Energy & Freeman Dyson

In passing: a further contribution to the energy debate.

Lines written in a state of depressed inertia on the physicist, Freeman Dyson (and branching thoughts). From letters to Jenny (2004)

Dear Jenny, 

      Of all modern physicists it is Freeman Dyson who has tackled the energy question in the most comprehensive manner both in its terrestrial and cosmological aspect. The link between the two is not stated explicitly because the carbon cycle is a particular form of energy derived from photosynthesis and for all we know - though it seems improbable -  may be restricted to this planet unlike gravitational and electromagnetic energy. If there is a link it is in the reductionist way Dyson views mankind.

      However there is no denying his ruminations on the carbon cycle has had an immense influence on the system of carbon credits now in place world wide. Prior to Dyson, scientists had been at a loss to explain how come atmospheric carbon dioxide was considerably less than it should have been. Millions of tons were somehow being subtracted from the atmosphere and Freeman Dyson guessed it must be because the contribution of trees and plants ('root to shoot ratio') to this process had been considerably underestimated. This credible explanation was  seized on as a quick fix remedy: just plant more trees and forget about reducing carbon emissions. However that was before tinder dry forests began to burn with increasing frequency releasing vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And because it was a natural act and therefore unpredictable this would not affect the system of carbon credits. So theoretically every tree in America could burn but the country would still be in surplus provided enough trees had been previously planted no matter they were now only fit for providing charcoal for barbecues.

         Though Freeman Dyson's speculations provided an escape clause for the world's major polluters to make maximum use of, it also implies a return to a more sustainable form of agriculture with far less emphasis on double or even treble crop yields per annum, which, with each ploughing prior to planting, results in yet more atmospheric carbon dioxide from the decaying roots. In one telling instance he even says it is more environmentally responsible to burn coal than wood. Where he is grotesquely at fault is in believing that the problem can be solved through political means provided the goodwill is there. How often have we heard that old saw before? 

           This naive political idealism morphs into an even stranger scientific 'idealism' somewhere between fact and fiction  - fiction because it projects the givens of the present into a future trillions of years hence but sparing us the tedium of a sci-fi narrative. The increasing entropy of a system means everything to Freeman Dyson and pursuing the second law of thermo-dynamics to its logical conclusion foresees a universe which must eventually lose its gravitational and electro-magnetic energy.

        But in the meantime what happens to us 'humans'' This is the interesting bit. We survive as 'intelligent life' -  which means the brain though a much truncated brain - but as brains consume energy how then will we be able to best conserve energy? By energy efficient dreaming rather than through rigorous thought which requires an increased expenditure of energy. In the twilight of life and the universe this cosmic surrealism is the coldest of dreams unheated by unrealised desires. It is more a memory of things past, a long drawn out reiteration of past theorems, an eternity of academic dialogue uncorrupted by human emotions or endeavour. As such it profoundly reflects the world we live in, the mutant offspring of a science that has lost its anchor in humanity. It is the minus sign of intelligent life, a brain whose link with a sensory apparatus has been severed. It is a constructed, computerised brain - not even a robotic brain because a robot has at least crude sensors. As a 'scientific' abstraction it is embarrassingly close to the spiritual essence of the theologians. We are reminded of Rimbaud's exclamation: 'By intelligence one goes to god. Heart-rending misfortune.' Amongst today's physicists there is a sly rehabilitation of god that has come out of the search for ultimate causes - the origins of the universe - and a hyperbolic 'grand theory of everything'. Also the cosmic numbers don't add up to anything other: either that or our universe is just one of many, the multiverse being the last refuge of the atheist. Again a comment of Rimbaud's is extraordinarily apposite, the oracular Rimbaud he was never at ease with (because it confirmed fate, as it always has) except as a remarkable, very materialist, 'seer' of tendencies within capitalism: 'Geography, cosmogony, mechanics, chemistry------------Science the new nobility--------It is a vision of numbers. We are moving towards the Spirit.'

       It is also a conception that privileges the human species in the guise of a weak and strong anthropomorphic principle.You takes your choice depending on your reading of the relevant physics. The sole purpose to life is then to understand  - a passive registration of the facts and nothing more. However it smartly side steps the central question: how can we seize control over our lives and begin to make our own future? It is also profoundly anti-evolutionary and not only in terms of how the brain might have evolved together with the eye and the rest of the sensory apparatus, the opposable thumb, and our bi-pedal posture. The teleology behind the physicists mentioned is highly problematical when judged from an evolutionary standpoint: sight has evolved several times in the history of evolution as has, for example, winged flight in some insects. Why should 'intelligent life' be any different? But at this point it is very hard to disagree with Ernst Mayr's view that intelligent life has evolved only the once, unlike eyesight and wings.

         In fact the increasingly sorry state we find ourselves in is characterised by an utter lack of intelligence and the dawning realisation this universe is indeed a habitat favourable to life has unfolded against a more general background of systematic, unrelieved cretinisation. Rather this points to the immanent demise of intelligent life not its consummation due to the fact that as highly evolved stardust we have been able to figure out where we came from, which a dog never could.

What role does modern cosmological theory play in the moulding of public opinion? 

               For there is no doubting that modern cosmologists are listened too more keenly than at any time since astronomy, theology and mathematics were combined as a cosmic legitimation of temporal power. The key to the power of modern cosmogony resides in its decisive refutation of a 'commonsense universe', not just as regards space and time but the number of exotic objects that have come to light since the early sixties like quasars, pulsars, supernovae, black holes - even, perhaps, quark stars. Weirdness today is an essential aspect of social control and draws its strength from the increasingly humdrum nature of social existence and the resistance to the 'ordinary' it inspires, whilst emphatically evading the question of everyday life. Formerly a 'new star' (like the supernova above Bethlehem 2000 years ago, or the last one in the Milky Way in 1604) was viewed as an ominous portent because the heavens like earthly powers were not subject to change. Weirdness is also an feature of celebrity status and merits publicity because it helps sell a person - and scientific superstardom as with pop stars, installation artists etc, very much depends on media publicity, even playing a decisive role in the matter of funding.

