Monday, April 19, 2004

Imagined Worlds

I've been meaning to post on Freeman Dyson's book Imagined Worlds for over a week. It's based on a series of lectures he delivered at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I meant to list a few of the best parts but I'd have to copy the entire book. As I mentioned in Covington's blog, Dyson wrote a few passages that obliterated all my beliefs about nuclear power.

Just a few of his points:

1. Instead of looking at science and technology as neutral or moralless, Dyson sees it as either good or evil. Good if it is used to improve the welfare of the poor. Evil if it just becomes a toy for the rich. He noted that motorcycles provided mobility for the lower classes while nuclear (fission) power, for all it's promise, basically became a plaything of power companies and politicians. (Religion can be put to the same test: feeding the poor=good; brainwashing them=evil.)

2. Technology reaches its full potential if it is allowed to fail. Nuclear power based on fission was propped up by governmental contracts to the point that it became inoperable (sadly, fusion looks to be on the same road). During the turn of the last century, air travel followed two designs, the airplane (modeled somewhat after motorcycles) and the airship (modeled directly after ocean liners). A while back I posted about the book The Wrong Stuff, the history of dead-ends in airplane design. Dyson believes these were essential. Airplane design followed a Darwinian development, some working, most failing, until what was left was successful. Airships were heavily supported by various governments.

In England, Lord Thompson, the socialist Secretary of State, wanted to build giant air ships to demonstrate the superiority of the Commonwealth, of socialism, and air ships themselves. Under his management, a huge blimp was designed to travel from London to India. Hours after it lifted off, in 1930, it crashed, killing all but six of its passengers (including Thompson). England gave up on air ships; unfortunately the Germans kept it up for a few more years.

The English tried to do the same thing with large-scale commercial air travel after WWII. Their government pushed the English Comet into production years before Boeing's 707. Unfortunately the Comet's windows were not designed to take the change in air pressure in a trans-Atlantic flight so the planes burst apart, killing everyone on board. Five years later, after slow progress, Boeing produced the 707 and the U.S. came to dominate air travel, not because of "Yankee know-how" but because Boeing was more cautious and slow-moving than the British.

2. Contrary to what Hollywood has told us, nuclear bombs will not stop a large asteroid with a collision course with earth. Machines known as mass-drivers could stop them (if we could deliver them to the asteroid on time). Dyson states that if we detect a large asteroid coming towards the earth, scheduled to hit in two years, there is really nothing we could do but stockpile food and supplies so that the survivors won't slip into a new Dark Age. (He also has a lot of information on the advances of astronomy so the outlook isn't completely grim.)

3. Scientists have detected genes that regulate the development of eyes in both mice and fruit flies. When a fly "eye" gene is implanted in various parts of a developing fly, the mature fly will grow eyes all over its body. As an experiment, scientists implanted a mouse "eye" gene in the knee of a fly. It grew an eye. A fly eye. Mammal and insect eyes are completely different so apparently the genes simply told the body "grow an eye," with all directions in other genes. Genes are apparently more abstract than anyone had guessed.

4. Dyson looks at the future ten years from now, 100 years, 1000, 10,000, 100,000, and 1,000,000. His predictions are general but are based on scientific knowledge of our past.

Allow the universe won't change, the way we experience it will.

When mankind started out as simple hunter-scavengers, we lived in a Carroll universe (named after Lewis Carroll and opposed to Newtonian or Einsteinian universes.) At this stage, both time and space are relative. You can travel as far as you can and never reach "the limits." Likewise, time is centered around your person. There is no way to even test the limitations of time.

In Newtonian universes, time is absolute but space is relative. With ships and other vehicles, we could travel around the world, making the distance between any two points on the globe relative. When we invented the telegraph and other means of communication, time became relative as well.

If we keep advancing, we will move back to a Carroll universe. Neither our abilities to communicate and travel will be able to reach the "limits." There will be places completely out of reach, barring an immortal lifespan. Perhaps some future technology will change this but it looks like our personal universes will re-align with our distant ancestors.

5. I always heard that the universe either has enough mass that it will collapse at some future date into the Big Crunch or will continue to expand forever. Neither future is rosy. Obviously no one wants to collapse into a subatomic super-dense geometric point but expanding forever means the distances between galaxies will increase until they'll be realistically out of reach. Dyson provides a third possibility: there might be just enough mass for the universe to slow its expansion and stop. If that happens, we'll still be able to keep in touch with friends in neighboring galaxies.

6. "Software for designing babies is still a small cloud on a distant horizon." Dyson touches on the advances that would allow people to design their own dogs and cats. What will we do if someone wants to "make" a dog with three heads, modeled after Cerebus? We'll have to make some decision before people begin designing their own babies.

There's an incredible much more in a fairly short book. I can't justify keeping it from the library any longer so it should be available tomorrow. It's much better than my jumbled rambles might make it seem.

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