Infinite in All Directions

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

The Gifford Lectureships, according to the will of Adam Gifford (1820-1887), the Scottish judge whose bequest established them, are intended “for promoting, advancing, teaching, and diffusing the study of natural theology, in the widest sense of that term, in other words, the knowledge of God” and “of the foundations of ethics.” Important philosophical works such as William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (1929), and Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (1958), each of which was first presented in a Gifford Lecture series, show the broad range of material that can be included under Lord Gifford’s stipulations.

Freeman J. Dyson’s Infinite in All Directions: Gifford Lectures Given at Aberdeen, Scotland, April-November 1985, continues the Gifford tradition, although at a different level and with different intent. Dyson characterizes the Gifford Lectures as “an occasion for an elderly theologian or scientist to express in polished prose the sum total of his life’s wisdom,” and then declines to claim for himself any equality with his predecessors or propose any single, extensive argument. Instead, he offers a two-part series of essays on the theme “In Praise of Diversity,” the general title of the Aberdeen lectures. The first part, “Life in the Universe,” considers life as a scientific phenomenon; the second, “People and Machines,” considers the ethical and political implications of modern technology.

Dyson’s career has prepared him well to range over these vast regions. Since 1953, while a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, he has conducted research in theoretical physics and has served as an adviser and consultant to the United States Department of Defense and to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency; he has also written and spoken widely about the peculiar dilemmas of the nuclear age and about the ethical problems and concerns of nuclear warfare strategies. The underlying optimism of his earlier books Disturbing the Universe (1979) and Weapons and Hope (1984) pervades the present text, clearly qualified, however, by a sense of the gravity and urgency of these ethical considerations.

In the first three essays of part 1, Dyson analyzes two kinds of scientific activity and their results. One kind attempts to reduce all phenomena to a single explanatory hypothesis; scientists of this kind, whom Dyson characterizes as “unifiers,” have included such intellectual titans as Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, and Albert Einstein. The other kind, concerned with concrete solutions to pragmatic problems, recognize the complexity of the universe without attempting to dissolve it; these scientists, generally less well-known than the others, Dyson calls “diversifiers.” One of these, the German physicist Emil Wiechert, speaking before a Prussian scientific society in 1896, gave Dyson both the principal concept of the first part and a phrase for the title of the book as a whole:So far as modern science is concerned, we have to abandon completely the idea that by going into the realm of the small we shall reach the ultimate foundations of the universe. I believe we can abandon this idea without any regret. The universe is infinite in all directions, not only above us in the large but also below us in the small. If we start from our human scale of existence and explore the content of the universe further and further, we finally arrive, both in the large and in the small, at misty distances where first our senses and then even our concepts fail us.

Throughout these chapters, Dyson explores the ways in which awareness of diversity enriches both the understanding of science and the conception of the human place in the cosmos.

While the dichotomy in scientific activity is neither strictly logical nor necessary, the history of post-Newtonian science and modern industry suggests its validity in practice, which Dyson demonstrates in the second and third chapters. These chapters examine particular instances of the dichotomy to show how the “diversifying” pole surprises investigators with clear but unexpected explanations of phenomena. In the second chapter, for example, Dyson reviews three “unifying” concepts: superstrings (a highly abstract, mathematical theory of the infinitesimally small elements of physical reality); black holes (collapsed stars of progressively smaller volume and larger mass); and the Oort Cloud of comets associated with the solar system. Each of these concepts has roots in abstract theory but ramifies into practical consequences, showing that the scientific imagination may predict, ahead of concrete evidence, coherent interactions of apparently unrelated phenomena; explanation based on such predictions is the main business of “unifying” science. In contrast, the fourth and last concern of the chapter, the life history of the monarch butterfly, presents the “diversifying” pole of scientific activity in the immediate, tangible, familiar but unanswered questions of the butterfly’s development and migration....

(The entire section is 2138 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 7)

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Natural History. XCVII, June, 1988, p. 30.

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The New York Times Book Review. XCIII, July 24, 1988, p. 24.

Time. CXXXI, March 21, 1988, p. 75.

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