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Disturbing The Universe (Sloan Foundation Science) [Paperback]

4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

25 Mar 1981 Sloan Foundation Science
"Disturbing the Universe is a passionate testament, one of the most remarkable self-portraits of a scientist that have ever read....

"Though this book is meant primarily for non-scientists, to acquaint them with how a scientist looks at the world, one does not have to read far to realize that this is the witness, not of a scientist representing his class, but of a unique kind of scientist, a man endowed with literary skill, with a rare capacity for humor and for introspection, with a sensitive understanding of the language of the humanist. His rich fantasy life is freely communicated in actual dreams, narrated with beautiful simplicity, that may reveal the deepest fonts of his being. Imaginative ventures into the possibilities of exploring and colonizing the universe are interspersed with vignettes of the major physicists of our time, demonstrating once again the truth of the Pascalian reflection that only the great can truly appreciate their peers". -- Frank E. Manuel, The New Republic

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Disturbing The Universe (Sloan Foundation Science) + The Scientist As Rebel (New York Review Books)
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Product details

  • Paperback: 298 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (25 Mar 1981)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465016774
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465016778
  • Product Dimensions: 20 x 13 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 377,817 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description

About the Author

Freeman Dyson is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He is the author of seven books and the recipient of numerous awards including a National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2000 Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
19 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A very well written book 22 Oct 2001
Instead of just being an ongoing account, each chapter has a theme, a point to make.
The author writes about the second World War, music, the space program, nuclear testing, the scientific engineering that produced the atom bomb and later commercial reactors. Each subject is treated from a strong moral and human standpoint, which is very unexpected from a man who on the "About the Author"-page is described as a professor of Physics at Princeton.
The book contains some revelations, at least for me. Things I didn't know and am shocked to learn now, so long after the fact. For example, page 98 quote: "...engineered safety [in a reactor] was not good enough.' He asked us to design a reactor with 'inherent safety', meaning that its safety must be guaranteed by the laws of nature and not merely by the details of its engineering. It must be safe even in the hands of an idiot clever enough to by-pass the entire control system and blow out the control rods with dynamite." The shocking information here is that such a reactor type is feasible and has been built on a small scale. But all later adopted power reactors used a design that did not live up to this standard. Why? It's cheaper to build an unsafe reactor.
He describes how the research and development of nuclear reactors, because of the large inherent dangers, very quickly moved out of the reach of amateur engineering. This also took the fun out of the research, and this meant that real research has not been taken to full results. As a consequence reactors today are by design immature and not as safe as they could be. I feel lucky that I'm personally working in a field (software engineering) where this has not happened yet and is not likely to happen soon.
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This is classic book. Dyson is an Englishman who starts his life in operational research during WW2 moving on to America after the war. His sense of the morals of war and the issue of nuclear armament are reminders that science and politics should never be far apart. One chapter relating to nuclear terrorism and particularly the measures scientists took to eventually enlighten world governments to the potential risk is an essential 'refresher' for any scientist student interested in modern politics.
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2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Disturbing the Universe review. 25 Jun 2011
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a truly interesting glimpse into how really great people think. I was 'Disturbed at the authors pacifism, since the reds still have all those nukes still pointing at us. Liberals seem to think they can act unilaterally, ignoring the thugs menacing them, just hoping the will be nice if they are nice,. Ask the afghans, hungarians, poles, jews how that really works. I was surprised by his bombing survey conclusion, but respect it, as he was there instead of me. The number of RAF aircrews with LMF was not quoted by Freeman Dyson, but was stated about the same as casualties; that would be about 30% or more. No other history book on the War has covered this. The meeting with Stanley Kubrick, then working on 2001 was very informative, Kubricks infatuation with gadgets and Keir Dulea's anger at the lack of acting. Dyson's methods for assessing the probability for extra-terrestrial life should be used instead of the current methods, which are rather too optimistic. I have read the book several times as it has hidden depths not clear if skimmed.
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Amazon.com: 4.9 out of 5 stars  25 reviews
43 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Evocative 27 Jun 2002
By Chan-Ho Suh - Published on Amazon.com
While browsing the physics books in my local Borders, I picked up this book on a whim and read the first few pages. Those pages were so powerful I immediately bought it.
Dyson begins by writing about his childhood, but even then, the reader can sense that Dyson's perspective encompasses far more than childhood events, as he mentions a favorite children's story in which the hero finds that his toys have come to life and run amuck; a constant theme in the book is that of responsibility for one's scientific discoveries.
Dyson continues with stories about his involvement in RAF Bomber Command during WWII, where he learned the ineffectualness of strategic bombing. But soon Dyson begins branching out from his personal life to address issues such as the search for extraterrestial intelligence, nuclear disarmament, and the role of science and religion.
His words are laced with compassion, as he speaks of the wrongs he has seen committed, very rarely with anger, although he has certainly more than earned that right! One thing that especially struck me over and over is the profound wisdom that this man has. This is a man who would appear a paradox: a seeker of peace yet utterly realistic, a rational scientist yet devoutly religious. You will not be able to resolve this apparent contradiction unless you read this book! And then you will want to read it again. I certainly did.
37 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Masterpiece 25 Feb 2001
By henrique fleming - Published on Amazon.com
This is the best book by Dyson, if you exclude that which contains his Selected Papers. This means a lot for me, for I rate very highly all his books, especially "Infinite in All Directions". Actually, this is one of the best books I ever read, and it influenced me a lot, for instance, in my reading of poetry. It was in this book that I discovered Yeats (recall that I am not a native English speaker). And it gave me the momentum to read, and appreciate in a quite concrete situation, the second part of Goethe's Faust. The episode of Dyson's vacations with mother and father, and the ensuing discussion on humanities vs. science, is very revealing, and helps to pinpoint the origin of the high degree of understanding and tolerance which illuminates all posterior Dyson writings, and that eventually made him win the Templeton Prize. A surprising, very moving chapter on Teller, introduced as a gifted Bach player at the piano is probably closer to the truth than everything else written on the controversial scientist. Wonderful the chapter on how to detect (large) extra-terrestrial civilizations. A book for many, many readings!
27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This book is not disturbing at all 17 Feb 2000
By D. Roberts - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book is much more autobiographical than Dyson's other works. This is also, in my opinion, his greatest work. His eloquent words bring to us the sense of wonder and the thoughtful nature of a truly magnificent scientist and person. Dyson reveals to us how his life has been influenced by his reading children stories. We get the opportunity to read his reflections on World War II, the relationship he had with Robert Oppenheimer and many other biographical tidbits which all somehow melt into an almost unexpected thematic unity. His adventures with Richard P. Feynman as well as his relationship with Edward Teller are also discussed. This amazing book explains this man's humble outlook on such subjects as nuclear war (and its impending probablity), poetry and his own unique interpretation of the inner-workings of the machinery of the universe. This is a must book for all scientists as well as people who have a passing interest in science. I would also recommend it to anyone who could not care less about science; the book is that good. Trust me.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars More Truthful than Science 22 Aug 2006
By James O. Coplien - Published on Amazon.com
I was first introduced to Freeman Dyson as a colleague and sometimes other half of Richard Feynman. I regret that during our brief meetings I never got to know him for being more than a physicist. Therefore, when I started reading this book I was expecting something akin to the biographical material on Feynman. Instead, I found not only a more richly multidimensional book, but a glimpse into the soul of a thinker for the ages and a new window into timeless issues that world news thrusts upon us every day. Dyson explores topics as diverse as his early work in physics, to his work in the nuclear disarmament programs of the Kennedy-Kruschev era, to the politics of the McCarthyist efforts against Oppenheimer, to his thoughts on what it means for a one-time Brit to become an American, to gedanken experiments about colonization of the universe. Beneath each of these topics lies a set of fundamental moral imperatives. This book is an inspiration for professionals to look beyond their profession, and beyond science, to grapple with the great human questions.

