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A Many-colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe (Page-Barbour Lectures) (Page-Barbour and Richard Lecture Series) [Hardcover]

Freeman J. Dyson
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Book Description

15 Oct 2007 Page-Barbour and Richard Lecture Series
Freeman Dyson's latest book does not attempt to bring together all of the celebrated physicist's thoughts on science and technology into a unified theory. The emphasis is, instead, on the myriad ways in which the universe presents itself to us - and how, as observers and participants in its processes, we respond to it. "Life, like a dome of many-colored glass," wrote Percy Bysshe Shelley, "stains the white radiance of eternity." The author seeks here to explore the variety that gives life its beauty. Taken from Dyson's recent public lectures - delivered to audiences with no specialized knowledge in hard sciences - the book begins with a consideration of the practical and political questions surrounding biotechnology. As he seeks how best to explain the place of life in the universe, Dyson then moves from the ethical to the purely scientific. The book concludes with an attempt to understand the implications of biology for philosophy and religion. The pieces in this collection touch on numerous disciplines, from astronomy and ecology to neurology and theology, speaking to the lay reader as well as to the scientist. As always, Dyson's view of human nature and behavior is balanced, and his predictions of a world to come serve primarily as a means for thinking about the world as it is today.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 160 pages
  • Publisher: University of Virginia Press (15 Oct 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0813926637
  • ISBN-13: 978-0813926636
  • Product Dimensions: 22.2 x 15.3 x 1.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,243,147 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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"The science is beautifully presented, with clarity and obvious passion. Dyson's remarkable mind creates all sorts of unexpected connections. Many readers will greatly rejoice in this book's wisdom." - Marcelo Gleiser, Dartmouth College, author of The Prophet and the Astronomer: Apocalyptic Science and the End of the World"

About the Author

Freeman J. Dyson, Professor Emeritus of Physics from the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton University, is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and fellow of the Royal Society of London. His books include Infinite in All Directions, Origins of Life, and The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Freeman Dyson is a self-effacing giant of theoretical physics whose interests span a range of scientific and non-scientific disciplines. This 2007 collection of some of his lectures and essays has the loose theme of life's place in the universe; but in a mere 154 pages he covers such diverse topics as the future dangers and opportunities of bio- and nano-technology, the need for scientists to constantly be challenging accepted orthodoxy (such as the importance of anthropogenic global warming), the evolution of the universe and life, the potential for alien life evolving outside a planetary home, how those with autism and other mental disabilities view the world and what that means for our own view of it, forms of science fiction that reflect human spirituality and the relationship between science and religion. He writes with an engaging and humorous warmth that makes you feel you are having a discussion with a charming man of great knowledge and wisdom, but who is also challenging of authority and yet ready to concede when the evidence is against him. This is a book which will send you down paths of enquiry that you didn't expect and the useful bibliographic references at the back are of great assistance. Although an atheist myself (Dyson is a believer, albeit an idiosyncratic one as one might expect), I find that his calm appeal of how science and religious/spiritual experience can work in a complementary way rather than being antagonistic is a much more constructive approach than the tiresome, often trite and frequently cowardly fundamentalism of Dawkins. If only there were more like Dyson in the world.
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  12 reviews
23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars To see the world in a grain of sand 23 July 2008
By Theodore A. Rushton - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book is a rare delight.

There are two types of science books. Most explain how and why we know something about what we know. The other questions what we assume we know, which is generally the path to new, expanded and sometimes very new fields of scientific knowledge.

Al Gore, for example, who realizes no one gets major headlines by being modest or unsure about one's ideas, says we must end our reliance on fossil fuels within a decade. Dyson says, in effect, wait a minute, we're already overdue for an ice age, maybe global warming is keeping us from freezing.

In contrast to Gore's certainty, Dyson questions, probes, doubts and considers alternatives. In a world overun by people who are dead certain about politics, progress, art, theology, music and almost everything, it's a treat to find educated and thoughtful ideas by someone who admits, "I am trying to reconcile the theoretical law of increasing disorder in the universe with the evidence for increasing order in the universe as we observe it."

On that basis, Dyson will upset people who know things.

Granted, once upon a time he was young, immature, impatient and brashly confident of his wisdom. In 1945, when he was 22 years old, he advised Francis Crick not to give up physics in favour of a new career in biology. Fortunately, Crick didn't take Dyson's advice; instead, within seven years he discovered the double helix structure of DNA which gave birth to molecular genetics.

Suffice to say, Dyson learned, "Even a smart 22-year-old is not a reliable guide to the future of science. And the 22-year-old has become even less reliable now that he is 82."

Great stuff, if you like the idea that science is a continual search for knowledge and not a platform for politically correct dogmas. Science doesn't freeze what little we believe is true into rigid orthodoxies that cannot be doubted, challenged or modified.

Dyson writes that it is the poets who sometimes have a greater insight into science, such as William Blake, who was once "this crazy poet" but who also invited us

"To see the world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour."

Fortunately, those who see more and question more than most in today's world are not crazy. They are merely gifted with a different and sometimes better insight. From them we learn new concepts, or strengthen our own ideas. This intellectual approach creates a rare book when someone such as Dyson share ideas in a clear, concise and provocative style. This book is a dialogue of ideas.

