I interviewed George Dyson partly out of personal interest, having read the book “The Starship and the Canoe”, by Kenneth Brower. That book describes George’s interest in building boats known as Baidarkas – a type of kayak traditionally used by the Aleut people. The book also describes work done by his father Freeman Dyson on a project known as ‘Orion’, which designed a nuclear-propelled spaceship. The spaceship was never built, though many documents from the project are stored in George’s office.
Since “The Starship and the Canoe” was written, George has worked as an author and a historian, publishing several of his own books including “Darwin among the Machines”, “Baidarka”, and “Project Orion”. He also runs the company Dyson, Baidarka & co. building Baidarka kayaks, which apply modern materials to the traditional Aleut design. In our interview, we discuss the meaning of the word ‘sustainability’, which George thinks is overused. The interview runs for half an hour, after which the recording stops.
George Dyson interview:
Allen: What does sustainability mean to you?
Dyson: I think it’s one of those words that has become meaningless, because it’s so overused. A lot of words like that become such buzzwords, and they don’t mean anything.
Allen: It’s true…
Dyson: It’s almost like the reverse is better – try to think of something that’s not sustainable. I saw a car drive by the other day – actually it’s been driving around for a while, but it read “sustainable real estate”. So, a realter who claims to be sustainable. What does that mean? Do they print the contract on recycled paper?
Allen: reading Starship and the canoe inspired a number of ideas… what have you been doing since that time?
Dyson: Ah, that was a long time ago. I saw Ken a couple weeks ago, in California. That book was published in ’78. The story took place in 1975, so 36 years ago… most of my life has been after that. So, I don’t know how much you want, but it’s a long story.
Allen: well, you’ve been building boats since then…
Dyson: Um, part of the time. I mean, I switched in a lot of ways away from it you know, the book sort of cast me in this…role, this character – I don’t always want to be the character in the book, so I’ve switched away very consciously. I started doing other things.
Allen: I also read part of Baidarka
Dyson: and lately, in the last 10 years I’ve just been writing one book
Allen: is that the one about the internet?
Dyson: it’s getting real – I have a publication date… my book ‘darwin among the machines’ was sort of a pre-history. This book is very specific to the people who invented the kind of memory that runs in your computer, the whole idea of putting numbers into fast memory. Which changed how we change the world more than anything else. “Darwin among the machines” came out in 1997. And in all those cases I made a story of the people, who very creatively invented something. Why is it that small groups of people can be creative, and large groups of people usually are not?
Allen: that’s an interesting question. One of the thoughts I’ve had since reading Starship and the Canoe was that, if people created a spaceship – it would be built by craftsmen, as opposed to scientists.
Dyson: Yeah – they need to work together. And, this is still true today, but much more in the past: scientists had to be craftsmen. There’s a lot of craftsmanship to doing science, and designing an experiment. Experiments today are so large, it’s not very often that a craftsman does experiments.
Allen: so what do you do as a science historian?
Dyson: I do whatever interests me. in a way, to me, there was an unbelievable lecture actually, that I really have been able to work my entire life with, following my own particular interest. Generally it’s things I don’t even understand.. I don’t understand computers. Yet they were clearly taking over the world. and by writing a book about it, you’re forced to develop a really deep understanding, before you can explain something to other people, you have to understand it really well.
And it was the same with project Orion – I had grown up with this project, and it was secret. My father couldn’t really tell me anything about it, but I was fascinated by it, so when I realized I could…the time was running out, the people who had worked on that project were most people I interviewed for that book are dead now, or not interviewable any more. So I wanted to capture their memories at the very last possible moment. That worked really well. Of all the books I’ve done, that was the most clear. trying to get a specific story from a specific, small number of people. it was clear where the boundaries were. Because all the literature was classified, I could get all the literature there was, whereas in “history of computing”, where do you stop? it sort of goes on almost forever.
