Remembering Freeman Dyson

Freeman Dyson [3.19.20]

Photo credit: Ann Yow

"A unique intellect—and a great and kind man." —Martin Rees

NEW!! THE REALITY CLUB: John Brockman, Esther Dyson, Martin Rees, David Kaiser, George Dyson, Jennifer Jacquet, Max Tegmark, Rich Muller, Susan Schneider, Gino Segre, Frank Tipler, Danny Hillis, Brian Keating, Lee Smolin, John Brockman


In July 2007, Freeman wrote a provocative essay in the New York Review of Books entitled "Our Biotech Future" in which he wrote: 

Biology is now bigger than physics, as measured by the size of budgets, by the size of the workforce, or by the output of major discoveries; and biology is likely to remain the biggest part of science through the twenty-first century. Biology is also more important than physics, as measured by its economic consequences, by its ethical implications, or by its effects on human welfare.

These facts raise an interesting question. Will the domestication of high technology, which we have seen marching from triumph to triumph with the advent of personal computers and GPS receivers and digital cameras, soon be extended from physical technology to biotechnology? I believe that the answer to this question is yes. Here I am bold enough to make a definite prediction. I predict that the domestication of biotechnology will dominate our lives during the next fifty years at least as much as the domestication of computers has dominated our lives during the previous fifty years.

Citing the work of Carl Woese, an expert in the field of microbial taxonomy, and Nigel Goldenfeld, a physicist, Freeman called for "a new biology for a new century":

Woese’s main theme is the obsolescence of reductionist biology as it has been practiced for the last hundred years, with its assumption that biological processes can be understood by studying genes and molecules. What is needed instead is a new synthetic biology based on emergent patterns of organization. Aside from his main theme, he raises another important question. When did Darwinian evolution begin? By Darwinian evolution he means evolution as Darwin understood it, based on the competition for survival of noninterbreeding species. He presents evidence that Darwinian evolution does not go back to the beginning of life. When we compare genomes of ancient lineages of living creatures, we find evidence of numerous transfers of genetic information from one lineage to another. In early times, horizontal gene transfer, the sharing of genes between unrelated species, was prevalent. It becomes more prevalent the further back you go in time.

Whatever Carl Woese writes, even in a speculative vein, needs to be taken seriously. In his "New Biology" article, he is postulating a golden age of pre-Darwinian life, when horizontal gene transfer was universal and separate species did not yet exist. Life was then a community of cells of various kinds, sharing their genetic information so that clever chemical tricks and catalytic processes invented by one creature could be inherited by all of them. Evolution was a communal affair, the whole community advancing in metabolic and reproductive efficiency as the genes of the most efficient cells were shared. Evolution could be rapid, as new chemical devices could be evolved simultaneously by cells of different kinds working in parallel and then reassembled in a single cell by horizontal gene transfer.

Freeman's article appeared in July 2007. The following month, I hosted a seminar at Eastover Farm to explore new definitions of life required by the recent advances in genomics. I invited three of the participants—Freeman, and genomic pioneers George Church and J. Craig Venter—to come up a day early in order to spend time discussing and evaluating the import of Freeman's essay. It was interesting that Freeman, a mathematician and physicist, was now making pronouncements about evolution. Why would the mainstream evolutionary biologists care about what he has to say?

What better way to find out than to ask Richard Dawkins, the author of The Selfish Gene, and the standard bearer of Darwinism. I wrote to Richard and asked if he would comment on Freeman's ideas about horizontal evolution and "the end of the Darwinian interlude." Richard promptly responded (while noting that his hastily written piece was solely for the purpose of the meeting).  


Nathan Wolfe [1.30.09]


[ED. NOTE: In January 2009, I sat down in Los Angeles with virologist Nathan Wolfe for a wide-ranging discussion on his studies concerning the biology of viral emergence. Within a few months, the world was in a panic about the H1N1 swine flu epidemic that lasted most of 2009. Several months later in "How to Prevent a Pandemic," he wrote:

"The swine flu outbreak seems to have emerged without warning. Within a few days of being noticed, the flu had already spread to the point where containment was not possible. Yet the virus behind it had to have existed for some time before it was discovered. Couldn’t we have detected it and acted sooner, before it spread so widely? The answer is likely yes—if we had been paying closer attention to the human-animal interactions that enable new viruses to emerge.

