
As an admirer and follower of Professor Dyson, I enjoyed it greatly, and posted several items on it.
That thread got me interested in Dyson once again, and in looking for Dyson material I found this remarkable lecture on YouTube.
I believe it is worth anyone's time to listen to in its entirety. At a little more than an hour in length, it is a bit long for one sitting, but I am sure most will find it worthwhile.
I've transcribed part of it from the video. The spelling errors are therefore mine. I also include time markers that correspond to the video. I skipped the first ten minutes or so, not because they are not listening to (they are) but because I was most interested in his remarks on global warming, which start at about the ten-minute point.
The material between the beginning and about minute 31 is a brilliant and fact-packed refutation of the arguments of the AGW lobby, delivered in an understated but irresistible manner.
I'm telling you, misfortunes are on the way. Your precious PhD, or whatever degree you went through long years of hard work to acquire, may be worth less than you think.
Your specialized training may become obsolete.
You may find yourself overqualified for the available jobs.
You may be declared "redundant." The country and culture to which you belong may move far away from the mainstream.
But those misfortunes are also opportunities.
It's always open to you to join the heretics, and find another way to make a living. With or witout a PhD, there are big and important problems for you to solve.
My second heresy will take longer to explain and discuss. It says that all the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated. Here, I'm opposing the holy brotherhood of climate model experts, and the crowd of deluded citizens who believe the numbers predicted by the climate models. Of course - they say - I have no degree in meterology, and I'm therefore not qualified to speak. But I have studied the climate models, and I know what they can do. The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics, and they do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans.
They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields and farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in. The real world is muddy, and messy, and full of things that we don't yet understand. It's much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building, and run computer models, than it is to put on winter clothes and go out and measure what's really happening outside, in the swamps and the clouds. That's why the climate model experts end up believing their own models.
There's no doubt that parts of the world are getting warmer, but the warming is not global. I'm not saying the warming does not cause problems; obviously it does. Obviously we should be trying to understand it better. What I'm saying is that the problems are grossly exaggerated. They take away money and attention from other problems that are more urgent and more important, such as poverty, and infectious diseases, and public education, and public health...
...and the preservation of living creatures on land and in the oceans.
Not to mention easy problems, such as the timely construction of adequate dikes around the city of New Orleans.
So section II: land management and climate. I should read the subheadings so you can see where we're going. The first section was called 'the need for heretics.' Second section: 'land management and climate.'
I will talk about the global warming problem because it's interesting, even though its importance is exaggerated.
To understand the movement of carbon through the atmosphere and biosphere in detail, we need to measure a lot of numbers. I don't want to confuse you with a lot of numbers, so I'll ask you to remember is just one number. The number that I ask you to remember is one hundredth of an inch per year; that is to say "one inch per century."
So now, I'll explain what that number means.
Consider the half of the land area of the Earth that's not desert, or icecap, or city or road or parking lot.
This is the half of the land that's covered with soil, and supports vegetation of one kind or another. Every year, it absorbs and converts into biomass a certain fraction of the carbon dioxide that we emit into the atmosphere. We don't know how big a fraction is absorbed, since we have not measured the increase or decrease of the biomass. The number that I ask you to remember is the increase in thickness - averaged over one-half of the land area of the planet - of the biomass that would result if all the carbon that we are emitting by burning fossil fuels were absorbed. The average increase in the thickness is one hundredth of an inch per year.
The point of this calculation is the very favorable rate of exchange between carbon in the atmosphere and carbon in the soil.
To stop the carbon in the atmosphere from increasing, we only need to grow the biomass in the soil by one hundredth of an inch per year. Good topsoil contains about ten percent biomass, so a hundredth of an inch of biomass growth means about a tenth of an inch of topsoil.
Changes in farming practices, such as no-till farming, avoiding the use of the plow, cause biomass to grow at least as fast as this. If we plant crops without plowing the soil, more of the biomass goes into roots - which stay in the soil - and less returns to the atmosphere.
If we use genetic engineering to put more biomass into roots, we can probably achieve much more rapid growth of topsoil.
I conclude from this calculation that the problem of carbon dioxide in a atmosphere is a problem of land management, not a problem of meterology. No computer model of atmosphere and ocean can hope to predict the way we shall manage our land.
