4 August 2009

A new world

Freeman Dyson asks if the world is entering a new 'Age of Wonders', with a shift backward in the culture of science from organizations to individuals, [1] from professionals to amateurs, and from programs of research to works of art:
If this dream comes true, and the new art form emerges triumphant, then a new generation of artists, writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses, might create an abundance of new flowers and fruit and trees and birds to enrich the ecology of our planet. Most of these artists would be in close touch science, like the poets of the earlier Age of Wonder. The new Age of Wonder might bring together wealthy entrepreneurs...and a worldwide community of gardeners and farmers and breeders, working together to make the planet beautiful as well as fertile, hospitable to humming birds as well as to humans.
Dyson's optimism is a welcome challenge in a world where pessimism can sometimes come a little too easily. [2] How lovely, some may say, if his vision were to come true. [3]

But for all his strengths, Dyson has clearly been wrong-headed about some things (nuclear explosions to send rockets into space, anthropogenic climate change). Creating living entities is not the same as creating poems, and 'the bad guys' are unlikely ever to be far away. [4]


[1] Dyson's heroic individuals include Craig Venter, Kary Mullis and Dean Kamen.

[2] For a sober view see The seven terrors of the world. For pessimism that is perhaps a little too much see, for example, Cold Comfort. In the delightful book which is the occasion for Dyson's essay, Richard Holmes notes three themes introduced into scientific biography during the Romantic age:
1) 'Newton syndrome', the notion of 'scientific genius' in which science is largely advanced by a small number of preternaturally gifted (and usually isolated) individuals;

2) the 'Eureka moment', in which discoveries are made without warning (or much preparation) in a sudden blazing instant or revelation and synthesis; and

3) the 'Frankenstein nightmare', in which all scientific progress is really a disguised form of destruction.
All three, surely, are simplifications that can make for 'good stories'. Dyson is, perhaps, overly partial to the first two. 'Environmentalists' etc. (and I include myself in that category) may sometimes get a little stuck on the third. P.S. 7 Aug: Braden Allenby criticizes environmentalists like this:
sustainability discourse generally has a really, really hard time engaging with emerging technologies and their implications, not to mention the inherent complexity of these systems, which means that, in some very important ways, it’s obsolete.
[3] Could we have the humming fish from The Lorax, please?

[4] See, for example, Birdsong of the Eremozoic.

P.S. 6 Aug: George Dyson writes:
On July 24, 2009, a small group of scientists, entrepreneurs, cultural impresarios and journalists [met to be] offered a glimpse, guided by George Church and Craig Venter, of a future far stranger than Aldous Huxley had been able to imagine [in his 1948 work Ape and Essence].

In this future — whose underpinnings...are here already— life as we know it is transformed not by the error catastrophe of radiation damage to our genetic processes, but by the far greater upheaval caused by discovering how to read genetic sequences directly into computers, where the code can be replicated exactly, manipulated freely, and translated back into living organisms by writing the other way. "We can program these cells as if they were an extension of the computer," George Church announced, and proceeded to explain just how much progress has already been made.
Back in 1997, Lee Smolin expressed three doubts about the similarity between DNA and a computer programme:
1) what is inherited in real biology is more than just a naked sequence of DNA;
2) DNA is part hardware and part software; and
3) genetic code is not able to run on arbitrary hardware.
How far, if at all, are these doubts still valid?

P.S. 20 Aug: a useful account by Ed Regis of the meeting mentioned by George Dyson.

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