The open pages of Dyson's life, as recalled here, take the concept of "laws of nature" far beyond the realm of subatomic particle physics into the space of everyday social experience. This is a book about the development of social conscience, fueled by the ethical questions of nuclear weapons development. It is perhaps predictable that the book dwells on the questions of the morality of war, but the fresh perspectives and depth of thought on this topic kept me engaged. Reaching far beyond the role of science in war, the book extrapolates this discourse into the broader question of technology's role in a conscionable future of humanity. It is one of those uncommon writings from a "science" author that we dare call literature, both in terms of its rhetoric and in terms of its universality.

There is a small bit at the end where Dyson describes what I believe to be an overly ambitious attempt to create a unifying metaphysic of subatomic behavior and human psychology, that seemed out of character with the rest of his book. But I can forgive the author that small distraction in light. And even as strange as it is, it bounces around in my head and--as is true of many ideas from this book--has been the source of numerous thoughtful discussions with colleagues.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "I was, and have always remained, a problem solver than a creator of ideas" 19 Jan 2008
By Stephen Pletko - Published on Amazon.com

"I have collected in this book memories extending over fifty years...I am trying in this book to describe to people who are not scientists the way the human situation looks to somebody who is a scientist. Partly I shall be describing how science looks from the inside. Partly I shall be discussing the future of technology. Partly I shall be struggling with the ethical problems of war and peace, freedom and responsibility, hope and despair, as these are affected by science...

The methodology of this book is literary rather than analytical. For insight into human affairs I turn to stories and poems. [In fact, the title of this book comes from a poem by T.S. Eliot]...A substantial part of this book is autobiographical...It is not that I consider my own life particularly significant or interesting to anybody besides myself. I write about my own experiences because I do not know much about anyone else's...To understand the nature of science and its interaction with science, one must examine the individual scientist and how he confronts the world around him."

The above comes from the beginning of this fascinating book by theoretical physicist (encompassing pure mathematics, nuclear engineering, space technology, and astronomy), author, and professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University, Freeman Dyson (born 1923). He has also been awarded a number of distinguished prizes in science.

Dyson is involved in a field of pure science, but this book clearly shows that he is a man of conscience and compassion concerned with humanity's well being.

The first two parts of this book traces his years of growing up between two world wars and his early working years. Soon thereafter, while pursuing with great success--first with scientist Hans Bethe at Cornell University and then with scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer at Princeton University (and others such as scientists Richard Feynman and Edward Teller)--his own vocation of perceiving and describing the laws that run the universe, from sub-atomic particles to galaxies, he has also been continuously involved in the moral issues affecting all of us--from disarmament to the control of recombinant DNA research.

The third and last part is concerned with Dyson's "obsession with the future" and in fact, he tells the reader that "the future is my third home." It is (at least to me) an interesting section where we get to see a glimpse of the far future through the eyes of a prominent scientist.

Finally, there is only one problem I had with this book: it has no illustrations (diagrams, sketches, and pictures)! I think these would have enhanced the book's readability. (The original hardcover version of this book has a picture of Dyson on its back cover.)

In conclusion, this is a unique book that's beautifully written giving us a snapshot into the life and mind of one of the world's greatest thinkers!!

(first published 1979; author's preface; 3 parts or 24 chapters; main narrative 260 pages; bibliographical notes; index)

<<Stephen Pletko, London, Ontario, Canada>>

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