October 22, 2004

Lecture Attempts to Predict Unpredictable

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Renowned physicist Prof. Freeman J. Dyson, Princeton University, attracted a huge crowd to the Schwartz auditorium yesterday for a talk entitled “The Predictable and the Unpredictable: How to Tell the Difference.”

In his speech, Dyson recollected an age-old prediction made by Hungarian mathematician John von Neumann concerning the future of computers.

“Neumann understood that computers would change the world,” Dyson said, “but he imagined computers always large and expensive.”

Neumann’s first prediction was astoundingly accurate, but not to the right degree, Dyson suggested. For instance, “he failed to foresee the final domestication of computers as toys for three-year-olds,” Dyson said.

Dyson subsequently turned his focus to the public perception and future of biotechnology. “It is likely that genetic engineering will remain disliked so long as it remains under control of large companies,” Dyson said.

Dyson hinted that a domestication of biotechnology may be imminent and may closely mirror the fate of computers. When that occurs, “designing the genome will be a personal thing-and the final stage will be biotech games,” Dyson said.

Dyson also considered the risks and consequences of biotech domestication. For instance, biotech “games will be messy and possibly dangerous-rules will be needed,” Dyson explained.

Dyson also discussed a connection between pre-Darwin evolution and open source programming principles.

“The philosophy of open-source is based on sharing-build[ing] on each others’ successes and failures,” Dyson said. Simlarly, “when genuses are shared freely, the biological community benefits in the same way” he explained.

Dyson also addressed the harnessing of solar energy by genetically modifying plants, and the accuracy of a prediction made about the progress of integrative circuits. “The speed can be doubled every eight months,” Dyson said.

Dyson’s then discredited claims regarding global warming. “I disagree with climate change predictions for two reasons,” Dyson said. “They are constructed using computer models … and they ignore the predominating effects of biology on carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” Dyson explained.

The lecture closed with a description of what Dyson called “my wrong prediction.” At a time when James Watson, the scientist who discovered the double helix, considered leaving behind his study of physics for a new life in biology, “I told him, you will be wasting your time … biology won’t become big for another twenty years,” Dyson said.

Archived article by David Andrade
Sun Staff Writer