Allen: right- how do you define ‘computing’, exactly…
Dyson: but if you go back to a point, like in this case, how did the digital universe begin, then it kind of works the same way. You get back to a smaller and smaller group of people, it’s like a family of people, who you can start to understand, who they really were. And I think that’s an important thing – it’s something that’s very deep, in our evolution as a species. When we became human, it really was by sitting around the campfire, and the old people telling the stories to the young people, that’s really what built culture. And, in a way, that’s what I do – go back and find the stories, of these old people and package them in a way that people will read them, instead of ignoring them. there’s a tremendous tendency to ignore history. There’s a certain, small sub-set of people who are fascinated by history, and the rest of the world kind of ignores it.
Allen: so then that first book that you wrote, what was the name of it?
Dyson: “Project Orion” – that was my third book. First was “Baidarka”, then was “Darwin among the Machines”, about computing. “Darwin among the Machines” was very successful, it came out at the right time. Just when the internet became popular, about fifteen years ago. So then, I could do whatever I wanted. Publishers said, well, whatever you want to do next, we’ll support it. and I’ve always been curious about Orion.
The interesting thing about history is, it’s one of the very few fields that is open to amateurs. If you’re interested in physics, and you want to do physics experiments, you can’t walk into a physics lab and say, “I’d like to use the cyclotron…” or something. Just, no way. I mean, there are ways, but it’s extremely difficult.
In history, you can – I never finished highschool. I was able to walk into any archive, and if you know what you want, the archivists…It’s astonishing how happy they are to help you, to give you access just as if you were…had three Phd’s, it makes no difference. The tools of history are sort of available to anyone. You know, I could write this book about history of computing that was taken very seriously, even though I had no qualifications to write it.
Allen: yeah, and it’s interesting – with the internet, it’s even more so.
Dyson: yeah, and I think possibly it’s becoming even more of a problem, that the craftsmanship isn’t there any more at least. To work in an archive, you have to sort of know how to find things… now, it’s a little too easy – you don’t get the context anymore. There’s a lot of really awful, bad, garbage history I think being produced, where people really don’t know the order in which things happened. they just sort of throw it out there. Or they think ‘casue they found three things, they know everything.
Allen: there’s a whole thing about the idea that we might actually lose history from the internet, because of the lack of written records that are being…
Dyson: I don’t think that’s true… I think we gain as much as we lose… what we lose is the sense of depth, that when stuff sort of accumulates in layers of paper, it stays in the layers. To kind of get to the 1950’s, you have to go through the 1960’s, then get back to the 1950’s. with the internet, you kind of get these pieces everywhere.
That’s the problem with kids, I mean – students – have… when I went to school everybody hated history. But at least you had a book, that was like ‘united states history’, and when the teacher said “today we’re doing world war two”, you know, that was towards the end of the book, and the civil war was towards the middle of the book… but on the internet, there’s no pages, you have no sense of where things are. same with maps! I find students now who have kids, who have no real sense of where things are, because you just google the directions, but you don’t need a mental map of…
Allen: it says “turn left here”…
Dyson: I mean, that kind of stuff is pretty dangerous.
Allen: I was on a sailing trip, and the captain wanted us very much “no radar, no GPS, you’ve got to be aware”…. So, what do you think about Wikipedia, that sort of thing? As a phenomenon
Dyson: Oh, wikipedia’s great! It’s extremely useful.. there are some things its good at, and some things its not. It’s very good at science and mathematics… sort of, because of the audience who contributes or something. There’s a lot of, you know, science and math graduate students, people who have time on their hands to correct things if they’re wrong. So in general, if you look on Wikipedia for an explanation of, you know, I was looking the other day for something called the continuum hypothesis, which is something in mathematics. And it actually has a very clear explanation. Because, where you might go to a textbook, and get an explanation that’s hard to understand, Wikipedia really has evolved those explanations very well. If you’re trying to find out about ‘random access memory’ or something like that.
Then for politics, and stuff I’m not so sure. Because people’s opinions kind of uh, change. so I think it’s amazing – it’s amazingly good, if something’s not there, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.
The question is, is it sustainable? It was driven by this group of people –
Allen: who really believed in the mission, yeah
Dyson: who took pride, and took care of it. you know, ten years from now, what’s the model going to be, who’s going to take care of it?
Allen: that’s an interesting question, yeah.
