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F. Dyson Heretical Thoughts about Science and Society


V. A. Rubakov. Professor Freeman Dyson was born in 1923 in the United Kingdom. During World War Two, not serving in the army, he nevertheless worked for the Royal Air Force, and immediately after the war, in 1945, he received a bachelor’s degree from Cambridge University, UK. After that, he worked at Cornell University, from 1947 together with the physicists Hans Bethe and Richard Feynman, an in 1951 he was, having no PhD (that’s our candidate of sciences degree), employed as professor at Cornell University. That’s what those years were like: people quickly got wonderful results and, accordingly, made their careers in the academia.

Since 1953, Professor Dyson is professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton; he is honorary professor now. And he is one of the creators of quantum electrodynamics, and the whole quantum field theory, the area of science that describes the physics of elementary particles, very well confirmed by experiments. For instance, in 1949 he showed that the different formulations of the quantum field theory, then quantum electrodynamics, proposed by Tomonaga and, independently, by Schwinger, Feynman, that these formulations in fact describe the same theory. And this is how quantum electrodynamics was formulated. Of course, he has also greatly contributed to the renormalization theory (there is such a technical term in this field of science). And as for the Dyson–Schwinger equations, they are also known, they are intensely used to this very day; they are one of the cornerstones of quantum field theory.

I have to say that his scientific interests were very broad, both at that time and later; he studied both condensed matter theory and ferromagnetism, worked in astrophysics, in biology; produced some well-known purely mathematical publications, and, like many people of that time, he had the opportunity to work at different aspects of the usage of atomic power.

Well, and among the young people of today, Freeman Dyson is probably known also, and maybe even mostly, as a philosopher, as a theoretician in the search for extraterrestrial civilizations, as a theoretician of the study of space. He is the author of many popular books on science, scientists, and their role in society. It should be noted that his ideas are always — it is not the first time that I hear a talk by Freeman Dyson — his ideas are always original, interesting, and provocative in the best sense

Concluding this introduction, I have to say that he is a fellow of the Royal Society of the UK, a fellow of the American Physical Society, a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA; he received numerous awards, prizes, honorary titles of many universities. For instance, in Russia he was awarded the Pomeranchuk Prize in 2003.

So, it is my great pleasure to invite you to listen to this talk.


F. Dyson Heretical Thoughts about Science and Society


English 1 — that's wrong, I'm sorry, but we are not going to talk anything about physics or mathematics. That was a mistake. Also, I am sorry that I have to talk English: I am so ignorant I don't know enough Russian to talk to a cat.

So, I begin the talk. It is just a talk about life in general, not about science, not about physics. The best I can do. It's no good if you are old to compete with the young people. They are much brighter than we are. They are the ones who knew science. For old people, we are philosophers, young people are scientists. That's how the world goes.

1. The Need for Heretics

F. Dyson Heretical Thoughts about Science and Society


I am grateful to the Dynasty Foundation and to Anna Piotrovskaya in particular for inviting me here to talk about the future. But I should say at the start that as a scientist I do not have much faith in predictions. Science is organized unpredictability. What scientists do is to arrange things in an experiment to be as unpredictable as possible, and then do the experiment to see what will happen. You might say that if something is predictable then it is not science. So, when I am making predictions, I am not speaking as a scientist. Today I will be speaking as a story-teller and my predictions will be science-fiction rather than science. The predictions of science-fiction writers are notoriously inaccurate. Their purpose is to imagine what might happen rather than to describe what will happen. My purpose is to tell stories that challenge the prevailing dogmas of today. The prevailing dogmas may be right, but they still need to be challenged. I am proud to be a heretic.

I apologize for talking about all these problems from an American point of view. I know very well that the problems facing Russia are different. But I also know that I am profoundly ignorant of Russian circumstances today, and so I will not to be so foolish as to try to tell you, Russians, how to deal with Russian problems.

2. Land Management and Climate

In this talk I am promoting five heresies. My first heresy says that all the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated. Here I am opposing the holy brotherhood of climate model experts and the crowd of deluded citizens who believe the numbers predicted by the climate models. Of course, they say, I have no degree in meteorology and l am therefore not qualified to speak. But I have studied the climate models and I know what they can do. The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics, and they do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields and farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in. The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand. It is much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building and run models on computers, than to put on winter clothes and measure what is really happening outside in the swamps and the clouds. That is why the climate model experts end up believing their own models.

