Sunday, February 15, 2015

There are lots of reasons to be optimistic…but the problems aren't over

In my Twitter feed, there was one from the Scientific American--that it was Richard Feynman's death anniversary.

That prompted me to read my own posts on Feynman and I tweeted my favorite one, on his "The pleasure of finding things out."

Re-reading, even if they are my posts, is joyful and, strangely, insightful in ways that I might not have known the first time around.  I re-read there Feynman's comment that ""nature cannot be fooled" and connected back to yesterday's post that “Science is a method for deciding whether what we choose to believe has a basis in the laws of nature or not.”

All that re-reading, which reminded me of that Nabakov quote, led me to thinking about Freeman Dyson.  I wondered whether the old man had died when I was not looking.  Thankfully, he is alive and well.  And writing and talking.

When asked whether he was optimistic given the state of the world, Dyson replies:
You have to be optimistic if you grew up in the 1930’s because so many bad things were concentrated in the 1930’s. You had the huge economic depression, much worse than now with huge numbers of unemployed people, the environment was much worse than now – England was absolutely black, you went to London in the morning and the white collar was black by the evening because the air was so full of soot – and then we had Hitler threatening to kill us (laughs). So I think that having survived all of that, you can’t help but being optimistic. The problems we have now are certainly real, but not any worse than we had then.
It takes a living old man to put things in perspective.  To remind us that the old days were far worse.  Our greatest problem of the day is ... wait, what is our greatest problem that can compare with the combination of the Great Depression and Hitler and Stalin?

So, hey Professor Dyson, can you tell us more from the life that you have so richly lived?
 I lived through the demolition of the British Empire, which I thought was a great thing. I remember the first election that I took part in, it was in 1950 and I was in England at the time. That was five years after World War II and Attlee had been the Prime Minister replacing Churchill. He was running for re-election in 1950 and I was living in Birmingham when Attlee actually came to a big open-air political gathering and made his campaign speech and the whole population of Birmingham came out to listen to him, so it was a big deal. So he talked away about all the great things that his government had done, that he had brought people back from the war and resettled them with jobs and provided people free education, that he’d established a national health service and one or two other things…the public was pretty much bored, not much in the way of cheers. Then, at the end, he said, “And we gave freedom to India!” And there were huge cheers from the crowd. I found that very impressive, that that was a thing that people really understood and cared about and that was much more important, giving freedom to India. So I felt very happy for those people then, they understood that this was something that was historically very important. Churchill would have held onto India until the last possible moment, so I voted for Attlee (laughs).
It is interesting, right, that Churchill is considered a great statesman, when the guy was awful to the non-whites?  Churchill was, for all purposes, a white supremacist.  He couldn't even care that a million people in Bengal would die in the famine and overruled his own cabinet's recommendation to re-route a ship to India; remember?  The food shortage in India:
was caused by large-scale exports of food from India for use in the war theatres and consumption in Britain - India exported more than 70,000 tonnes of rice between January and July 1943, even as the famine set in. This would have kept nearly 400,000 people alive for a full year. Mr Churchill turned down fervent pleas to export food to India citing a shortage of ships - this when shiploads of Australian wheat, for example, would pass by India to be stored for future consumption in Europe. As imports dropped, prices shot up and hoarders made a killing. Mr Churchill also pushed a scorched earth policy - which went by the sinister name of Denial Policy - in coastal Bengal where the colonisers feared the Japanese would land. So authorities removed boats (the lifeline of the region) and the police destroyed and seized rice stocks.
Oh well!

Any final thoughts, Professor Dyson?
Of course, India as its own country has its problem, but it’s still a hell of a lot better than being part of the British Empire. And that’s not just India, the whole world has begun to stop being part of empires and I think that that’s good, the collapse of the Soviet Union was another wonderful thing that happened which we did not expect. So there are lots of reasons to be optimistic…but not to believe that the problems are over.
There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic, yes.  Thanks for that reminder!


  1. While never a particular fan of Fleetwood Mac, I banished this song and the band eternally from my playlist once it was adopted by Clinton's campaign. Couldn't you have used a clip of Scarlett O'Hara? :)

  2. tsk, tsk, tsk ... banishing that song because of the Clintons? you are merely punishing yourself while the Clintons are laughing all the way to the bank and perhaps to the White House also ;)


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