It begins with philosophy of the fox and the hedgehog by Isaiah Berlin and Archilochus, and ends with a beautiful portrait of an autistic child who grew into a wonderful woman. This delightful tour of ideas, questions and observations closes with the thought "... there may be more things in heaven and earth than we are capable of understanding."
27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A senior scientist reflects on the human condition and provides advice for the future 16 Aug 2007
By Shalom Freedman - Published on Amazon.com
Dyson reflects here on the 'dome of many - colored glass that stains the white radiance of eternity' our richly varied world. He shows a commendable humility in his reflections on the place of life in the Universe. Originally given as public lectures to a scientifically literate public Dyson opens with a consideration of problems of biotechnology.
In one section he writes about three heresies he espouses, one in which he suggests that global warning is not perhaps the awesome danger many see it to be. In another reflection he speaks about the divisions between 'humanists' and 'naturalists' the latter being those who wish to preserve 'nature' and believe nature's way superior. He talks about his own native England about the poverty of the natural landscape until human beings transformed it to the land of meadows and moors, of pastures and green farmland. He considers himself a 'humanist' who believes that mankind's mission is too in transforming nature for the better. And this though of course he is aware of the dangers of this, of those we have created for ourselves. In another realm he speaks about his belief that the U.S. is about to be replaced as the world's major power most likely by China but perhaps by Brazil or India. He suggests that about one- hundred and fifty years is all the time a major nation can be predominant before it becomes over- extended in every way. He suggests the U.S will reach this point around 2070.
In speaking to young people about the future he warns about rapid changes making obsolescent the professions and work they have trained for. But he concludes with a modest and somewhat optimistic word of advice to them.
"The main lesson that I would like them to take home is that the long-range future is not predetermined. The future is in their hands. 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 fifty years. My heresies will probably also be obsolete. It is up to them to find new heresies to guide our way to a more hopeful future."

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The questions are better than the answers, but Dyson remains humble and this book is definitely thought provoking. 29 July 2011
By N. Kunka - Published on Amazon.com
Dyson writes well enough, but this collection of essays is hit and miss. I feel a bit out of turn being overly critical or analytical of such an accomplished physicist, philosopher and thinker, but there are some profoundly naive and superficial conclusions and reasoning in a couple of the essays that distracted from the brilliant thoughts in some of the others, particularly the sections on the "Friendly Universe" in which Dyson tries to rationalize the paradox of order in a world dominated by the second law of thermodynamics and its tendency toward disorder and the essay on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

What does work is that Dyson is tremendously well-read and deeply thoughtful in fields outside theoretical physics. One might argue that a lot of his speculations into biotechnology and other fields are the equivalent of an amateur poking around and considering himself an expert, but this isn't so. He's very clear and direct about his lack of knowledge and that his speculations are just that. In that respect he differs from a lot of "futurists" who publish books like "The World in 2050" in which they proclaim flying cars for everyone! (I'm still waiting for the one my grandmother promised me I'd have by the time I was twenty when I was ten.) He's realistic about the time frames for his speculations about the development of technology and the future of discovery in the realms of science. Dyson, quite rightly given the enormous mathematical and technological complexities of advances in particle and theoretical physics today, thinks that biology and biotechnology will dominate the sciences in the next hundred years. There are some heretical ideas in his speculations. Most intriguing among his predictions (or desires) is the development of an open source equivalent to genetic sequencing and engineering and the idea that science shall proliferate among the masses and become smaller, more diverse and given over to small teams versus larger research institutions, in both the physical sciences, like astronomy (where we can already see this happening) AND in biology. It's an interesting and exciting thought. Science could indeed progress by leaps and bounds as more people, especially those not brought through decades of rigorous academic dogma in specific Ph.D. programs bring new unorthodox methods and ideas to the table - and can test and verify them themselves. I don't know if I'd go so far as to say that in the future genetic engineering will occupy the entertainment time of children the way video games do today, but the idea of science for the masses is thrillingly conceivable.

In short, Dyson's strength in this work rests in his ability to combine disciplines and draw parallels among opposite and paradoxical fields and models to develop new and believable paradigms for the future grounded in our experience with scientific revolutions and developments in the past. The last essay on the complementarity of religion and science is refreshing, enlightening, but half-formulated sadly. He starts off well and drifts off to the idea that literature has much more in common with religion where there was so much potential in the former idea. And that's kind of the point; Dyson's great at asking broad, philosophical and practical questions alike and A Many-Colored Glass should definitely be required reading in philosophy of science courses around the world. It's the questions, rather than the answers he presents that make this book valuable.

I was disappointed by a couple of the heavier essays in the work that I was looking forward to immensely. The chapter on the search for extraterrestrial life is extremely narrow and falls prey to the same weaknesses that the chapter on religion did. He starts with some great questions about what life might look like and what type of life might be most common to practically tailor or search for it, then goes into an overly detailed and narrow plan to execute said-search. Same goes for the essay on Life in an old universe tending toward heat death, in which he sets up a great framework, but fails to deliver and bungles an explanation of entropy.

Still, if you have an interest in the philosophy of science or want to hear a respected scientist's views on the future of the field, this is an interesting read.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful commentary from a great scientist 27 Mar 2010
By J. Davis - Published on Amazon.com
I picked up this book to read Dyson's commentary on climate change/global warming, as I heard he was a climate change skeptic. His commentary on climate change is terrific. But there's much more to this book than just climate change--he covers life in the universe, scientific skepticism, religion, and a number of other topics. This is the work of a brilliant, profound thinker. Well worth the price.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Lessons in pit lamping 17 Jun 2012
By Laurence Chalem - Published on Amazon.com
Freeman J. Dyson is such a humble genious, that I'd buy any book by him regardless of what's written inside. There's some value in this book and it's worth a read, especially his instructions for best searching in the Kuiper Belt for signs of life. He also introduced me to the works of Carl Woese, which armed me with answers to many of my questions that I didn't even know I had. Recommended reading... - lc
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