Here is another heretical thought: instead of calculating world-wide averages of biomass growth, we might prefer to look at the problem locally.
Consider a possible future, with China continuing to develop an industrial economy based largely on the burning of coal, and the United States deciding to absorb the resulting carbon dioxide by increasing the biomass in our topsoil.
The quantity of biomass that can be accumulated in living plants and trees is limited, but there's no limit to the quantity that can be stored in topsoil.
To grow topsoil on a massive scale may or may not be practical, depending on the economics of farming and irrigation.
It is at least a possibility to be seriously considered that China could become rich by burning coal, while the United States could become environmentally virtuous by accumulating topsoil, with transport of carbon from the mine in China to the soil in America provided free of charge by the atmosphere, and the inventory of carbon in the atmosphere remaining constant. We should take such possibilities into account when we listen to predictions about climate change and fossil fuels. If biotechnology takes over the planet in the next fifty years, as computer technology has taken it over in the last fifty years, the rules of the climate game will be radically changed.
When I listen to the public debates about climate change, I'm impressed by the enormous gaps in our knowledge, the sparseness of our observations, and the superficiality of our theories.
Many of the basic processes of planetary ecology are poorly understood. They must better understood before we can reach an accurate diagnosis of the present condition of the planet.
When we're trying to take care of a planet, just as when we're taking care of a human patient, diseases must be diagnosed before they can be cured. We need to observe and measure what is going on in the biosphere before we can hope to cure it.
Everyone agrees that the increasing abundance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has two important consequences:
First, a change in the physics of radiation transport in the atmosphere.
And second, a change in the biology of plants on the ground and in the ocean.
Opinions differ on the relative importance of the physical and biological effects, and on whether the effects, either separately or together are beneficial or harmful.
The physical effects are seen in changes of rainfall, cloudiness, wind strength and temperature, which are customarily lumped together in the misleading phrase "global warming."
In humid air, the effect of carbon dioxide on radiation transport is unimportant, because the transport of radiation is already blocked by the much larger greenhouse effect of water vapor.
The effect of carbon dioxide is important where the air is dry, and air is usually dry only when it's cold. Hot desert air may feel dry, but it often contains a lot of water vapor. The warming effect of carbon dioxide is strongest where the air is cold and dry, namely in the arctic rather than in the tropics, namely in winter rather than summer, and namely at night rather than in daytime.
The warming is real, but it is mostly making cold places warmer, rather than making hot places hotter. To represent this local warming by a global average is grossly misleading.
The fundamental reason why carbon dioxide abundance in the atmosphere is critically important to biology is that there is so little of it.
A field of corn, growing in full sunlight in the middle of the day, uses up all the carbon dioxide within a meter of the ground in about five minutes.
If the air were not constantly stirred by convection currents and winds, the corn would stop growing. About a tenth of all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is converted into biomass every summer, and given back to the atmosphere every fall. That is why the effects of fossil fuel burning cannot be separated from the effects of plant growth and decay.
There are five reservoirs of carbon that are biologically accesable on a short time scale, not counting the carbonate rocks and the deep ocean, which are only accessable on a time scale of thousands of years.
The five accessable reservoirs are:
the land plants,
the topsoil in which land plants grow
the surface layer of the ocean in which ocean plants grow,
and our reserves of fossil fuels.
The atmosphere is the smallest reservoir, and the fossil fuels are the largest, but all five of them are of comparable size. They all interact strongly with one another, and to understand any of them, it's necessary to understand all of them.
As an example of the way different reservoirs of carbon dioxide may interact with each other, consider the atmosphere, and the topsoil. Greenhouse experiments show that many plants growing in an atmosphere enriched with carbon dioxide react by increasing their "root-to-shoot" ratio.
This means that the plants put more of their growth into roots, and less into stems and leaves. A change in that direction is to be expected, because the plants have to maintain a balance between the leaves collecting carbon from the air, and the roots collecting minerals from the soil.
The enriched atmosphere tilts the balance so that the plants need less leaf area and more root area. Now consider what happens to the roots and shoots when the growing season is over, when the leaves fall and the plants die.
The new-grown biomass decays, and is eaten by fungii or microbes. Some of it returns to the atmosphere, and some of it is converted into topsoil. On the average, more of the above-ground growth will return to the atmosphere, and more of the below-ground growth will become topsoil.
