Freeman Dyson is the guest on Econtalk this week. Dyson has long been one of my favourite physicists. The podcast was mostly superficial chit chat but there were some interesting moments. For example, when the host asked Dyson what he was most proud of Dyson thought about it for a moment and said it was his books. He said that even today, he’ll get emails from young people who say his that his books greatly inspired them. Dyson then went on to say that he’d mostly been a dabbler all of his life who just worked on things because they were fun so he never felt that he made a deep contribution to science. The then added that he was second most proud of was his work on Project Orion, which was to build a nuclear bomb propelled spaceship. He felt that we would already be visiting other worlds by now if the project had been allowed to be completed. However, he also noted that the environmental issue made such an idea impossible today.
The podcast only touched briefly on Dyson’s climate change skepticism, of which he has received the most attention lately. (Steve Hsu has a nice collection of posts on Dyson.) I would classify Dyson’s position more as climate change action skepticism. He doesn’t dispute that greenhouse gases can perturb the climate system, he just believes we simply don’t know enough to be able to act in a knowledgeable way. He fears that any action we take could have more severe consequences. For example, a tax on carbon could slow economic growth, which could lead to more hardship than global warming. He favours proposals that have fewer risks such as increasing energy efficiency and changing farm policy to be less wasteful.
I’ve always felt that Dyson should have gotten a Nobel prize for his work on QED. Silvan Schweber’s book QED and the Men Who Made It, is partly a tribute to Dyson’s under-appreciated contribution. Dyson didn’t get it in 1965 with Feynman, Schwinger and Tomonaga because the Nobel prize is limited to three people. I thought that the ideal time to give it to him retroactively was in 1999 when t’Hooft and Veltman received it for renormalization in electroweak theory. The prize could have been generalized to renormalization in QED and electroweak theory. However, one could argue that this would then exclude other important contributors like Fadeev and Popov. This all then goes back to my other idea of abolishing the Nobel prize entirely since results never exit in pure isolation.