Dyson: I know the guy who started it, reasonably well. Jimmy wales. Sort of his baby.
Allen: I had that sense – I saw your TED talk, and I also saw something about the founding of Wikipedia.
Dyson: there’s tremendous controversy – people who started it, and now all hate eachother. Very different views of… somebody doesn’t like me on Wikipedia, which is odd. I never look at my entry, but my daughter does, and if anybody puts anything…. Somebody put something, you know a little more in-depth about my work, and it was removed.
Allen: huh, that’s weird…
Dyson: I think, you have certain people who just… I mean, that’s the problem with it, it allows someone anonymously to… an the reverse, people can write great things about their own books, and you don’t really know where it came from.
Allen: I mean, the whole phenomenon of Wikipedia-like things on the internet I think is very interesting, the whole collaborative aspect.
Dyson: yeah, it can work really well…. Wikipedia lists me as British! It lists me as a British scientist… so, there’s a case of not being accurate. And then, any error in Wikipedia gets replicated very quickly, because it’s replicated by other places, but the corrections aren’t necessarily replicated.
Allen: the interesting thing about the internet I think is that most things you create, can become that way. In a certain sense. I can have people add to them. one thing I’ve done is that I’ve started a blog recently. It’s like, trying to create collaborative designs. Essentially I put my own designs on there, and in theory people will start adding to them. if they know about my blog. so it’s an interesting way of creating, like a vision. So have you been building boats recently as well?
Dyson: no, not recently, not for at least ten years, I haven’t built a single boat. actually, more than that. I sell the materials to other people, building them. I find I can’t do two things – I have these overdue dealines on books, and if I do any boat-building, I just can’t get anywhere
Allen: I could see how that would be.
Dyson: I have these delusions of doing boats, and it just hasn’t really worked.
Allen: I mean, I think the idea of the Baidarka is a very interesting one to have, in society. In a sense of, uh, different ways to get around places. I’ve sort of, I’ve thought of that as, as like – sustainable transportation, I don’t know if I mentioned that.
Dyson: yeah, it’s odd it’s been so ignored, I mean, in that sense, I’m terribly disappointed, I mean when I started this, you know, twenty years ago or whatever, I assumed that kayaks would come back as a realistic way of life, and it’s essentially just become toys for the rich. In a way that… when I started kayaking, there were essentially zero kayaks in the entire… this coastline is still less populated now, than at any time in the last ten thousand years. There were no kayaks. Now, if you go out in the summer, you see places where there are a lot of kayaks, but if you survey those kayaks, most people, probably the average duration that they’re in the kayak is maybe like, five days. there might be the odd person who’s taking a three-week trip, and the odd person who’s out for the afternoon, so it’s not a way of life at all, it’s just…I mean, it’s more than a sport, but it’s not sustainable if you…
Allen: I know what you mean, it’s kind of like, people can go out, and not really quite go out there.
Dyson: which is ok, I mean, it’s better than people who go out riding jet-skis, or go water-skiing. But it’s still a long way from what it could be…
Allen: I mean, I do think things like kayaks are important to be going back to, as a means of transport. Just as, something to replace the fossil fuels, that sort of thing. So, you’ve been writing books then, for a good bit?
Dyson: a long time! I was just simply building kayaks until, like, 1993, or 94, when I was asked to write an essay for a magazine in Japan, a very fancy magazine. I got a lot of support from Japan for a while, that’s how I was able to move to Bellingham. Really my audience was in Japan. They supported me very generously. So this magazine commissioned an essay on nature and technology, assuming – they thought it would be about kayaks, I thought it would be about kayaks. A kayak is a … natural technology. For some reason, I don’t know if I was getting bored, or.. I wrote an essay about computers, coming alive and taking over the world. which I’d always been thinking about. That was when, before, just the very beginnings of the internet, twenty years ago. And, then, a literary agent I knew saw that, and said, “you know, you should – I could sell this, as a book”. So he sold the proposal ….. at that time were sort of the only academic publishers that were starting to publish books about computing. For, just kind of general audience. And they bought the idea of that book. So, then instantly I became a writer, like overnight. I had a contract to do a book. And that really… then I still finished a couple kayaks I was working on, while writing that book, and after that came Orion, and I felt this tremendous pressure of time and if nobody interviewed these people soon, they would no longer be there. I spent a lot of time getting a lot of stuff de-classified. So one thing led to another.
