Tomorrow's New York Times Magazine features a cover article on the physicist Freeman Dyson, by Nicholas Dawidoff, "The Civil Heretic". The eighty five year old Dyson has led an eventful life so far, and the article covers a lot of its interesting parts. Below are a few brief excerpts of Dyson on Al Gore, James Hansen, and coal, followed by a brief note about Dyson's artistic sensibilities.
Among those he considers true believers, Dyson has been particularly dismissive of Al Gore, whom Dyson calls climate change’s “chief propagandist,” and James Hansen, the head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and an adviser to Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth.” Dyson accuses them of relying too heavily on computer-generated climate models that foresee a Grand Guignol of imminent world devastation as icecaps melt, oceans rise and storms and plagues sweep the earth, and he blames the pair’s “lousy science” for “distracting public attention” from “more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet.”
For Hansen, the dark agent of the looming environmental apocalypse is carbon dioxide contained in coal smoke. Coal, he has written, “is the single greatest threat to civilization and all life on our planet.” Hansen has referred to railroad cars transporting coal as “death trains.” Dyson, on the other hand, told me in conversations and e-mail messages that “Jim Hansen’s crusade against coal overstates the harm carbon dioxide can do.” Dyson well remembers the lethal black London coal fog of his youth when, after a day of visiting the city, he would return to his hometown of Winchester with his white shirt collar turned black. Coal, Dyson says, contains “real pollutants” like soot, sulphur and nitrogen oxides, “really nasty stuff that makes people sick and looks ugly.” These are “rightly considered a moral evil,” he says, but they “can be reduced to low levels by scrubbers at an affordable cost.” He says Hansen “exploits” the toxic elements of burning coal as a way of condemning the carbon dioxide it releases, “which cannot be reduced at an affordable cost, but does not do any substantial harm.”
Dyson has great affection for coal and for one big reason: It is so inexpensive that most of the world can afford it. “There’s a lot of truth to the statement Greens are people who never had to worry about their grocery bills,” he says. (“Many of these people are my friends,” he will also tell you.) To Dyson, “the move of the populations of China and India from poverty to middle-class prosperity should be the great historic achievement of the century. Without coal it cannot happen.” That said, Dyson sees coal as the interim kindling of progress. In “roughly 50 years,” he predicts, solar energy will become cheap and abundant, and “there are many good reasons for preferring it to coal.”
The article notes in passing that Freeman Dyson disliked John Adams's opera "Dr. Atomic". That puts me in good company, I guess: I turned the PBS simulcast of this opera off after a half hour. Below is the trailer for the Metropolitan Opera's production of Dr. Atomic.