There is no doubt that parts of the world are getting warmer. I am not saying that the warming does not cause problems. Obviously it does. Obviously we should be trying to understand it better. I am saying that the problems are grossly exaggerated. They take away money and attention from other problems that are more urgent and more important, such as poverty, infectious diseases, public education, public health, and the preservation of living creatures on land and in the oceans, not to mention the most important problem of all, the problems of war and peace and nuclear weapons, which I will talk about.

I'll talk about the global warming problem, just a little, because it is interesting, even though its importance is exaggerated. To understand the movement of carbon through the atmosphere and biosphere in detail, we need to measure a lot of numbers. I do not want to confuse you with a lot of numbers, so I will ask you to remember just one number. The number that I ask you to remember is one third of a millimeter per year. Now I will explain what this number means. Consider the half of the land area of the earth that is not desert or ice-cap or city or road or parking-lot. This is the half of the land that is covered with soil and supports vegetation of one kind or another, either farmland, or forests, or swamp. Every year, this half of the land absorbs and converts into biomass a certain fraction of the carbon dioxide that we emit into the atmosphere. We don't know how big a fraction it absorbs, since we have not measured the increase or decrease of the biomass. Biomass means either living creatures or the remains of living creatures which have died. The number that I ask you to remember — that one third of a millimeter per year — is the increase in thickness, averaged over one half of the land area of the planet, of the biomass that would result if all the carbon that we are emitting by burning fossil fuels were absorbed. The average increase in thickness is one third of a millimeter per year.

The point of this calculation is the very favorable rate of exchange between carbon in the atmosphere and carbon in the soil. To stop the carbon in the atmosphere from increasing, we only need to grow the biomass in the soil by a third of a millimeter per year. Good topsoil contains about ten percent of biomass, so a third of a millimeter of biomass growth means about three millimeters per year of topsoil. Changes in farming practices such as farming without plowing cause biomass to grow at least as fast as this. If we plant crops without plowing the soil, more of the biomass goes into roots which stay in the soil, and less returns to the atmosphere. If we use genetic engineering to put more biomass into roots, we can probably achieve much more rapid growth of soil. So I conclude from this little calculation that the problem of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere is a problem of land management, not a problem of meteorology. No computer model of the atmosphere and the ocean can hope to predict the way we shall manage our land.

Instead of calculating world-wide averages of biomass growth, we might prefer to look at the problem locally. Consider a possible future, with China continuing to develop an industrial economy based largely on the burning of coal, and the United States deciding to absorb the resulting carbon dioxide by increasing the biomass in our soil. The quantity of biomass that can be used — accumulated — in living plants and trees is limited, but there is no limit to the quantity that can be stored in soil. To grow soil on a massive scale may or may not be practical, depending on the economics of genetically engineered crop-plants. It is at least a possibility to be seriously considered, that China could become rich by burning coal, while the United States could become environmentally virtuous by accumulating soil, with the transport of carbon from the mine in China to the soil in America provided free of charge by the atmosphere, and the inventory of carbon in the atmosphere remaining constant. We should take such possibilities into account when we listen to predictions about climate change and fossil fuels. If biotechnology takes over the planet in the next fifty years, as computer technology has taken it over in the last fifty years, the rules of the climate game will be radically changed.


F. Dyson Heretical Thoughts about Science and Society


When I listen to the public debates about climate change, I am impressed by the enormous gaps in our knowledge, the sparseness of our observations, and the superficiality of our theories. Many of the basic processes of planetary ecology are poorly understood. They must be better understood before we can reach an accurate diagnosis of the present condition of our planet. When we are trying to take care of a planet, just as when we are taking care of a human patient, diseases must be diagnosed before they can be cured. We need to observe and measure what is going on in the biosphere.

Everyone agrees that the increasing abundance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has two important consequences, one climatic and the other not climatic. First, there is a change in the physics of radiation transport in the atmosphere, and second, a change in the biology of plants on the ground and in the ocean. Opinions differ on the relative importance of the physical and the biological effects, and on whether the effects, either separately or together, are beneficial or harmful. The physical effects are seen in changes of rainfall, cloudiness, wind-strength and temperature, which are customarily lumped together in the misleading phrase “global warming”. In humid air, the effect of carbon dioxide on radiation transport is unimportant because the transport of thermal radiation is already blocked by the much larger greenhouse effect of water vapor. The effect of carbon dioxide is important where the air is dry, and the air is usually dry only where it is cold. The warming effect of carbon dioxide is strongest where air is cold and dry, mainly in the arctic rather than in the tropics, mainly in winter rather than in summer, and mainly at night rather than in daytime. The warming is real enough, but it is mostly making cold places warmer rather than making hot places hotter. To represent this local warming by a global average is farther than to be misleading.