"While much remains unknown about how pandemics are born, we are familiar with the kinds of microbes—like SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), influenza and HIV—that present a risk of widespread disease. We know that they usually emerge from animals and most often in specific locations around the world, places like the Congo Basin and Southeast Asia.

"By monitoring people who are exposed to animals in such viral hotspots, we can capture viruses at the very moment they enter human populations, and thus develop the ability to predict and perhaps even prevent pandemics." 

Unfortunately, that eleven-year-old conversation, reprised below, is evermore relevant today. —JB]

NATHAN WOLFE is the Lorry Lokey Visiting Professor of Human Biology at Stanford University and directs the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative. His research combines methods from molecular virology, ecology, evolutionary biology, and anthropology to study the biology of viral emergence. Nathan Wolfe's Edge Bio Page.


In a general sense what I'm interested in is very much a biological universe parallel to our own, which is the universe comprised of microorganisms. Of particular interest to me are viruses, but also bacteria—fascinating organisms—and a range of parasites.

These exist in the same moment in history that we exist, in the same space that we occupy, but inhabit a very different world. Yet, they respond to many of the exact same pressures we do, but in a much shorter time span. Of course, they are subject to natural selection. They are incredibly important to our planet, to us as a species, and the reality is that we understand very little about them. We are actually in a very interesting space with respect to the technologies that we have now, and these are some of the things that have come about through molecular biology.

A Short Course in Superforecasting—Philip Tetlock: An EDGE Master Class

(ED. NOTE: In 2015, Edge presented "A Short Course in Superforecasting" with political and social scientist Philip Tetlock. Superforecasting is back in the news this week thanks to the UK news coverage of comments by Boris Johnson's chief adviser Dominic Cummings, who urged journalists to "read Philip Tetlock's Superforecasters [sic], instead of political pundits who don't know what they're talking about.")

PHILIP E. TETLOCK, political and social scientist, is the Annenberg University Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, with appointments in Wharton, psychology and political science. He is co-leader of the Good Judgment Project, a multi-year forecasting study, author of Expert Political Judgment, co-author of Counterfactual Thought Experiments in World Politics (with Aaron Belkin), and co-author of Superforecasting: The Art & Science of Prediction (with Dan Gardner). Further reading on Edge: "How to Win at Forecasting: A Conversation with Philip Tetlock" (December 6, 2012). Philip Tetlock's Edge Bio Page.

Realism Is False

Donald D. Hoffman [1.27.20]

. . . I want to propose that realism is false, and what we're seeing is more like a user interface or a virtual reality headset. Think about a virtual reality game of tennis. You're playing VR tennis with a friend, you both have your headset and body suits on, you see your friend's avatar on a tennis court and you start playing. Your friend hits the tennis ball to you, and you hit the same tennis ball back to your friend, but is your friend seeing exactly the same tennis ball that you're seeing? Well, of course not. There's no public tennis ball. You have some photons being sprayed to your eye by your headset, and those photons are causing your visual system to create your own perception of what you would call a green tennis ball. Your friend has a headset on, which is spraying photons to his eye, and his visual system is creating his own green tennis ball perception.

It turns out that both of those perceptions are coordinated by something else, namely a supercomputer that's sending the photons to both headsets, causing both headsets to work in coordination. . . .

All the things that we would do to say that objects really exist even when they're not perceived hold here in virtual reality. . . . That doesn't mean that the tennis ball exists and has any physical properties when it's not perceived; it just means that there is some objective reality.

DONALD D. HOFFMAN is a full professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author, most recently, of The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our EyesDonald D. Hoffman's Edge Bio Page

Reuben Hersh: 1927-2020

Reuben Hersh [1.21.20]

REUBEN HERSH, (1927-2020), was professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. He was the recipient (with Martin Davis) of the Chauvenet Prize and (with Edgar Lorch) the Ford Prize. Hersh was the co-author (with Philip J. Davis) of The Mathematical Experience and Descartes' Dream, which won the National Book Award in 1983, and author of What is Mathematics, Really?

