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Freeman Dyson and the Pretense of Vision

Freeman Dyson is one of the more dangerous scientists alive right now.


.... The wiggles in the [Keeling] graph show us that every carbon dioxide molecule in the atmosphere is incorporated in a plant within a time of the order of twelve years. Therefore, if we can control what the plants do with the carbon, the fate of the carbon in the atmosphere is in our hands. That is what Nordhaus meant when he mentioned "genetically engineered carbon-eating trees" as a low-cost backstop to global warming. The science and technology of genetic engineering are not yet ripe for large-scale use. We do not understand the language of the genome well enough to read and write it fluently. But the science is advancing rapidly, and the technology of reading and writing genomes is advancing even more rapidly. I consider it likely that we shall have "genetically engineered carbon-eating trees" within twenty years, and almost certainly within fifty years.

Carbon-eating trees could convert most of the carbon that they absorb from the atmosphere into some chemically stable form and bury it underground. Or they could convert the carbon into liquid fuels and other useful chemicals. Biotechnology is enormously powerful, capable of burying or transforming any molecule of carbon dioxide that comes into its grasp. Keeling's wiggles prove that a big fraction of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes within the grasp of biotechnology every decade. If one quarter of the world's forests were replanted with carbon-eating varieties of the same species, the forests would be preserved as ecological resources and as habitats for wildlife, and the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would be reduced by half in about fifty years.

That's just science fiction, of course -- not the scary part at all. This is the scary part:

It is likely that biotechnology will dominate our lives and our economic activities during the second half of the twenty-first century, just as computer technology dominated our lives and our economy during the second half of the twentieth. Biotechnology could be a great equalizer, spreading wealth over the world wherever there is land and air and water and sunlight. This has nothing to do with the misguided efforts that are now being made to reduce carbon emissions by growing corn and converting it into ethanol fuel. The ethanol program fails to reduce emissions and incidentally hurts poor people all over the world by raising the price of food. After we have mastered biotechnology, the rules of the climate game will be radically changed. In a world economy based on biotechnology, some low-cost and environmentally benign backstop to carbon emissions is likely to become a reality.

Translation: "We don't need to do anything now, because we'll invent our way out of the problem when the time comes."

I suppose I should be grateful that he's no longer appointing himself global diagnostician. At least now he admits that there might be a problem.

I've been told by people I respect that Dyson is a very good physicist. But I'm hard put to recall anything outside of his domain that wasn't just plain stupid once you got past the "oh, neato" moment. I mean, Dyson Spheres are a cool idea, but also a really dumb one if you think about them just a tiny bit. They're a triumph of the broadly logically possible: We can imagine it, therefore it must be feasible. We can imagine going Niven & Pournelle one better and building a sphere around a small star (or arranging otherwise to intercept all of the star's energy). We can imagine nesting matrioshka layers one inside the other, to overlap and trap the inevitable leakage. All we have to do is solve this list of several thousand technical problems. We've solved every other technical problem we've ever been presented with; we'll clearly be able to solve these. What is conceivable, is feasible.

We can imagine magic carbon-sequestering trees, therefore they must be feasible. We can imagine a quarter of the world's trees being replaced by these magic inventions, therefore we should count on it happening (when the alternative is essentially the collapse of civilization).

All of these speculations commit an obvious and really, really troubling error: They assume that certain important things, like rate of technological innovation, rate of increate in energy use, etc., are essentially laws of nature: That not only won't they change, but that their not changing is a righteous thing. Moore's Law will go on forever; we'll keep increasing our need for energy at a predictable and increasing rate; we'll keep inventing new ways to solve all of our problems; better living through chemistry.

This kind of thinking is usually based on a detailed look at only a very short span of human history, and a very high-level gloss of anything beyond the past three or four hundred years.

It's disturbingly short sighted, in other words, even as it pretends to vision.

This is why I don't respect Dyson: He pretends to vision, but is blind to his own short-sightedness

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