The real reason why carbon dioxide abundance in the atmosphere is critically important to biology is that there is so little of it. A field of maize or other crop plants growing in full sunlight in the middle of the day uses up all the carbon dioxide within one meter of the ground in about five minutes. If the air were not constantly stirred by convection currents and winds, the maize would stop growing. About a tenth of all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is converted into biomass every summer and given back to the atmosphere every fall. That is why the effects of fossil-fuel burning cannot be separated from the effects of plant growth and decay. There are five reservoirs of carbon that are biologically accessible on a short time-scale, not counting the carbonate rocks and the deep ocean which are only accessible on a time-scale of thousands of years. The five accessible reservoirs are the atmosphere, the land plants, the soil in which land plants grow, the surface layer of the ocean in which ocean plants grow, and our proved reserves of fossil fuels. The atmosphere is the smallest of these reservoirs and the fossil fuels are the largest, but all five are of comparable size. They all interact strongly with one another. To understand any of them, it is necessary to understand all of them. We do not know whether intelligent land-management could increase the growth of the soil reservoir by four billion tons of carbon per year, the amount needed to stop the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. All that we can say for sure is that this is a theoretical possibility and ought to be seriously explored.

Most of the technical discussion that I have seen about the science and economics of global warming misses the main point. The main point is religious rather than scientific. There is a world-wide secular religion which we may call environmentalism, holding that we are stewards of the earth, that despoiling the planet with waste products of our luxurious living is a sin, and that the path of righteousness is to live as frugally as possible. The ethics of environmentalism are being taught to children in kindergartens, schools and colleges all over the world. Environmentalism has replaced socialism as the leading secular religion. And the ethics of environmentalism are fundamentally sound. Scientists and economists can agree with Buddhist monks and Christian activists that ruthless destruction of natural habitats is evil and careful preservation of birds and butterflies is good. The world-wide community of environmentalists holds the moral high-ground, and is guiding human societies toward a hopeful future. Environmentalism, as a religion of hope and respect for nature, is here to stay. This is a religion we can all share, whether or not we believe that global warming is harmful.

Unfortunately, the environmental movement has adopted as an article of faith the belief that global warming is the greatest threat to the ecology of the planet. That is why the arguments about global warming have become bitter and passionate. The public has come to believe that anyone who is skeptical about the dangers of global warming is an enemy of the environment. The skeptics like me now have the difficult task of convincing the public that the opposite is true. Many of the skeptics are passionate environmentalists. They are horrified to see the obsession with global warming distracting public opinion from much more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet. For example, one of the truly serious threats to the environment is unchecked human population growth. But there is a strong positive correlation between rising wealth of human populations and falling birth-rates.

During the second half of the twentieth century, while Mexico became rich, the average Mexican family-size fell from seven children to two and a half. Family-size in prosperous European countries such as Ireland and Italy has fallen even faster. The quickest way to stabilize the world population and preserve the planet is to make everyone rich. Rich countries generally have stable or diminishing populations and they can better afford to care for the environment. As Bertold Brecht remarked in his Threepenny Opera long ago, “Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral”, “First comes feeding, then comes morality”. The worst thing for the environment is to have a growing, hungry and impoverished human population trying to live on the land without help of industrial technology. When Chinese and Indian governments give the fight against poverty higher priority than the fight against global warming, they are morally as well as scientifically right.

So that's enough about the first heresy, the unimportance of global worming.

