Disturbing the Universe, by Freeman Dyson

You know how there are some books that you walk out of totally convinced that if only everyone read that book, maybe the world and all of humanity could be saved from itself? The kind of book that makes you want to drop everything and become a high school English teacher just so that you can make the greatest number of people possible to take a crack at it? I finished one such book recently, which I picked up in the second-hand bookstore across from the Conrad Centre in KW. Freeman Dyson's Disturbing The Universe is the kind of book that defies explanation. It isn't about anything, really. Well, it's autobiographical, but only in the sense that Dyson's life has encompassed so many experiences and thoughts that it is the best springboard he has for a general discussion of all of the things that are. I first heard of the Dyson family through George Dyson, Freeman's son, who wrote a book (which I read on the recommendation found in an article by Neal Stephenson) called Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship. This book is in part based on the experiences of his father, who worked on the project, and is fascinating in a "how on earth have I never heard of this before????" kind of way. Disturbing the Universe touches on Orion, as well as Freeman Dyson's work during the second world war (not on the Manhattan Project, although he fell in with that crowd very shortly afterwards), space travel in general, the implications of advances in biology, and many more subjects which are always treated in discussion with reference to objects of art, which is unusual and refreshing for a book written by a physicist. This is perhaps not surprising, though, for Freeman Dyson's father-- also named George-- was a composer and the Director of the Royal College of Music during the war (and responsible for keeping it open for the duration of the war, against the wishes of the government.) Although I admit I haven't made a thorough study of his music, I was quite struck by his Concerto da Chiesa for string orchestra, which opens with a fantasy on the chant Veni, Veni Emmanuel (in my opinion the only piece of Christmas music used in the United Church of Canada that still retains a shred of dignity).

So much for the background. There is very little to say about the actual content of Disturbing the Universe save that, as with all great books, you have to read it if you actually want to know what it's about; if it could be summarized efficiently what need would one have for the whole book?

Perhaps you could have some use for this mystifying tidbit from it, typical of Dyson's accounts of his interactions with his fellow distinguished physicists:

“The first time I met Teller was in March 1949, when I talked to the physicists at the University of Chicago about the radiation theories of Schwinger and Feynman. I diplomatically gave high praise to Schwinger and then explained why Feynman’s methods were more useful and more illuminating. At the end of the lecture, the chairman called for questions from the audience. Teller asked the first question: ‘What would you think of a man who cried “There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet”, and then at once drank down a great tankard of wine?’ Since I remained speechless, Teller answered the question himself: ‘I would consider the man a very sensible fellow’.”

Can't argue with that kinda logic.

Happy Easter!