Freeman Dyson Predicts the Future

Interactive Video: Choose the sections you want to watch by clicking on subjects on the video’s menu screen.

When we started making a list of visionaries to interview for our special issue commemorating IEEE Spectrum’s 50th anniversary, Freeman Dyson was one of the first names to come up.

The celebrated physicist’s career got off to a quick start in the late 1940s, with a critical contribution to the then-nascent field of quantum electrodynamics. Since then it’s ranged far and wide, touching on subjects as varied as solid-state physics, biology, and climate change.

But for many, Dyson is known for his most speculative ideas. He is the man for whom the Dyson sphere is named—a hypothetical structure, built by an alien civilization, that could capture most or all the energy emitted by a star (and leave a telltale excess of infrared light that could be picked up by our telescopes). Dyson was also one of the key players on Project Orion, which ran from 1958 to 1963 and which conceived of a spacecraft, powered by a series of controlled nuclear explosions, that could have potentially carried humans to Saturn by 1970.

We wanted to see what this bold and imaginative thinker might have to say about humanity’s next 50 years. He welcomed IEEE Spectrum to his office at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., last October, just a few days after a celebration honoring his 90th birthday.  

In the video posted here, you’ll find an interactive version of his discussion with Associate Editor Rachel Courtland. Topics include the possibility of finding extraterrestrial life, the future of space exploration, and what might become of our efforts to better understand the human brain. One of Dyson’s wilder ideas is a sort of “super-chicken,” a biological system that could allow people without a wealth of natural resources to grow their own chairs, tables, and other objects.

Toward the end of the discussion, Courtland couldn’t help but ask Dyson what it’s like to make predictions about the far future. “The point about prediction is not that it’s true. Prediction is just either a warning or a hope,” he responded. “Predictions should never claim to be true. But you can certainly claim that they’re possibilities you ought to think about.”

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