3. The Wet Sahara

Second heresy, the mystery of the wet Sahara. This is a mystery that has always fascinated me. At many places in the Sahara desert that are now dry and unpopulated, we find rock-paintings showing people with herds of animals. The paintings are abundant and of amazing artistic quality, comparable with the more famous cave-paintings in France and Spain. The Sahara paintings are more recent than the cave-paintings. They come in a variety of styles and were probably painted over a period of several thousand years. The latest of them show Egyptian influence and must be contemporaneous with early Egyptian tomb paintings. Henri Lhote's book, “The Search for the Tassili Frescoes”, which was published in 1958, 50 years ago, has marvelous reproductions of fifty of the paintings. The best of the paintings date from roughly six thousand years ago. They are strong evidence that the Sahara at that time was wet. There was enough rain to support herds of cows and giraffes, which must have grazed on grass and trees. There were also some hippopotamuses and elephants. The Sahara then must have been like the Serengeti today.


F. Dyson Heretical Thoughts about Science and Society


At the same time, roughly six thousand years ago, there were deciduous forests in northern Russia where the trees are now conifers, proving that the climate in the far north was much milder than it is today. There were also trees standing in mountain valleys in Switzerland which are now filled with famous glaciers. The glaciers that are now shrinking were much smaller six thousand years ago than they are today. Six thousand years ago seems to have been the warmest and wettest period of the interglacial era that began twelve thousand years ago when the last Ice Age ended. I would like to ask two questions. First, if the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is allowed to continue, shall we arrive at a climate similar to the climate of six thousand years ago when the Sahara was wet? And second, if we could choose between the climate of today with a dry Sahara and the climate of six thousand years ago with a wet Sahara, should we prefer the climate of today? So my second heresy answers yes to the first question and no to the second. It says the warm climate of six thousand years ago with the wet Sahara is to be preferred, and that increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere may help to bring it back. I am not saying that that heresy is true, I don't know. I am only saying that it will not do us any harm to think about it.

4. The Domestication of Biotechnology

Third heresy, the domestication of biotechnology. Fifty years ago in Princeton, I watched the mathematician John von Neumann designing and building the first electronic computer that operated with instructions coded into the machine, that is to say with software. Von Neumann did not invent the electronic computer, but he did invent software. The computer called ENIAC had been running at the University of Pennsylvania five years sooner. It was the combination of electronic hardware with punch-card software that allowed a single machine to predict weather, to simulate the evolution of populations of living creatures, and to test the feasibility of hydrogen bombs. Von Neumann understood that his invention would change the world. He understood that the descendants of his machine would dominate the operations of science and business and government. But he imagined computers always remaining large and expensive. He imagined them as centralized facilities serving large research laboratories or large industries. He failed to foresee computers growing small enough and cheap enough to be used by housewives for doing income-tax returns or by children for doing homework. He failed to foresee the final domestication of computers as toys for three-year-olds. He totally failed to foresee the emergence of computer-games as a dominant feature of twenty-first-century life. Because of computer-games, our grandchildren are now growing up with an indelible addiction to computers. For better or for worse, in sickness or in health, till death do us part, humans and computers are now joined together more durably than husbands and wives.


F. Dyson Heretical Thoughts about Science and Society


What has this story of von Neumann's computer and the evolution of computer-games got to do with biotechnology? Simply this, that there is a close analogy between von Neumann's vision of computers as large centralized facilities and the public perception of genetic engineering today as an activity of large pharmaceutical and agribusiness corporations such as Monsanto. The public distrusts Monsanto because Monsanto likes to put genes for poisonous pesticides into food-crops, just as we distrusted von Neumann because von Neumann liked to use his computer for designing hydrogen bombs. It is likely that genetic engineering will remain unpopular and controversial so long as it remains a centralized activity in the hands of large corporations.

But I see a bright future for the biotechnical industry when it follows the path of the computer industry, the path that von Neumann failed to foresee, becoming small and domesticated rather than big and centralized. The first step in this direction was already taken, when genetically modified tropical fish with new and brilliant colors appeared in pet-stores. For biotechnology to become domesticated, the next step is to become user-friendly. I recently spent a happy day at the Philadelphia Flower Show, the biggest flower show in the world, where flower-breeders from all over the world show off the results of their efforts. I have also visited the Reptile Show in San Diego, an equally impressive show displaying the work of another set of breeders. Philadelphia excels in orchids and roses, San Diego excels in lizards and snakes. The main problem for a grandparent visiting the reptile show with a grandchild is to get the grandchild somehow out of the building without actually buying a snake. Every orchid or rose or lizard or snake is the work of a dedicated and skilled breeder. There are thousands of people, amateurs and professionals, who devote their lives to this business. Now just imagine what will happen when the tools of genetic engineering become accessible to these people. There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners who will use genetic engineering to grow new varieties of roses and orchids. Also there will be kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes, to breed new varieties of pets. Breeders of dogs and cats will have their kits too.

