Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXII, No. 47
 
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
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Freeman Dyson Debunks Dire Forecasts on Global Warming and Other Tenets

Ellen Gilbert

Freeman Dyson gets around. Last Wednesday, for example, the 85-year-old “retired” physicist regaled a lunchtime audience at the Nassau Club with his “heretical” ideas about global warming. Just a few hours later he could be found once again sharing his thoughts on global warming, as well as on intelligent design, nuclear warfare, extraterrestrial life, and HAR-1 (a DNA component that distinguishes human beings from other animals) with a standing-room-only crowd at Labyrinth Books.

Mr. Dyson’s credentials are venerable: the British-born scholar received a BA from the University of Cambridge in 1945, and was, from 1953 until his retirement in 1994, a physics professor at the Institute for Advanced Study. The absence of a PhD in his resume has been more than compensated for by the 21 honorary degrees he has received over the years.

He seems happiest, however, when he is working at being the rebel, and indeed, one of his books, a compilation of essays published earlier in The New York Review of Books, is called The Scientist as Rebel. Wearing an effusively-colored tie that set off his gray suit, Mr. Dyson began his talk at the Nassau Club by encouraging the audience to interrupt him as he spoke, since, he declared, “it’s much more fun to have an argument than do a monologue.”

In the absence of audience interruptions, Mr. Dyson had an argument anyway with the scores of people (like Al Gore) who weren’t present to defend their belief in the dire consequences of global warming. (“There’s no accounting for human folly,” Mr. Dyson said when asked about Mr. Gore’s Nobel Prize.) Saying that on a recent trip he and his wife found Greenlanders to be delighted with their warmer climate and increased tourism, Mr. Dyson suggested that representing “local warming by a global average is misleading.” In his comments at both the Nassau Club and Labyrinth, he decried the use of computer modeling to make “tremendously dogmatic” predictions about worldwide trends, without acknowledging the “messy, muddy real world” and the non-climatic effects of increased carbon dioxide. “There is no substitute for widely-conducted field operations over a long time,” he told the Nassau Club audience, citing the “enormous gaps in knowledge and sparseness of observation” that characterize the work of global warming experts.

Mr. Dyson’s fearless commentary continued later at Labyrinth, where, standing for over an hour and without a microphone, he delighted a full house by declaring the existence of 10,000 string theorists to be “sociologically dangerous” (“one thousand would be enough”), and balked at an audience member’s query about what he would do with a $700 billion grant. “When science gets rich it becomes political,” he observed. As an example of the most expensive efforts not necessarily being the most worthwhile, he pointed to CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, the subject of much recent attention, noting that it was designed to identify only certain particles, losing much potentially interesting information in the process. “The important things are the ones you don’t expect,” he noted.

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