This is sort of a clippings file, to contain bits that occur to me as I read Dyson and think about the issues raised.
25 August
Some thoughts on reading
6 June 1997
One of the great interests in Science stems from the continual flow of new stuff: discoveries, conjectures, controversies, breakthroughs, reformulations. The Educated Person needs to have a nodding acquaintance (at least) with this moving frontier, and should know how to study up when the need arises. How well do we prepare non-scientists (students of the Humanities and Social Sciences) for this task? And how might we do it better?

There are lots of 'popular science' sources, including periodicals like Scientific American, Science, Science News, Nature, New Scientist (to name the most obvious) and science journalism is often very good indeed. The Library acquires quite a few books aimed at the lay reader. But it seems to me that our students don't make much use of those resources. Broadening the spectrum of curiosity ought to be one of the primary outcomes of the "liberal education" (along with learning-how-to-learn and acquiring a groundwork of basic familiarity with historical and contemporary ideas and thinkers).

How do (and might and should) people find the resources we have? Case in point:

CALL #       Science Library QH366.2 .E59 1992.
TITLE        Environmental evolution : effects of the origin and evolution of 
               life on planet earth / edited by Lynn Margulis and Lorraine 
IMPRINT      Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, c1992.
CONTENTS     Comparison of planetary atmospheres : Mars, Venus, and Earth / 
               Michael McElroy -- Cosmochemical evolution and the origins of 
               life / Cyril Ponnamperuma -- Origin of life : polymers before 
               monomers? / Clifford Matthews -- Origins of membrane structure /
               David Deamer -- Origins of life : the historical development of
               recent theories / Antonio Lazcano -- The antiquity of life / 
               Elso S. Barghoorn -- Evidence of earliest life / Paul Strother -
               - Microbial mats of Abu Dhabi ; Stromatolites of Shark Bay / 
               Stjepko Golubic -- Symbiosis theory : cells as microbial 
               communities ; Spirochetes and the origin of Undulipodia / Lynn 
               Margulis -- Life in the late proterozoic / Andrew Knoll -- 
               Continental drift and plate tectonics / Raymond Siever.
               Chemical signals from plants and phanerozoic evolution / Tony 
               Swain. Questions and answers / Robert Buchsbaum -- Mammalian 
               evolution : karyotypic fission theory / Neil Todd -- The Gaia 
               hypothesis / James E. Lovelock. 
This book summarizes thinking on the transition from terrestrial no-life to life with a collection of transcripts of lectures given at Boston University and U Mass Amherst. It's been in the Geology collection for 5 years, but (seemingly) nobody has looked at it.

I did a search for W&L's recent holdings on 'origin[s] of life'

11 June
We see what our tools equip us to see. The millimeter-wave astronomy example (161) exemplifies this, and it's an insight that is obvious once one has had it, but no less important for that. The progress of science is vary substantially an advance of tools and conceptions which make possible the formerly barely thinkable.

1 July

The state of the world today is not essentially different from the state of the world in 1948. we are still faced with the same choices that we were facing in 1948. On the level of fundamental principles, we are faced with a choice between unity and diversity. the unity of mankind, or the diversity of nations and political institutions. (201)
Dyson's statement is arguable: the 'end of the Cold War' is a significant change from the 1948-1988 status quo, yet we are no nearer to the "unity of mankind", and in fact it's not imaginable on any basis I can dream up. But what are the elements of the 'tribal' that so divide humanity? Why are they so ineradicable, and so potent a source of mayhem (as demonstrated in Rwanda, Serbia, etc.)? How are we to understand what seems to be so essentially human as division? What is this 'sovereignty' that accompanies the "ambitious, vindictive, rapacious" nature that Hamilton adduced (page 204).
If ever a World Government should come into existence, it had better be a government designed to be run by crooks rather than a governemnt designed to be run by gentlemen. Gentlemen are too often in short supply.
Did SDI ("Star Wars") contribute substantially to the fall of the Soviet Union? One version says that the Soviet efforts to keep up with the (supposed) American investment bankrupted the state. Good Buddy Rush Limbaugh subscribes to this. Others too, among them Margaret Thatcher. It would be nice to find a more objective (or less idelogical) source. An article from Jane's and a book review are perhaps useful.

One does have to wonder at the powers of the various information media to manufacture and promulgate issues, to provide shorthand labels that obscure complexity ("Star Wars" is an excellent specific example of the general proclivity), and at the appetite of folks for such shenanigans passing as analysis.

2 July
But how are incoming freshmen, born in 1979 or 1980, to connect with the world Dyson writes about, with opposed superpowers as the main dynamic? It's real for us, and it's history for them (as is the WWII military strategy stuff for me, but not for Dyson). Of course that in itself IS something to talk about, but the burden of Dyson's argument is for older ears I think.

On the other hand, his point that information is the vital component, the sine qua non, is well worth considering from all vantage points, including military history.

The Austria/Germany chapter seems pretty much beside the point as anything but an historical quizzicality, in the light of the reunification of Germany.

Technological transitions (from less to more powerful, from more to less powerful) are indeed of interest in the broader sweep of history, the sort of wide-angle view we'd like to encourage in liberal arts education. Perrin's Giving Up the Gun: Japan's reversion to the sword, 1543-1879 (Leyburn Library DS868.2 .P47) is an especial gem ("...a gun made a peasant the equal of a Samurai...")

The Nuclear Winter controversy does permit Dyson to discuss the dilemmas of the scientific and the humanistic ("What does a scientist do when science and humanity pull in opposite directions?" [259]): h>s, or truth-first, or reserve judgement ("it is good to be honest but it is often better to be silent" [260]). Creating "wave[s] of moral outrage" is often enough an effective tactic, but in the long run may not have the desired effect.

Myths are another important subject to raise: we subscribe to various of them (the pallette shifting with time) and 'believe implicitly' in our favorites, invoking them to justify action and underwrite policy. We should ask and understand how they are created, promulgated, enforced, overcome, supplanted [probably by other myths...]. The exercise of "distancing ourselves from our own myths and entering into [those of others]" (266) is a pretty tall order, but extremely valuable in responsible tending of world view. RESPECT for the views of others is hard-won and all too rare.

"Technology is a gift of God." This sentence strikes me as unnecessary and even misleading. Technology is a HUMAN invention. One might better say that it's a "gift of the gods" in the mythic sense, nodding to that thief Prometheus, but the long and glorious history of HUMAN inventiveness is slighted by the reference to an undefined God.

The 21st Century chapter presents the question of what one should DO to prepare for the uncertainties and technological upshots of the next 50-odd years. If this period is to be "a period of transition between the metal-and-silicon technology of today and the enzyme-and-nerve technology of tomorrow" (286), is it clear what one 'should' study? How should one go about maximizing flexibility, to deal with "an unfolding of weird and improbable patterns" (287)