Genetic engineering, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops, which the big corporations prefer. New lineages will proliferate to replace those which monoculture farming and industrial development have destroyed. Designing genomes will be a personal thing, a new art-form as creative as painting or sculpture. Few of the new creations will be masterpieces, but all will bring joy to their creators and variety to our fauna and flora.

The final step in the domestication of biotechnology will be biotech games, designed like computer games for children down to kindergarten age, but played with real eggs and seeds rather than with images on a screen. Playing such games, kids will acquire an intimate feeling for the organisms that they are growing. The winner could be the kid whose seed grows the prickliest cactus, or the kid whose egg hatches the cutest dinosaur. These games will be messy and possibly dangerous. Rules and regulations will be needed to make sure that our children do not endanger themselves and others.


F. Dyson Heretical Thoughts about Science and Society


If domestication of biotechnology is the wave of the future, five important questions need to be answered. First, can it be stopped? Second, ought it to be stopped? Third, if stopping it is either impossible or undesirable, what are the appropriate limits which our society must impose on it? Fourth, how should the limits be decided? Fifth, how should the limits be enforced, nationally or internationally? In considering each of these questions, it would be helpful to keep in mind the analogy between computer technology and biotechnology. The majority of people using domesticated biotechnology to cause trouble will probably be small fry, like the young computer hackers who spread computer viruses around on the internet. On the other hand, there is a big difference between a computer virus and a real virus like influenza or HIV. If we allow kids to play around with roses and snakes, we still have to stop them from playing around with viruses.

So, that's enough about biotechnology.

5. The Darwinian Interlude

My fourth heresy — it's another heresy about biology — is called Open Source Biology. It says that the human development of Open Source software may be recapitulating in a few decades the history of life on earth over billions of years, overaccelerating evolution by a huge factor.

Carl Woese is the world's greatest expert in the field of microbial taxonomy, that is the evolution of microbes. He explored the ancestry of microbes by tracing the similarities and differences between their genomes. He discovered the large-scale structure of the tree of life, with all living creatures descended from three primordial branches. He published a provocative and illuminating article with the title, “A New Biology for a New Century,” in the June 2004 issue of Microbiology Review. His main theme is the obsolescence of reductionist biology as it has been practiced for the last hundred years, and the need for a new synthetic biology based on communities and eco-systems rather than on genes and molecules. Aside from his main theme, he raises another profoundly important question: When did Darwinian evolution begin? By Darwinian evolution he means as Darwin understood it, based on the competition for survival of non-interbreeding species. He presents evidence that Darwinian evolution did not go back to the beginning of life. The comparison of genomes of ancient lineages of living creatures shows strong evidence of massive transfers of genetic information from one lineage to another. In early times, the process which he calls Horizontal Gene Transfer, the sharing of genes between unrelated species, was prevalent. It becomes more prevalent, the further back you go in time.

Whatever Carl Woese writes, even in a speculative vein, needs to be taken seriously. In his “New Biology” article, he is postulating a golden age of pre-Darwinian life, when horizontal gene transfer was universal and separate species did not exist. Life was then a community of cells of various kinds, sharing their genetic information by means of viruses so that clever chemical tricks and catalytic processes invented by one creature could be inherited by all of them. Evolution was a communal affair, the whole community advancing in metabolic and reproductive efficiency as the genes of the most efficient cells were shared. Evolution could be rapid, as new chemical devices could be evolved simultaneously by cells of different kinds working in parallel and then reassembled in a single cell by horizontal gene transfer. But then, one evil day, a cell resembling a primitive bacterium happened to find itself one jump ahead of its neighbors. That cell, anticipating Bill Gates by three billion years, separated itself from the community and refused to share. Its offspring became the first species, reserving its intellectual property for its own private use. With its superior efficiency it continued to prosper and to evolve separately, while the rest of the community continued its communal life. Some millions of years later, another cell separated itself from the community and became a second species. And so it went on, until nothing was left of the community, except perhaps the viruses, and all life was divided into species. The Darwinian interlude had begun.


