Freeman Dyson’s Ecology of Science

By Sally Morem
Freeman Dyson came to St. Paul in April of 1988. He gave a lecture at Macalester College titled “The Ecology of Science,” on how scientific projects must compete for survival in an environment of scarce funding resources. He began with three stories: 1. A small Central African village was in need of water. Should a well be drilled or should the village apply to the national government for funds to build an elaborate water system?
2. 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 Space Shuttle, or should it build numerous smaller, Explorer-class telescopes and 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 turning down the smaller projects, which would have worked better. Dyson did give an example of a large project that worked well - the Very Large 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 plains desert. All the telescopes are linked by computer, which enables them to work as one large telescope. VLA worked so well because costs were kept down. This kept VLA from crowding smaller astronomy projects out of the Federal science budget.

Dyson believes that large and small science projects can be designed to work well together. He cited genetic research as an example. Many small, decentralized projects would continue, while a center for developing technologies for identifying and mapping genes would be instituted. A centralized storage facility for genetic materials would also be built. Researchers could then visit these facilities to improve their research techniques, but would not have to abandon their own creativity to huge bureaucratic institutions. (As we know now, genetic research became far more decentralized than Dyson envisioned.) Near the end of the presentation, I asked Dyson how his analysis of large and small scientific projects could be applied to the proposed space station. He answered that the space station was an example of a poorly thought out large project - at least as far as space science was concerned. In response to another question, Dyson said that he did believe that humanity would spread out into the Solar System and beyond one day. Problems with the design, development, and coordination of a variety of scientific projects should be addressed more fully by space activists. I thank Freeman Dyson for his insights on these issues and hope that he will now address these issues in a larger context: How do we get to where we all want to go? If people of substance like Dyson have not yet fully considered the many steps it will take to get from where we are now to a Solar System civilization, and consider the plain fact that a permanent space station must play a key part in this process, we have our work cut out for us. I believe if we do develop a detailed and wide-ranging scenario for space development, we will have a much easier time discovering the common needs of science, exploration, industry, and human habitation in space. We will then be able to present a united front to potential funders and be that much closer to our dream. Dyson’s vision of large and small scientific projects co-existing, even energizing one another, is attractive. One of the reasons VLA worked so splendidly is the fact that it combined the best features of one very large project (the overall telescope) with those of a collection of many smaller projects (many small telescopes), forming a kind of “fractal” telescope, if

you will. Each small telescope was built and put into place with existing funding. Additional telescopes were added when new funding became available. As the array grew, the overall telescope grew in its ability to acquire and process radio signals. We could do space science in a similar manner. There have been several projects proposed that call for NASA to build small, simple space probes and sent them to the other planets in the Solar System, instead of sending large, complex probes. Like the Colt revolver of Western lore, these could be designed with interchangeable parts and be mass produced to cut costs further. Current plans for unmanned spacecraft call for the construction of large, elaborate, custom-crafted space probes, such as Voyager and Galileo. Voyager performed admirably, capturing images of the outer gas giants that have never been seen before. But, these probes are quite massive and we don’t have the engines or the fuel that would allow them to maneuver into parking orbits around the planets. So, they fly by and are gone forever. Contrast this with a VLA-style small space probe program. This would consist of thousands of small spacecraft with engines powerful enough to let them get anywhere in the Solar System and stay there. Each probe would contain a different scientific instrument and would do a different job. The following instruments were housed aboard the Voyager II spacecraft: Magnetometer Radio astronomy antennae Plasma-wave antennae High resolution camera Photopolarimeters Infrared and ultraviolet spectrometers And yet, with all this hardware, Voyager II could only perform ten different scientific experiments during its voyage. The basic structure of space probes would be standardized. Each would serve as a framework on which to hang different instruments. Small space

probes would be able to do any number of experiments and scientists could tailor all feasible experiments to the requisite instrument. The advantages of this system are obvious. We could start out by launching a few probes at a time fairly quickly at modest cost while building up an inventory, which would eventually give us a truly massive space science capability. Since all the probes would be compatible, as soon as one broke down, another could take its place. The funding of space probes would no longer be restricted to governments. A company or a university could finance the construction and launching of one or more for its own experiments. Decentralization of funding sources would end the boom-bust cycles of Congressional space budgeting. Imagine the many and varied missions out on which we could send such a fleet. Detailed LANDSAT-quality surveys of every planet. Continual monitoring of weather systems of all planets with atmospheres. Very long baseline astronomy made up of clouds of probes with telescopes spreading out for billions of miles, allowing astronomers to pinpoint the positions of distant planets, stars and galaxies with much greater precision. A detailed measurement of the size and shape of the heliosphere, tracking the ebb and flow of ionized particles streaming out of the Sun. All this and more, much more could be done. These probes would be linked together in a Solar System-wide information network supported by more powerful and accurate TDRS satellites than those that exist today. We could, in effect, wire the Solar System for sound (and sight) with these probes as we send them out into space over a period of decades. They would orbit
every planet and moon, monitor the Sun, and selected asteroids and comets. We would then be receiving a flood of information every second of the day, a wealth of information our scientists could never begin to exhaust. With more advanced technology, such as nanotechnology, we could “grow” far more advance probes by the millions, sending many out to the Oort Cloud surrounding the Solar System, and beyond to the stars. If we wish to develop a Solar System civilization, it’s time we begin taking full measure of our future home. The development of small space probes may be the way to go. Freeman Dyson is most famous for developing a concept called the Dyson Sphere, an enormous sphere the size of Earth’s Solar orbit, encasing the Sun and capturing all of its

radiation for human use. How fitting would it be if a real, non-solid Dyson sphere grew around our Solar System over the centuries, one composed of trillions of tiny space probes? I think this would be the most fitting future memorial to a great scientist imaginable.

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