Freeman Dyson’s Ecology of Science
By Sally Morem
Freeman Dyson came to St. Paul in April of 1988. He gave a lecture atMacalester College titled “The Ecology of Science,” on how scientific projects must compete for survival in an environment of scarce fundingresources.He began with three stories:1.A small Central African village was in need of water. Should a well bedrilled or should the village apply to the national government for funds to build an elaborate water system?
A new astronomical observatory was to be built in the Soviet Union.Should one large observatory be built in a convenient location for visitors from Moscow, but with poor visibility due to bad weather, or should several smaller observatories be built in more inaccessible places, but with good visibility?3.Should America build four large, elaborate, space-based observatories(including the Hubble Space Telescope) to be launched by the SpaceShuttle, or should it build numerous smaller, Explorer-class telescopesand launch them with expendable rockets?The people in charge chose the larger, more expensive projects in each of these cases in order to achieve village or national prestige, while turningdown the smaller projects, which would have worked better.Dyson did give an example of a large project that worked well - the VeryLarge Array radio telescope (VLA) near Socorro, New Mexico. It consists of a number of smaller radio telescopes arranged in a Y shape on a high plainsdesert. All the telescopes are linked by computer, which enables them towork as one large telescope. VLA worked so well because costs were keptdown. This kept VLA from crowding smaller astronomy projects out of theFederal science budget.