F. Dyson Heretical Thoughts about Science and Society


F. Dyson Heretical Thoughts about Science and Society


Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over. It was an interlude between two periods of horizontal gene transfer. The epoch of Darwinian evolution based on competition between species ended about ten thousand years ago when a single species, Homo sapiens, began to dominate and reorganize the biosphere. Since that time, cultural evolution has replaced biological evolution as the main driving force of change. Cultural evolution is not Darwinian. Cultures spread by horizontal transfer of ideas more than by genetic inheritance. Cultural evolution is running a thousand times faster than Darwinian evolution, taking us into a new era of cultural interdependence which we call globalization. And now, in the last thirty years, Homo sapiens has revived the ancient pre-Darwinian practice of horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals. blurring the boundaries between species. We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species will no longer exist, Open Source principles will govern the exchange of genes, and the evolution of life will again be communal. That is my fourth heresy.

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. The ethanol program fails to reduce emissions and incidentally hurts poor people all over the world by raising the price of land. After we have mastered biotechnology, the rules of the climate game will be radically changed.

6. Nuclear Weapons

Finally, the last heresy, nuclear weapons, which, to my mind, is in fact the most important. My fifth heresy says the number one danger to ourselves and to the environment is nuclear weapons, and our first priority should be to get rid of them as fast as possible. I left this heresy until last, but to me it is number one. I have been preaching it for at least twenty-five years, and I am still preaching it today. The world has changed drastically in the last twenty-five years. Some of the changes were for the better and some were for the worse. The best change, one that I had not dreamed would be possible, was the peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union. The worst change, one that I had also not dreamed of, was the launching by the United States of a preventive war. As a result of these changes, the way people think about nuclear weapons has changed, but the essential dangers of nuclear weapons and the possible remedies have hardly changed at all.

Now people are mostly worrying about nuclear weapons belonging to Iran or North Korea or Pakistan, countries which they call “rogue states,” or nuclear weapons belonging to terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. They call this the problem of nuclear proliferation. It is a real problem, and it has been a real problem for fifty years. But it is not a problem that we can solve by ourselves. The main problem for us, the problem that is in out power to solve, is our own weapons. We have, between us, about ten thousand nuclear weapons, enough to wipe out a large fraction of the world population. The Russian Federation has about as many as the Americans. Other countries much less. These vast accumulations of weapons are far more dangerous to the world as a whole than the small numbers available to Iran or Pakistan. People complain that the Russians are sloppy in taking care of their nuclear weapons, but I will never forget the time I walked into a room in one of our nuclear weapon storage sites and found forty-one hydrogen bombs lying around on the floor, not even tied down. I counted them carefully, and made sure there were forty-one. I wondered if anyone would have noticed if one or two had been missing. So, there is some sloppiness on our side too.


F. Dyson Heretical Thoughts about Science and Society


There are two ways to talk about nuclear weapons. You can talk about religion and morality, saying that nuclear weapons are uniquely evil because they are weapons of genocide, an offense against God, and we have a moral and religious duty to get rid of them. Or you can talk about hard-boiled military requirements, saying that nuclear weapons are ineffective from practical point of view. I shall skip the religious argument, assuming you all have heard it and more or less agree that nuclear weapons in principle are evil. So I will concentrate on the military argument, to convince you that nuclear weapons are useless for the business of winning wars. There is nothing sensible we can do with our own nuclear weapons to stop Iran or North Korea or Pakistan from having nuclear weapons too. Our own nukes are useless for any sane military purpose. The basic problem, when we are trying to use nuclear weapons to win a war against a poor country, is that we have all good military targets while they have very few. With nuclear weapons we can kill large numbers of people and make sure that the survivors will view us with enduring hatred, but that does not mean we have won the war.

I conclude that one of the primary aims of our foreign policy should be to get rid of nuclear weapons altogether. We must understand that the words “get rid” are misleading. We can never know for sure that our enemies or our friends are not hiding a stockpile of weapons somewhere. Nuclear warheads are notoriously easy to hide. When we say “get rid of nuclear weapons,” what we mean is that they are legally prohibited, in the same way that biological weapons are now legally prohibited. That means that all remaining weapons must be clandestine, hidden away, without any large and conspicuously deployed delivery systems. And it means that we know for sure that our own weapons are gone. In my opinion the removal of our own weapons would make the world safer, even if other countries keep some of theirs. The most tempting possible targets for a surprise attack are, for example, nuclear-armed aircraft carriers, and these targets mostly belong to us. By getting rid of such targets, we substantially reduce the chances of a war beginning on the high seas or in the Persian Gulf.

