A Physicist Pursues Disarmament Pioneering Scientist Freeman Dyson Says Fusion Is Dead and Advocates Breaking Up NASA. INTERVIEW

By Keith Henderson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, December 7, 1994 | Go to article overview

A Physicist Pursues Disarmament Pioneering Scientist Freeman Dyson Says Fusion Is Dead and Advocates Breaking Up NASA. INTERVIEW


Keith Henderson, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Freeman Dyson lets out a wry, snorting chuckle as he recalls his work on the Orion Project in the late 1950s. "It was in a way absurd, but I was quite happy developing this project," says the physicist and author, whose career helped shape many landmarks - minor and major - of the nuclear age.

That career often climbed into the stratosphere of mathematics and physics. Mr. Dyson's colleagues included such nuclear pioneers as J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, Hans Bethe, and others. His interests, exhibited in his books on science and society, have frequently stretched beyond physics to astronomy and biology. His honors include this year's Enrico Fermi Award, given by the United States government for lifetime achievement in science.

The Orion Project, which proposed the use of controlled nuclear explosions to propel vehicles through space, in the end lost its federal funding and failed. At the time, Dyson says, the project made good technical sense. Chuckling again, he notes that the bullet-shaped Orion spacecraft would have used up 1,000 nuclear bombs per trip, and so might have been a great way for the US to unilaterally disarm.

Disarmament is a recurrent theme in a course called "The Nuclear Age" that Dyson teaches as a visiting fellow at Dartmouth College, along with history professor Martin Sherwin. It's a theme he knows by heart, having followed the issue for decades as a scientist, an interested citizen, and, for a stint during the 1960s, as a staff member of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

For the moment, teaching is his work, the slight but dynamic physicist says after the class adjourns. He recently retired after 40 years at Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Studies and may soon devote himself again to writing. A string of books, starting with "Disturbing the Universe" (1979), have become classics of science writing for the general reader.

Returning to the disarmament theme, Dyson says efforts over the past couple of years to reduce nuclear weaponry have heartened him. "Considering what a vast apparatus it is, it's remarkable the process has gone as quickly as it has," he says. He describes a tour he took a few years ago of US nuclear-weapons installations as "absolutely hair-raising." But the "quick alert" forces in use then have receded as a result of post-cold-war arms agreements.

Dyson believes the most dangerous pieces of the the nuclear arsenal were ship-based cruise missiles, which could have been launched at the discretion of a vessel's captain. Those, too, are gone.

Still, he estimates it will take at least 10 years to get rid of even half of the weaponry stockpiled on both sides of the old Iron Curtain. Meanwhile, he hopes politicians will not derail the process. He worries that Americans could "brag too much about being the only superpower" and play into the hands of Russians who want to return to military glory days.

But Dyson is not worried that the recent seismic shift in US politics will undermine nuclear disarmament. "Historically, Republicans have been much better with arms control than the Democrats," he says. He points to Richard Nixon's unilateral move to jettison US biological weapons and George Bush's far-reaching arms-reduction agreements.

John F. Kennedy had the worst record in this area, Dyson asserts. "What was so dangerous about Kennedy was that everybody trusted him" even as he increased the nuclear Minuteman missile force out of all proportion to need, he says, and played nuclear brinkmanship in Cuba.

Dyson has long been involved in finding peaceful uses for atomic power too, having developed a type of small reactor that is still used for research. …

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