So the plant, with increased root-to-shoot ratio will cause an increased net transfer of carbon from the atmosphere into topsoil.
If the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning has caused an increase in the average root-to-shoot ratio of plants over large areas, the possible effect on the topsoil will not be small.
At present, we have no way to measure, or even to guess, the size of this effect. The aggregate biomass of the topsoil of the planet is not a measurable quantity, but the fact that the topsoil is unmeasurable does not mean it is unimportant.
At present, we don't know whether the topsoil of the United States is increasing or decreasing. Over the rest of the world - because of large-scale deforestation and erosion - the topsoil reservoir is probably decreasing.
We don't know whether intelligent land management could increase the growth of topsoil by four billion tons of carbon per year, the amount needed to stop the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
All that we can say for sure is that this is a theoretical possibility, and we ought to be seriously exploring it.
So that's the end of the second heresy; the third one is actually sort of connected with it.
So... the third section: "The Wet Sahara."
My third heresy is about "the mystery of the wet Sahara." This is a mystery that has always fascinated me, since I read Henri Lhote's book "The Search for the Tassil Frescoes" which was published in 1958, so that's 47 years ago.
That book has marvellous reproductions of rock paintings in the Sahara desert, at places that are now dry and unpopulated, showing people with herds of animals.
The paintings are abundant, and have amazing artistic quality, comparable with the more famous cave paintings in France and Spain.
The Sahara paintings are more recent than the cave paintings.
They come in a variety of styles, and were probably painted over a period of several thousand years.
The latest of them show Egyptian influences, and must be contemporaneous with early Egyptian tomb paintings.
The best of the herd paintings date from roughly six thousand years ago. They are strong evidence that the Sahara at that time was wet. There must have been enough rain to support herds of cows and giraffes, which must have grazed on grass and trees.
There were also some hippopotamouses and elephants.
The Sahara then must have been like the Serenghetti today.
At the same time - roughly six thousand years ago - there were deciduous forests in northern Europe; we can see the pollen from those forests at the bottom of lakes, which are quite accurately dated. Deciduous forests, where the trees are now conifers, proving that the climate in the far north was milder than it is today.
There were also trees standing in mountain valleys in Switzerland, which are now filled with famous glaciers. The glaciers that are now shrinking in Switzersland were much smaller six thousand years ago than they are today.
Six thousand years ago seems to have been the warmest and wettest period of the interglacial period that began twelve thousand years ago, when the last ice age ended.
So, I'd like to ask two questions: first, if the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is allowed to continue, shall we arrive at a climate similar to the climate of six thousand years ago, when the Sahara was wet?
Second, if we could choose between the climate of today, with the dry Sahara, and the climate of six thousand years ago, with the wet Sahara, should we prefer the climate of today?
So, my third heresy answers "yes" to the first question, and "no" to the second. It says, the warm climate of six thousand years ago - with the wet Sahara - is on the whole to be preferred, and that increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may help to bring it back.
I'm not saying this heresy is true, I'm only saying it won't do us any harm to think about it.
The biosphere is the most complicated of all the things humans have to deal with. The science of planetary ecology is still young and undeveloped. It's not surprising that honest and well-informed experts disagree about facts.
But beyond the disagreement about facts, there's another deeper disagreement about values. The disagreement about values may be described - in an oversimplified way - as a disagreement between "naturalists" and "humanists."
Naturalists believe that "nature knows best." For them, the highest value is to respect the natural order of things. Any gross human disruption of the natural environment is "evil."
Excessive burning of fossil fuels is "evil." Changing nature's desert - either the Sahara desert, or the ocean desert, into a managed ecosystem where giraffes or tuna fish may flourish is likewise evil. Nature knows best, and anything we do to improve upon nature will only bring trouble.
That naturalist ethic is - I believe - the driving force behind the Kyoto Protocol.
The humanist ethic begins with the belief that humans are an essential part of nature. Through human minds, the biosphere has acquired the capacity to steer its own evolution, and we are now in charge.
Humans have the right and the duty to reconstruct nature so that humans and the biosphere can both survive and prosper.
For humanists, the highest value is harmonious coexistence between humans and nature. The greatest evils are povery, underdevelopment, unemployment, disease, and hunger... all the conditions that deprive people of opportunity and limit their freedoms.