Allen: so where does the research that you’ve done on the most recent book come from?
Dyson: it mostly came from one… a lot of it came from one archive in Princeton, New Jersey, at the place where this machine was built, but it was not a known, or open archive, it was a bunch of stuff that had been left in a basement. And I helped, basically, bring it back to life. and then, most of the other stuff came out of other people’s basements, so it’s all sort of very – there’s different levels of doing research, there’s sort of, getting stuff out of books, there’s… getting stuff that is processed, and cataloged in archives but not published, then there’s a deeper level, which is actually finding stuff that nobody has found. And that’s…
Allen: that’s where you want to get to if you can
Dyson: a lot of this book comes from that level. and it’s important new stuff. It sort of, establishes facts in the history of computing, which is very disputed, as to what really happened. I get a lot of stuff translated from, handwritten Hungarian letters, and things like that. And that – that’s one reason the book is five years late. Because I love that kind of stuff, I could do that for ever. It’s like detective work. Actually writing is torture.
Allen: I can sympathize with that a bit
Dyson: and finding the story is, very hard. And then, the question is, what do you do with all that stuff – a tiny fraction of it ends up in the book, what do you do with all the rest. I don’t want to write any more books…. Since these big projects, but I need to uh, some point – organize and digitize all the stuff I collected, so that it’s not lost. There’s more project orion documents in this building than anywhere in the world, which is risky, because it could burn down. For Orion, I think I did three hundred hours of interviews.
Allen: have you heard of, like Daedelus and Icarus, too? Those were around…
Dyson: yeah, they were not – realistic – projects.
Allen: were they interstellar?
Dyson: nothing’s interstellar, I mean, we have no conceivable way of doing interstellar missions. So, Daedelus was very much pie in the sky kind of project. You’re talking about the new Icarus project?
Allen: I’m not sure…
Dyson: ‘cause there’s a new one now that DARPA… it’s also just a completely fictitious study. Orion was a real… they were, at one time, preparing to actually build it. and it, could actually work. Whereas Deadelus is…. The problem with Daedelus is it depends on doing something we don’t even know how to do on the ground. and if we could it would change everthing, but we don’t. we don’t know how to do fusion. And we’ve been trying to do it. you know, for fifty years, but we really haven’t gotten close. The fatal flaw with those schemes is, even if you can get to another star, which is, you know, a hundred and fifty years if you go a tenth the speed of light, which is really hard. Nobody answers the question, how do you stop when you get there? By the time you get there, you’re going so fast… you, takes an equal amount of deceleration to stop. And that question is simply not addressed by most of those schemes. So, you get there, and then you start…flying by.
Allen: yeah, what do you think about, like, a space elevator, that’s a thing they’ve been trying to create for a while
Dyson: I don’t think that’s realistic either – it just defies the laws of physics. The problem is, if you…if you build something that strong, the energy that has to be stored in it is so dense, it’s like…more than high explosives. So, if it fails, it fails catastrophically. So I don’t…I don’t believe in it. there are things that could work, there are some very clever things that don’t defy the laws of physics, that we could do, but they all require a very large investment.
Allen: Another class I took was called “Visioning Sustainable Futures”. What would be your vision of a sustainable future?
Dyson: well, the most obviously clear sustainable future is solar energy. And wind energy. Which is just a different way of capturing solar energy. There’s really two forms where we need energy, we need electricity, and we need photosynthesis, and we need momentum. An the wind has the virtue of being momentum already. Wind’s already moving, so it’s a very good thing to capture. But ultimately it’s all solar. And, the great thing is, we’re actually moving in that direction finally. I mean, there’s more and more solar. But it’s just – I think it’s insane, to be putting money into things like nuclear…just straight solar…
My recording of the interview stops here, but George and I went on to discuss further aspects of the Starship and the Canoe, including where he’s come since that book was written.