"The Sun, the Genome and the Internet: Tools of Scientific Revolution"
Reading history and reviews
Finished in 2007I found this in Daresbury Lab's library just before Christmas, it turns out that it's based on a set of lectures that Dyson gave at the New York Public Library in 1997. That doesn't seem so long ago but it's a long time in the areas of genomics and the internet. The early part of the book was most interesting for me: for example, the difference between "sustainable" and "unsustainable" projects - in the former a lot of resources are poured into achieving some relatively short-term aim, at the cost of developing new techniques that will ultimately be more beneficial in the long term because they can reduce the cost of doing research (Dyson cites the Apollo space missions as one example and the human genome project as another). It was also interesting to read about how John Randall's development of cavity magnetron in 1939 (which was needed to produce high power microwaves for a useful radar system) not only contributed to winning the war, but also put him a position to abandon his career in solid-state physics in order to create a new department of molecular biology. As Dyson writes, "it was directly due to Randall's vision that the structure of DNA was discovered in 1953 in England and not a few years later in the United States.". Another theme that Dyson explores is how science sometimes advances not because of huge conceptual leaps, but because of the development of new equipment and because of evidence that contradicts the prevailing recieved wisdom.
Later in the book Dyson talks about social justice, and how technology can narrow or widen the gap between rich and poor. There are other discussions for example about the use of genetic engineering, and a vision of a human race splintered into new species by modifications to their own genomes which he believes will ultimately lead to emigration to new worlds. Ultimately these things still seem very much like science fiction, but I think that the discussion about social justice are still very pertinent. In the end I'm not sure what conclusion I was supposed to draw (if any) but it was certainly a very thought-provoking and stimulating read.