There are two ways to get rid of weapons, either by unilateral action or by multilateral negotiation. Both ways have been tried, sometimes successfully, during the last fifty years. I will briefly describe four historical examples. The first example happened in 1963 when I was working at the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. The nuclear arms race was then racing toward bigger and bigger hydrogen bombs. The Soviet Union was leading with a 65-megaton bomb, advertized as a prototype for a hundred-megaton bomb. We were afraid the next step of the race would be a gigaton bomb, too big to be carried on airplanes or missiles. Gigaton bombs would be deployed in big underwater containers or unmanned submarines and would destroy coastal cities with giant tsunamis. But even the most bloodthirsty Air Force generals and Navy admirals did not want them. President Kennedy and Chairman Khrushchev negotiated the atmospheric test-ban treaty that put a stop to this madness. All future nuclear tests had to be underground. And the practical limit to the yield of an underground test is about ten megatons. After this, the arms-race ran quickly in the opposite direction, toward smaller bombs with smaller yields. But President Kennedy and Chairman Khrushchev missed the opportunity to negotiate a comprehensive test-ban that would have slowed down the nuclear arms-race much more.

My second example is the abolition of biological weapons which was done by President Nixon in 1969. This was a unilateral action, taken quietly by Nixon without any fanfare. No international negotiations and no Senate ratification process was needed. Opponents of the decision had no opportunity to raise political objections or introduce procedural delays. Nixon simply declared that the entire United States biological weapons program would be terminated and the stockpiles destroyed. This happened because the Harvard biologist Matthew Meselson owned a summer house on Cape Cod, a dacha you would have called it, next door to Henry Kissinger who was Nixon's National Security Advisor. Meselson persuaded Kissinger it was time to get rid of biological weapons, and Kissinger persuaded Nixon. At a congressional hearing, Meselson asked the army generals who were in charge of the biological weapons program, “What precisely are your plans for using these weapons?,” and the generals had no answer. The generals had to admit that, even if we were attacked with biological weapons, they did not have any realistic plan to use our own biological weapons in response. From a purely military standpoint, our own weapons were useless. Three years after Nixon's action, he negotiated the 1972 international convention making biological weapons illegal, and the Soviet Union signed the convention. The convention was unverifiable and the Soviet Union in fact kept a clandestine biological weapons program continuing. Still we were much better off with the convention than without it. The Soviet program remained hidden, with no open deployment of biological weapons. The threat of terrorist biological weapons remains, but the threat would be much worse if we still had our own biological weapon stockpiles for the terrorists to steal.

My third example of an attempt to get rid of weapons is the one that failed. In 1986, President Reagan and Chairman Gorbachev held a summit meeting in Reykjavik to negotiate an Arms Control treaty. Reagan was a passionate abolitionist who wanted to get rid of nuclear weapons altogether, and Gorbachev had similar feelings. The two of them escaped from their advisors and began talking privately. They came close to agreeing to abolish all their nuclear weapons of all kinds. There were two reasons why they failed to agree. First, both of them had official advisors who were terrified of any drastic change in the status quo. Second, Reagan was deeply attached to his Star Wars missile defense program and refused to give it up, while Gorbachev was afraid the Star Wars system could be converted to an offensive first strike mission. Gorbachev's fears were exaggerated but not unreasonable. Reagan's stubbornness about Star Wars cost him the chance to change the course of history.

The fourth example of getting rid of weapons was brilliantly successful. It happened in 1991 when George Bush Senior was American president. Two years before, Gorbachev had allowed Germany to reunify and to demolish the Berlin Wall, and the Cold War had effectively ended. President Bush decided the time had come to get rid of all the tactical nuke systems in the United States army and United States surface navy. That meant that roughly half of our total deployed weapons were removed in one afternoon by unilateral action. It was the biggest act of nuclear disarmament in history. A few years before this happened, I visited the missile cruiser Princeton in Long Beach harbor. The Princeton is named for the town where I live. It carried 98 Tomahawk cruise missiles in two big boxes, 49 with nuclear warheads and 49 non-nuclear. The captain had to be careful to remember which was which. It was an accident waiting to happen, an easy way for a nuclear war to start at sea. The army tactical nukes were equally dangerous, deployed all over the world in exposed places. Now they are all gone. The army and the surface navy are now both happy to be non-nuclear. They can do their jobs much better without the encumbrance of taking care of nuclear weapons. Nobody now wants to put the nuclear weapons back where they were. Bush was careful to time his announcement of the action to coincide with the settlement of a big lawsuit against the tobacco industry. So the American media concentrated their attention on the tobacco settlement and the nuclear disarmament slipped by unnoticed. Some time later, Gorbachev responded with a similar withdrawal of Soviet tactical nuclear weapons.


