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."