He advocated for what he called a "humanist" philosophy of mathematics, opposed to both Platonism (so-called "realism") and its rivals nominalism/fictionalism/formalism. He held that mathematics is real, and its reality is social-cultural-historical, located in the shared thoughts of those who learn it, teach it, and create it. His article "The Kingdom of Math is Within You" (a chapter in his Experiencing Mathematics, 2014) explains how mathematicians' proofs compel agreement, even when they are inadequate as formal logic.​ 

[February 10, 1997]

What is mathematics? It's neither physical nor mental, it's social. It's part of culture. It's part of history. It's like law, like religion, like money, like all those other things which are very real, but only as part of collective human consciousness. That's what math is.

For mathematician Reuben Hersh, mathematics has existence or reality only as part of human culture. Despite its seeming timelessness and infallibility, it is a social-cultural-historic phenomenon. He takes the long view. He thinks a lot about the ancient problems. What are numbers? What are triangles, squares and circles? What are infinite sets? What is the fourth dimension? What is the meaning and nature of mathematics?

In so doing he explains and criticizes current and past theories of the nature of mathematics. His main purpose is to confront philosophical problems: In what sense do mathematical objects exist? How can we have knowledge of them? Why do mathematicians think mathematical entities exist forever, independent of human action and knowledge?

REUBEN HERSH: What is a number? Like, what is two? Or even three? This is sort of a kindergarten question, and of course a kindergarten kid would answer like this: (raising three fingers), or two (raising two fingers). That's a good answer and a bad answer. 

The Causal Theory of Views

Lee Smolin [12.19.19]

An event has a view of the world. First, let me tell you what I mean by a view. A view is the information that that event has about how it fits into the rest of the world. That includes who its parents were (by which I mean the events in its past that gave rise to it) and how much energy and momentum was propagated to it from them. If I am an event, my view of the world is what I see when I look around. I see light comes to me from the past, which I perceive as a pattern of colors, which come from photons of different energies striking my eye. That's my view; it's a property of a moment. That contains all that I, as an event, know about how I fit into the rest of the world.

Now, if you know the things that I just said were real—the events, the causal relations, the distribution of energy and momentum flowing—I can tell you what the view of each event is, but I can also flip it around. There's a dual description in which I just say what the views are and that's the whole description. So, I just say there's a view, and that view is that makes a kind of picture. You see the sky, a two-dimensional sphere around you, and there are some colors, which are photons coming in of different energies—that's the view. I can hypothesize that all that exists in the world is views and a process that continually makes new views out of old views. That's what I call the causal theory of views.

LEE SMOLIN, a theoretical physicist, is a founding and senior faculty member at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada. His main contributions have been so far to the quantum theory of gravity, to which he has been a co-inventor and major contributor to two major directions, loop quantum gravity and deformed special relativity. He is the author, most recently, of Einstein's Unfinished RevolutionLee Smolin's Edge Bio Page

The Possible Minds Conference

I am puzzled by the number of references to what AI “is” and what it “cannot do” when in fact the new AI is less than ten years old and is moving so fast that references to it in the present tense are dated almost before they are uttered. The statements that AI doesn’t know what it’s talking about or is not enjoying itself are trivial if they refer to the present and undefended if they refer to the medium-range future—say 30 years.  —Daniel Kahneman

From left: W. Daniel Hillis, Neil Gershenfeld, Frank Wilczek, David Chalmers, Robert Axelrod, Tom Griffiths, Caroline Jones, Peter Galison, Alison Gopnik, John Brockman, George Dyson, Freeman Dyson, Seth Lloyd, Rod Brooks, Stephen Wolfram, Ian McEwan. In absentia: Andy Clark, George M. Church, Daniel Kahneman, Alex "Sandy" Pentland, Venki Ramakrishnan  (Click to expand photo) 

by Venki Ramakrishnan

The field of machine learning and AI is changing at such a rapid pace that we cannot foresee what new technical breakthroughs lie ahead, where the technology will lead us or the ways in which it will completely transform society. So it is appropriate to take a regular look at the landscape to see where we are, what lies ahead, where we should be going and, just as importantly, what we should be avoiding as a society. We want to bring a mix of people with deep expertise in the technology as well as broad thinkers from a variety of disciplines to make regular critical assessments of the state and future of AI. 

Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society and Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, 2009, is Group Leader & Former Deputy Director, MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology; Author, Gene Machine: The Race to Decipher the Secrets of the Ribosome.  