The humanist ethic accepts an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a small price to pay if worldwide industrial development can alleviate the miseries of the poorer half of humanity.
The humanist ethic accepts our responsibility to guide the evolution of the planet.
The sharpest conflict between naturalist and humanist ethic arises in the regulation of genetic engineering. The naturalist ethic condemns genetically modified food crops, and all other genetic engineering projects that might upset the natural ecology.
The humanist ethic looks forward to a time not far distant when genetically engineered food crops and energy crops will bring wealth to poor people in tropical countries, and incidentally give us tools to control the growth of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Here I must conclude by confessing my own bias. Since I was born and brought up in England, I spent my formative years in a country with great beauty and a rich ecology which is almost entirely man made. The natural ecology of England was uninterrupted and rather boring forest. Humans replaced the forest with an artificial landscape of grassland and moorland, fields and farms, with a much richer variety of plants and animal species.
Quite recently - only about a thousand years ago - we introduced rabbits, a not-native species which had a profound effect upon the ecology. Rabbits opened glades in the forest, where flowering plants now flourish.
There's no wilderness in England, and yet there is plenty of room for wild flowers and birds and butterflys, as well as a high density of humans.
Perhaps that's why I'm a humanist.
So, heresy number four: The domestication of biotechnology.
My fourth heresy is about the domestication of biotechnology.
Fifty years ago in Princeton, I watched the mathematician John Von Neumann designing and building the first electronic computer that operated with instructions coded into the machine.
Von Neumann did not invent the electronic computer. The computer called ENIAC had been running at the University of Pennsylvania five years earlier.
What VonNeumann invented was software, the coded instructions that gave the computer agility and flexibility.
It was the combination of electronic hardware with punched-card software that allowed a single machine to predict the weather, to simulate the evolution of populations of living creatures, and to test the feasablity of hydrogen bombs.
Von Neumann understood that his invention would change the world.
He understood that the descendants of his machine would dominate the operations of science and business and government, but he imagined computers always remaining large and expensive. He imagined them as centralized facilities, serving large research laboratories or large industries.
He failed to forsee computers growing small enough, and cheap enough, to be used by housewives for doing income tax returns, or by kids for doing homework. He failed utterly to forsee the the final domestication of computers as toys for three-year-olds.
He failed totally to forsee the emergence of computer games as a dominant feature of twenty-first century life.
Because of computer games, our grandchildren are now growing up with an indelible addiction to computers.
For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, till death do us part, humans and computers are now joined together more durably than husbands and wives.
So what has this story of Von Neumann's computer, and the evolution of computer games, got to do with biotechnology?
Simply this: that there's a close analogy between Von Neumann's view of computers as large centralized facilities, and the public perception of genetic engineering today as an activity of large pharmaceutical and agribusiness corporations such as Monsanto. The public distrusts Monsanto because Monsanto likes to put genes for poisonous pesticides into food crops, just as we distrusted Von Neumann because Von Neumann liked to use his computer for designing hydrogen bombs.
It's likely that genetic engineering will remain unpopular and controversial so long as it remains a centralized activity in the hands of large corporations.
I see a bright future for the biotechnical industry when it follows the path of the computer industry - the path that van Neumann failed to forsee - becoming small and domesticated, rather than big and centralized.
The first step in this direction was already taken recently, when genetically modified tropical fish, with new and brilliant colors, appeared in pet stores.
For technology to become domesticated, the next step is to become "user friendly."
I recently spent a happy day at the Philadelphia Flower Show, the biggest flower show in the world, where flower breeders from all over the world show off the results of their efforts.
I've also visited the reptile show in San Diego, an equally impressive show, displaying the work of another set of breeders.
Philadelphia excels in orchids and roses; San Diego excells in lizards and snakes.
The main problem for a grandparent visiting the reptile show with a grandchild is to get the grandchild out of the building without actually buying a snake.
Every orchid, or rose, or lizard, or snake, is the work of a dedicated and skilled breeder. There are thousands of people - amateurs and professionals - who devote their lives to this business.
Now, imagine what will happen when the tools of genetic engineering become accessable to those people. There will be a do-it-yourself kit for gardeners, who will use genetic engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes, to breed new varieties of pets. Breeders of dogs and cats will have their kits too.
Genetic engineering, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children will give us an explosion in diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer.
