By Freeman Dyson
Harvard. 215 pp. $22

Go to the first chapter of "Imagined Worlds"

Go to Chapter One


The Coming Age of Wonders

By Rudy Rucker
Sunday, April 13, 1997; Page X05

With the millennium coming up, a lot of writers are attempting predictions -- and delivering stale cut-ups of today's newspapers. Linear extrapolations. More of the same, only more so. This is not the way of physicist Freeman Dyson. Imagined Worlds cuts straight to a new chase. "The dominant science of the twenty-first century will be biology." Dyson expects great advances in two areas of biological knowledge: the gene and the brain. He suggests that the first may give us pet dinosaurs, and the second may bring about "radiotelepathy."

Regarding genetic engineering, Dyson predicts a tool-based revolution based on a device that allows "the physical sequencing of DNA." This would be a kind of super-microscope capable of directly reading the genetic code found in cell nuclei. At present this process is done by means of slow, complicated "wet" chemical tests; Dyson's device would turn this into a "dry" physical process that automatically converts nature's messy analog codes into digital data. Mincing no words, Dyson exhorts, "I recommend this invention as a task for any ambitious young person who dreams of leading a scientific revolution."

Once we have the complete genetic code for the living organisms around us, how will we manipulate it? In and of itself, the code is even more incomprehensible than the binary bits of a machine-language computer program. But Dyson feels that we can discover a genetic metalanguage with high-level instructions on a par with "grow an eye here."

That organisms can be grown from eggs and seeds is a familiar miracle. Dyson refers to the DNA coding of organisms as "the first jump," and he calls the still-mysterious high-level genetic coding "the second jump." In arguing for the existence of genetic metalanguage, Dyson says, "The Cambrian explosion -- the sudden appearance in the Cambrian era 540 million years ago of the entire diversity of many-celled phyla -- was the result of the successful completion of the second jump. Once the abstract genetic language had been perfected, a marvelous menagerie of alternative adult body plans could be programmed and evolve by natural selection . . . "

So once we've used our physically sequenced DNA databases to figure out the genetic metalanguage, "Designing dogs and cats in the privacy of a home may become as easy as [using a computer program for] designing boats in a waterfront workshop." And of course there will be pet dinosaurs. And superchildren. All this will bring about great societal debate and dissent, although in the long term technology is, as usual, likely to prevail.

"Radiotelepathy" is a word coined by Dyson to express a surprising but logical idea: You could have something like a cordless phone inside your head. That is, "After the organization of the central nervous system has been explored and understood, the way will be open to develop and use the technology of electromagnetic brain signals." The radiotelepathy transmitters could be tiny chips implanted in the brain by microsurgery. Alternatively, they might be grown in place using a genetic engineering which takes advantage of "electric and magnetic organs that already exist in many species of eels, fish, birds and magnetitactic bacteria." It is interesting to speculate upon what kind of semantics we might use to communicate by radiotelepathy. Sub-vocal speech? Images? Emotions? On the down side, what if you couldn't turn your receiver off? Radiotelepathy is an exciting -- and troubling -- funhouse door opened by Imagined Worlds.

Going further into the future, Dyson says that sometime around the year 3000, our descendants will have dispersed over the whole solar system. Due to the vast size of this space, our population could become many millions of times as large. "No central authority will be able to regulate their activities or even be aware of their existence. The process of speciation, the division of our species into many varieties with genetic endowment drifting gradually further apart, will then be under way." Thanks to genetic engineering, human speciation will happen at an explosive pace and "our one species will become many."

As well as there being many more people, the quality of human experience may change. "Some of our descendants will be eager to explore the delights of collective memory and collective consciousness, made possible by . . . radiotelepathy. The experience . . . will enormously enlarge art, science, religion and history. . . . Those who have experienced the merging of memory and consciousness into a larger mind may find it difficult to communicate with those who still rely on spoken or written words. Those who have been part of an immortal group-mind may find it difficult to communicate with ordinary mortals." Like web surfers talking to computer literati?

As well as mind-boggling speculations, Imagined Worlds includes some good discussions of how science and technology relate to politics and ethics. There is, for instance, a fresh approach to the currently fashionable problem: How should we prevent earth from being hit by a comet?

Dyson's solutions is to use computer-enhanced digital telescopes to detect any comet that's within 100 years of crossing Earth's orbit. Given such a long lead time, a gentle solution to deflecting the comet is feasible. Simply send a solar-powered xenon-jet robot spacecraft to put a mass-driver on the comet. The mass-driver uses a magnetic accelerator to push buckets along a straight track, hurling scoops of comet crud to propel the comet the other way. Much cooler than a hydrogen bomb.

The future? Freeman Dyson has it figured out.

Rudy Rucker is a mathematician and a writer; his science-fiction novel "Freeware" is forthcoming.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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