[ED. NOTE: In recent months, Edge has published the fifteen individual talks and discussions from its two-and-a-half-day Possible Minds Conference held in Morris, CT, an update from the field following on from the publication of the group-authored book Possible Minds: Twenty-Five Ways of Looking at AI. As a special event for the long Thanksgiving weekend, we are pleased to publish the complete conference—10 hours plus of audio and video, as well as a downloadable PDF of the 77,500-word manuscript. Enjoy.] 
Editor, Edge

The Paradox of Self-Consciousness

Markus Gabriel [11.11.19]

I have been trying, under the banner of "New Realism," to reconcile various philosophical and scientific traditions. I'm looking for a third way between various tensions. There's more to a human being than the fact that we are a bunch of cells that hang together in a certain way. Humans are not strictly identical to any material energetic system, even though I also think that humans cannot exist without being, in part, grounded in a material energetic system. So, I am rejecting both brutal materialism, according to which we are nothing but an arrangement of cells, and brutal idealism, according to which our minds are transcendent affairs that mysteriously peep into the universe. Both are false, so there has to be a third way.

Similarly, there must be a third way between postmodernism, which denies the objectivity of human knowledge claims and science altogether, and various trends in cognitive science, which also threaten objectivity without, of course, fully undermining it (for instance, research on cognitive biases better be immune to second-order biases). Similarly, I believe we urgently need to reconcile so-called continental philosophy—European traditions, broadly construed—and analytic philosophy, which means philosophy at its best when practiced in Anglophone context; there has to be something in between. That space in between is what I call New Realism

MARKUS GABRIEL, one of the founders of New Realism, holds the Chair for Epistemology, Modern and Contemporary Philosophy at the University of Bonn, where he is also Director of the International Center for Philosophy and the multidisciplinary Center for Science and Thought. He is the author of Why the World Does Not Exist. Markus Gabriel's Edge Bio Page

Communal Intelligence

Seth Lloyd [10.28.19]

We haven't talked about the socialization of intelligence very much. We talked a lot about intelligence as being individual human things, yet the thing that distinguishes humans from other animals is our possession of human language, which allows us both to think and communicate in ways that other animals don’t appear to be able to. This gives us a cooperative power as a global organism, which is causing lots of trouble. If I were another species, I’d be pretty damn pissed off right now. What makes human beings effective is not their individual intelligences, though there are many very intelligent people in this room, but their communal intelligence.

SETH LLOYD is a theoretical physicist at MIT; Nam P. Suh Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering; external professor at the Santa Fe Institute; and author of Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes on the Cosmos. Seth Lloyd's Edge Bio Page



SETH LLOYD: I’m a bit embarrassed because I’ve benefited so much by going close to last in this meeting. I’ve heard so many wonderful things and so many great ideas, which I will shamelessly parrot while trying to ascribe them to the people who mentioned them. This has been a fantastic meeting.

When John first talked about doing something like the Macy Conferences, I didn’t know what they were, so I went back and started to look at that. It was remarkable how prescient the ideas seemed to be. I couldn’t understand that, because why was it that all of a sudden we’re now extremely worried and interested in AI and devices that mimic neural networks? People were worried about it back then, and yet for decades it didn’t seem like people were that worried about this.

The Nature of Moral Motivation

Patricia S. Churchland [10.16.19]

Although we have made tremendous progress in understanding many details of the brain, there are huge gaps in our knowledge. What's relevant to me, as somebody who's interested in the nature of moral behavior, is how little we understand about the nature of reasoning, or if I may use a different expression, problem solving. I don't know what reasoning is. For a long time, people seemed to think it was completely separate from emotion, but we know that can't be true.

The nature of problem solving is something that is still very much in the pioneering stages in neuroscience. It's a place where neuroscience and psychology can cooperate to get interesting experimental paradigms so that we can attack the question: How is it that, out of all these constraints and factors, a reasonable decision can be made? That's a tough one. It will require us to find good experimental paradigms and new techniques.

PATRICIA S. CHURCHLAND is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, and adjunct professor at the Salk Institute. Her research has centered on the interface between neuroscience and philosophy, with a current focus on the association of morality and the social brain. She is the author of Conscience: The Origins of Moral IntuitionPatricia S. Churchland's Edge Bio Page


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