New lineages will proliferate, to replace those that monoculture farming and industrial development have destroyed. Designing genomes will be a personal thing - a new art form - as creative as painting or sculpture. Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but all will bring joy to their creators, and variety to our fauna and flora.
The final step in the domestication of biotechnology will biotech games, designed like computer games for children down to kindergarten age, but played with real eggs and seeds, rather than with images on a screen. Playing such games, kids will acquire an intimate feeling for the organisms that they are growing. The winner could be the kid who's seed grows the prickliest cactus, or the kid who's egg hatches the cutest dinosaur (uneasy laughter from audience).
These games will be messy, and possibly dangerous. (uneasy laughter)
Rules and regulations will be needed to make sure our kids don't endanger themselves and others. If domestication of biotechnolgy is really the wave of the future, five important questions need to be answered:
First, can it be stopped?
Second, ought it to be stopped?
Third, if stopping it is either impossible or undesirable, what are the appropriate limits that our society must impose on it?
Fourth: how should the limits be decided?
Fifth: how should the limits be enforced, nationally and internationally?
In considering each of those questions, it would be helpful to keep in mind the analogy between computer technology and biotechnology.
The majority of people using domesticated biotechnology to cause trouble will probably be small fry, like the young computer hackers who spread computer viruses around on the internet. On the other hand, there's a big difference between a computer virus, and a real virus like influenza or HIV. If we allow kids to play around with roses and snakes, we still have to stop them from playing around with viruses. So that's the end of heresy number four.
My opinion is that we should leave it in God’s hands.
Thank you for your post, Steely Tom!
To conclude this piece I come to my third and last heresy. My third heresy says that the United States has less than a century left of its turn as top nation. Since the modern nation-state was invented around the year 1500, a succession of countries have taken turns at being top nation, first Spain, then France, Britain, America. Each turn lasted about 150 years. Ours began in 1920, so it should end about 2070. The reason why each top nations turn comes to an end is that the top nation becomes over-extended, militarily, economically and politically. Greater and greater efforts are required to maintain the number one position. Finally the over-extension becomes so extreme that the structure collapses. Already we can see in the American posture today some clear symptoms of over-extension. Who will be the next top nation? China is the obvious candidate. After that it might be India or Brazil. We should be asking ourselves, not how to live in an America-dominated world, but how to prepare for a world that is not America-dominated. That may be the most important problem for the next generation of Americans to solve. How does a people that thinks of itself as number one yield gracefully to become number two?
1) With or
witout without a PhD, there are big [...]
2) I have no degree in
meterology meteorology [...]
3) [...] is a problem of land management, not a problem of
meterology meteorology [...]
4) The five
accessable accessible reservoirs are [...]
5) The new-grown biomass decays, and is eaten by
fungii fungi or microbes [...]
6) [...] but the fact that the topsoil is
unmeasurable immeasurable does not mean [...]
7) There were also some
hippopotamouses hippopotami and elephants [...]
8) The Sahara then must have been like the
Serenghetti Serengeti [...]
9) The glaciers that are now shrinking in
Switzersland Switzerland [...]
10) The greatest evils are
povery poverty, underdevelopment [...]
11) [...] and birds and
butterflys butterflies [...]
12) [...] and to test the
feasability feasibility of hydrogen bombs [...]
13) He failed to
forsee foresee computers growing small enough, and cheap enough, to be used by housewives for doing income tax returns, or by kids for doing homework. He failed utterly to forsee foresee the the final domestication of computers as toys for three-year-olds. He failed totally to forsee foresee the emergence of computer games as a dominant feature of twenty-first century life.
14) San Diego
excells excels in lizards and snakes [...]
15) [...] when the tools of genetic engineering become
accessable accessible to those people.
16) If domestication of
biotechnolgy biotechnology is really the wave [...]
Which means no cultivating or animal husbandry.
Yes! He is challenging climate change “groupthink”.
The funny thing is it he make a far better case FOR some man man global warming then any of it own supports ever have as he addresses the far broader scope of potential mechanisms involved and the limitations at this point in accounting for all there variables...
Thanks for the corrections!
I’m not as good a speller as I thought.
At some point, science becomes religion and rejects its pedigree as Natural Philosophy.
= = =
What settles out to the bottom of a lake, pond, test tube, ...?
Various kinds of crud and scum.
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