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Revolutionary Visions

The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet: Tools of Scientific Revolution
September 1, 1999

During my teenage years, which precisely spanned Ronald Reagan’s presidency, reading Jonathan Schell’s morbid, spellbinding antinuclear tract The Fate of the Earth fueled my fears of nuclear war. Freeman Dyson’s Weapons and Hope provided a needed antidote. Dyson showed that it was possible to be passionate about nuclear weapons without being desperate; pro-disarmament without being unrealistic. It’s good to see that Dyson’s passion and optimism haven’t flagged. In The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet, he displays a similar childlike enthusiasm about the possibilities for humanity’s future, informed and tempered by a physicist’s understanding of the real world.

The book, which expands a series of lectures Dyson gave at the New York Public Library in 1997, is his attempt at fin-de-siecle futurology. While he admits that “experts, when they try to predict the future, are usually wrong,” he argues that models of the future, like models in science, can lead to at least partial understanding.

In Dyson’s vision, the greatest “paradigm shifts” in 21st-century life will be wrought by advances in three specific technologies: solar energy, genetic engineering and computer networks. When improvements in photovoltaic cells or biomass power generation make sunlight a cheaper source of electricity than fossil
fuels, the multitudinous rural poor will enjoy a big improvement in living standards, he predicts.Using their newly available electricity and low-orbit communications satellites, villages will be able to plug into the Internet, ending their cultural isolation and giving them new access to commerce and education.

Biotechnology enters the picture as the key to new high-efficiency energy crops, in which photosynthesis will be souped up to convert as much as 10 percent of the energy in sunlight into hydrocarbon fuel. Dyson envisions villages nestled within “permanent forests of trees that convert sunlight into liquid fuel and deliver the fuel directly through their roots to a network of underground pipelines.” By the late 21st or early 22nd centuries, Dyson speculates, biotech products such as warmblooded plants that grow their own greenhouses will enable humanity to create Earth-like environments on other worlds, beginning a vast migration to Mars, the asteroids, or the comets of the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune.

It’s been a long time since a respectable scientist voiced such grand aspirations in print, making Dyson’s book refreshing and thought-provoking, if a bit farfetched. As Dyson writes, “It is not important that we correctly identify the road before we reach it. The purpose of this book is to encourage us to search for it.”

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