        Media image making gained in importance as the power of the state massively declined as a source of finance for science. NASA knows this better than anyone and Carl Sagan's highly popular TV series 'Cosmos' in the early eighties marked this transition and set a scientific trend. It also required that the scientist be a personality, marketing their own brand of science and self, and which unmistakeably reflected the changes going on in work places where traditional wage structures were being replaced by individual settlements (determined also by the value a person puts on themselves) and career opportunities increasingly dependant on public relation skills.  Brand You was also an essential aspect of fashionable notions like the weightless economy in the 1990s', driven largely by hype and the power of image making.

        This is a long way from saying that science in the meantime has become utterly subjective, only that it is of its time, particularly as regards personalities and presentation but also in ways that are not yet completely clear. But it is not a total nonsense like a Tracy Emin or a Damien Hirst even as Hirst launches a painting into space, encouraged to do so by scientists anxious not to be thought of as installation philistines.

             And yet, to get back to the allure of modern cosmogony, it undoubtedly does have a theocratic aspect. Its modern exponents intercede between their theories and us and in that way divert attention away from the meaningless of our everyday lives into a cosmic quest for answers, which can never deliver us from the temptation to revolt against the meaningless of our lives under capitalism.


 Dear Jenny,

                     ...The worst of it is I cannot concentrate and all my reports are left unfinished like on the Dingy Skipper and the Grayling. Well, concentration is about the last thing to return. Meanwhile I am looking for hope in a world that honestly looks devoid of hope. I recall that Freud wrote somewhere how war results in an inhibition of all activity or, to use more contemporary terms, psychomotor retardation.

            I think I am going to have to rewrite the thing I wrote on energy. I was prompted to write it by the 20th anniversary of the miners' strike, and I came to the conclusion that, given the constantly expanding energy needs of consumer capitalism, there would be a return to coal or nuclear power, once oil and natural gas were depleted.

         Renewables can never hope to supply more than a fraction of contemporary energy needs though I do believe it could do so in a moneyless, communitarian society where real needs would replace the poverty of consumerism. (Some hope of that!). Though clean coal is now possible (sequestration of sulphur, nitrogen oxides and most importantly of all CO2) and though the cost of electricity generation would triple per kilowatt hour, nuclear power will almost certainly be the fuel of choice. The nuclear lobby is already gearing up to bang the drum of global warming with an efficacy the Greens could only dream of. In fact the nuclear fanatics are likely to co-opt their program by building wind farms as well as nuclear installations and so profit handsomely from government subsidies not only for renewables  but also from the lavish handouts nuclear power has always been in receipt of because the private financial market was always wary of pouring cash into the bottomless, nuclear power, money pit. The notorious secrecy that has always surrounded nuclear power from the 'Manhattan Project' to the first nuclear pile constructed by Enrico Fermi (ie the prototype for the first generation of nuclear power stations that went under the very misleading title 'atoms for peace'- Calder Hall was built to produce plutonium for weapons and any electricity it produced was a by-product) will never change. In fact it will be worse than ever, given the unprecedented growth of terrorism. It will also be a godsend to governments and state machines ready to exploit any opportunity that enables them to terrorise ever more successfully their own increasingly subject populations. Compared with nuclear power, clean coal would be positively innocuous and for that reason would never be chosen, even if the economics were shown to be cheaper. It does produce noxious waste but on nothing like the time scale of radioactive waste and the decommissioning costs of coal-fired power stations are negligible when compared with nuclear power stations. Reliance on coal does not favour the construction of a garrison state to anything like the degree nuclear power does.

           I reckon within a few years the anti-nuclear demonstrations will be back with a vengeance bigger than ever before and drawing in millions where previously it could count on thousands. Who knows but opposition to Menwith Hill could be major factors in changing the present dog eat dog mentality and internecine warfare that is now so prevalent in Bradford.  We can but hope.

            I had also wanted to discuss what Blake meant by 'Energy is eternal delight' and what place it occupied in Blake's schema of things. Freeman Dyson also prefixed the quotation from Blake to his discussion of energy. Of all physicists he is the most aware of the significance of energy to us earthlings and proposed, for example, the large scale planting of trees as carbon sinks that would use photo-synthetic energy to cleanse the atmosphere of the gas, an idea which was taken up by the G8 and fundamental to the system of carbon credits. Unfortunately he never took into account the fact that forests become tinder dry in the heat we are increasingly experiencing and burning forests release vast amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. He says physicists have little to add to Blake and really Blake says it all. In fact Freeman Dyson pushed the vision of entropy - the de-energising of the universe over trillions of years - further than anyone else, to the point where if intelligent life did survive we would be spending most of our time in a state of dreamy somnolence in order to conserve energy. I don't think this is what Blake had in mind even if his use of the term energy in his day would have evoked furnaces and steam engines and therefore essentially different to how the word was previously used. I think he was aware a kind of torpor was beginning to overtake mankind, a sort of depression of the spirits, and that we must place Blake's wonderful epigram beside his abiding interest in Job, the most inert, sad person in all history. Blake believed that Job was awaiting the onrush of desire, not mercy, and only in the intensely living would he find his salvation.

                  Well, I have surprised myself by writing this. A recall to life? Who knows?  

Give Jessie a pat. 


                                                                                             Stuart Wise