Imagined Worlds

Freeman Dyson

Based on a series of lectures given in 1995 at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, this brief book forms a series of informal meditations of the state of scientific discovery: mistakes that have been made in the past, and lessons that may be drawn from such mistakes to help us navigate the complex, turbulent paths ahead.

Dyson is a concise, lucid thinker, with a healthy appetite for science fiction as well as fact. His overview of warnings from people such as H.G. Wells during the surge of scientific enthusiasm that accompanied the Industrial Revolution is edifying, as are his narrative accounts of various scientific and engineering failures. He pays special attention to what he calls "ideologically-driven" technologies, which are not given enough room to fail, and thus risk vast losses of time, funds, and often lives.

I found this book ultimately disappointing, though. It’s neither comprehensive nor especially radical in its outlook. If anything makes it worth reading, it’s his ever-expanding account of the past and future based on Shakespeare’s concept of the ‘seven ages of man’. Starting with a look at ten years ago and ten years in the future, he looks progressively further back and ahead to 100 years, 1,000 years, 10,000 years, 100,000 years, 1,000,000 years, and eventually to infinity (and beyond!). It takes a great, strong optimism to seriously consider the problems and possibilities of how the universe’s expansion may affect galactic colonisation, and Dyson has to be commended if only for that.