F. Dyson Heretical Thoughts about Science and Society


These four examples convince me that unilateral action is usually more effective than multilateral negotiation as a way of moving forward to drastic disarmament. Both ways should certainly be tried, both are needed. The most recent move toward nuclear abolition was started in the year 2006 by Max Kampelman, who was with Reagan at Reykjavik and served as Reagan's negotiator of these Arms Control agreements. Kampelman joined with other elder statesmen, including Henry Kissinger, William Perry, Sam Nunn, and George Schultz, who was Reagan's secretary of state, to publish a public statement calling for world-wide nuclear abolition as the goal of the United States foreign policy. They proposed to revive the Reykjavik discussion with Russia and then bring in other countries to reach a multilateral abolition agreement. In my opinion, they put far too much emphasis on verification and enforcement. It would be better to begin with unilateral moves without enforcement. A world without major open deployments of nuclear weapons would be much safer, even if Israel and Iran keep some stockpiles hidden away. There is no reasonable way to enforce an agreement if Israel and Iran do not wish to join. Every country should have the right not to join, or to withdraw after six months notice. A withdrawal clause is standard in all arms-control agreements, for very good reasons.

The main obstacle to overcome, if we are trying to convince the American public, or the Russian public, to get rid of our nuclear weapons, is the deeply held belief that nuclear weapons give us some kind of security. This belief is supported by several myths, in particular by the myth that the American nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought World War Two to an end. Recent studies by the historian Hasegawa and others have convinced me that the myth is false. The crucial evidence is contained in the Imperial rescript addressed by Emperor Hirohito to his armed forces in August 1945, ordering these forces to surrender. The rescript does not mention the nuclear bombs, it emphasizes the historical analogy between the situation in 1945 and the situation at the end of the Chinese-Japanese war in 1895. Because Hirohito knew the Japanese history very well. In 1895 Japan had defeated China and occupied Manchuria. Then the European powers led by Russia intervened and moved into Manchuria. The Russians occupied Port Arthur. The great emperor Meiji, who had modernized Japan, accepted a humiliating peace. By making a dishonorable peace with the Europeans, Meiji had kept the Russians out of Japan. The language of Hirohito's rescript shows that he had this analogy in his mind when he made the decision to surrender. His mind was primarily concerned with history and not with technology. The decisive events were not the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but the Russian declaration of war and the Russian invasion of Manchuria.

There are several other myths that need to be demolished. There is the myth that, if Hitler had acquired nuclear weapons before we did, he could have used them to conquer the world. Much more likely, if Hitler had had nuclear weapons, he would have used them to kill a large number of people in London and here in Moscow, probably including me, but our soldiers would have finished the war a year sooner by getting to Berlin in 1944 instead of 1945. There is another myth that the invention of the hydrogen bomb changed the nature of nuclear warfare. In fact, if you look at the weapons we now have in the stockpile, they are almost exactly the same as they would have been if the H-bomb had never been invented. There is the myth that international agreements to abolish weapons without perfect verification are useless. But in fact, many international agreements are unverified and even violated and are still useful. A good example is the Rush–Bagot treaty of 1817 which kept the frontier between the United States and Canada peaceful. So all those myths are false. After they are demolished, dramatic moves toward a world without nuclear weapons may become possible. But for this to happen, peace-loving citizens and hard-boiled presidents and soldiers must work together.

My time is now at an end, and I won't attempt to summarize the lessons that you may have learned from these five heresies. The main lesson l would like you to take home is that the long-range future is not predetermined. The rules of the world-historical game change from decade to decade in unpredictable ways. All our fashionable worries and all our prevailing dogmas will probably be obsolete in twenty years. My heresies will probably also be obsolete. The future is in the hands of our children and grandchildren. We should give them the freedom to find their own heresies.

Thank you.

01 декабрь 2019 /
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