Not to be missed: Physicist Freeman Dyson's musings, in the July 19 issue of New York Review of Books, about an orgy of genetic manipulation to remake the natural world. Plants with black silicon leaves that absorb extra sunlight will provide energy too cheap to meter. Genetically engineered earthworms will imbibe the silicon trash, and in their off hours extract gold from seawater and put an end to rural poverty.
This could be written off as sub-par science fiction, where megalomania and planetary catastrophes are routine tropes, were it not for several all-too-real-world developments.
One is that the technologies Dyson celebrates are indeed being developed at an extraordinary pace and are steadily being loosed into the environment by agribusiness and biotech companies and proposed for clinical trials by gene therapy researchers.
Another is that Dyson's rhetorical strategy is of a piece with that of these companies, researchers, and their public relations consultants: Claim that the technology is green and will end poverty and all human suffering, assign any clean-up problems to future generations, and dispense with critics by telling them to relax and enjoy the ride.
Dyson's techno-genetic triumphalism echoes the grandiosity of an earlier pet project of his. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was a lead scientist and public advocate for ProjectOrion, a program at General Atomics to develop interplanetary (and then interstellar) spacecraft powered by exploding a string of nuclear bombs ejected from the rear of the craft. The shock waves would push against a huge steel plate and accelerate the spaceship to something like 10% the speed of light.
One unresolved problem was that the nuclear fallout from each launch was projected to cause cancers that would kill ten people. A prototype was demonstrated using conventional explosives, but the project was abandoned after the 1963 partial nuclear test ban treaty prohibited nuclear weapons in space.
Dyson's hubristic vision is certainly more extreme than that of most scientists, but its general form and substance is surprisingly widespread. We await the voices of socially responsible scientists who will call Dyson to account. Until then, sounds like it's time to dig out the old bumper sticker: "Take the toys away from the boys."