Freeman Dyson

I don’t want to turn this blog into an “obituary blog”, but I want to put up a post about Freeman Dyson’s passing. Not because I know that much about him, but because I’ve stumbled across a bunch of interesting stuff about him, after reading a few obituaries. So I guess I’m going to have two obituary posts in a row. (And maybe three, since there’s one more person I want to blog about.)

First: here are links to the obits from the NY Times, Washington Post and NPR. From the Times obit, I like this quote: “Life begins at 55, the age at which I published my first book.” (I’m not quite 55 yet, so there’s still hope for me!)

The Post obit has some interesting stuff about his experiences in World War Two:

Mr. Dyson witnessed how technology had “made evil anonymous,” as the bombers dropped incendiary explosives that ignited firestorms, destroying whole cities. He wondered later “how it happened that I let myself become involved in this crazy game of murder.”

And observations on religion:

“I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension,” he wrote.

And the Hacker News thread about his death led me to some interesting YouTube videos:

You could really fall into a deep rabbit hole, just watching Freeman Dyson videos on YouTube.

Of course, his views on some subjects, including climate change, were probably wrong, but it’s not a bad thing to have an educated, civil, contrarian expressing his opinions. There was a profile of him in the NY Times Magazine, back in 2009, titled “The Civil Heretic,” which seems like a pretty good description for him.

He lived in Princeton for many years, and died there. I’m really not far from Princeton, but it generally doesn’t occur to me to seek out interesting people and events that might be happening there. I’m sure he must have had a number of public speaking engagements at Princeton over the last 20 years, and I could probably have made it to one or two. So I guess that’s a missed opportunity. (But hey, I can still watch all of those YouTube videos, so that’s something.)

Voyager Golden Record

I was just watching a documentary on PBS about Voyager, and the bit about the golden record that was placed on Voyager got me thinking. I wondered if the audio from that record was available online somewhere. Well, it turns out that someone just did a Kickstarter to produce a fancy new version of the record. I really don’t want the fancy $100 box set, but maybe I’ll pop for the $15 digital download via Bandcamp.

It’s Voyager’s fortieth anniversary, hence the new documentary and the record Kickstarter. Also, there’s an article in The New Yorker about the record that looks interesting (though I haven’t read it yet). And, now that I’m looking, I see that there’s a slideshow article about Voyager’s 40th anniversary at The Atlantic site, and a recent article from the NY Times too.

I need to set up my TiVo to record the next showing of the PBS documentary, since I came in to it late, and I’m not going to stay up until 11pm tonight to watch the rest of it. So maybe I can watch the whole thing over the weekend.

total solar eclipse

I didn’t do anything really special for yesterday’s total solar eclipse, but I did get outside and take a quick look at it (using a pair of glasses I got from a friend). NASA has a good website up about the eclipse. And they have a nice photo group on Flickr, with user-submitted photos and their own photos.

I also like the idea of listening to some eclipse-related music. Mogwai’s new album, Every Country’s Sun, seems to be vaguely eclipse-related, based on the cover art. (But the full album isn’t out yet.) And Motion Sickness of Time Travel have released a track called Totality, which is obviously eclipse-inspired.

And I watched about half of the NOVA episode on the eclipse last night. (I would have watched the whole thing, but it got pushed back due to Trump’s speech, so it ran past my bedtime.) (Yes, I’m old, and I go to bed at 10pm.)

I feel like I probably would have been a lot more into this thing if it happened ten or fifteen years ago, when I was younger and more energetic (and could stay awake past 10pm). Maybe I would even have traveled somewhere in the path of totality and really had some fun.


Here’s a good article on the possibility of a coming bananapocalypse. It sounds kind of funny, but it’s a real problem.

The world’s most popular fruit, the Cavendish banana, is also one of the least genetically diverse. These seedless bananas destined for the $11 billion export market are, essentially, clones. That leaves the humble Cavendish vulnerable to diseases that can take advantage of its limited genetic diversity.

I eat a banana almost every day, so it would really bother me if they disappeared, but of course that’s a “first-world problem.” I’d just eat more of something else, and get on with my life. In some parts of the world, bananas are a staple and an important source of nutrition.

All of this seems to be leading up to a world much like the one presented in Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. Let’s hope we don’t actually let it go that far. (Which reminds me: I need to read more Paolo Bacigalupi.)

Scott Kelly’s Year in Space

On Tuesday, Scott J. Kelly is scheduled to return from the International Space Station, completing the longest stay in space for a NASA astronaut. Here are some ways to measure his mission.

Source: Scott Kelly’s Year in Space – The New York Times

This is a fun article, with some great photos. You really have to respect someone who uses up some of his weight allowance for personal items to bring a gorilla suit into space.

space shuttle

I remember I was a freshman at RPI when the last shuttle accident occured. It certainly affected a lot of people there, and served as an object lesson in the price that is sometimes paid when technology and engineering fail. While shuttle missions have become almost commonplace, they have never ceased to be dangerous. Flying off into space like that has always been an act of great hubris, requiring great faith and great courage from the people who actually get in the shuttle.