Science writing of nearly every shade is axiomatically time-sensitive; a lecture on the origins of life from a perspective in the natural sciences, from an theorectical physicist such as Freeman Dyson, therefore emerges as ‘dated’ fairly quickly. Thankfully, Dyson takes his title Infinite In All Directions—quoting Emil Wiechert—very much to heart, with the common thread of the book emerging not in its sequential facts, but instead in its consistent and multicontextual bid for diversity, the “chief source of beauty and value, in the natural universe around is, in the governance of human societies, and in the depths of our individual souls” (xiii).
With the most recent 2004 edition offering the author’s own perspective on what has and has not proven obsolete since the original 1988 publication, Dyson is clear as to the thematic thrust of his work, admitting that he has no desire to “revise” the piece to update the science; in functional terms, though, the necessary updates would do nothing to add or detract from the great value of Dyson’s work where it stands to be gleaned from the the philosophical insights he never shirks, and arguably circles back to as a rule.
Of seventeen chapters, separated into two parts, the topical breakdown is straightforward: a thorough narrative history via a relevant literature review of science comprises chapters 1-6, with chapters 7-16 dealing with the intersections of technology and politics. Often terming his chapters “sermons”, Dyson only fully owning to his personal take on the subjects he treats with, but likewise embodying his confessed view of a God who “loves diversity” (xiii) and allows humanity to know God’s work “by reading the Book of Nature” (xiv) as readily as reading the Bible. Frequently declaring his own allegiances in the debates he expounds upon—whether those debates regard the origin of life, the eschaton, economic production models, or nuclear disarmament—it is clear from the outset that Dyson’s own personal allegiances are never precisely the point. For instance, where Dyson often distinguishes between unifiers, seeking to understand everything as it is, and diversifiers, looking to introduce the oft-disruptive new, Dyson never seems to primarily be about the business of persuasion in one direction or another. Instead, he emerges much more in favour of the business of laying down the facts and observing the multiplicity in them as indicative of what God loves: diversity.
Despite the great bulk of the text being scientifically oriented—though effectively integrated with accessible prose, reflection, and literary epigraphs—Dyson’s vision is oriented ever toward the future (one that he unapologetically celebrates the necessary imagination of, as humanity envisions the unknowable beyond the grasp of science) and in so being the book is artfully and enjoyably accessible. Moreover, even where his examples speak to their time (the Cold War, Reagan’s Star Wars, the slow decline of nuclear power, etc.), the underlying concerns of security, international power dynamics, armaments, innovation, and economics prove immortal, with even some of his idle commentaries—one regarding the persistence of US naval presence in Guantanamo, for instance—striking presciently home in the now. Furthermore, Dyson’s often pithy insights into what works, what doesn’t, the “beauty” of quickness, the value of simplicity, and the applicable limits of dreams, among others, provide ample fodder for consideration, regardless of the context or timeframe.
Overall, if one is so inclined toward scientific theorizing and hypothesizing, then they are invited wholly to enjoy Dyson’s impeccably readable writing on such matters, pre-LHC, and even if the reader is not so inclined, the thorough trek through the history of post-Enlightenment science is written very much as narrative, rather than textbook. However, even without such a predilection, the audience is invited to marvel starkly at the main event: all of the things that we still do not know, and therefore might continue to ponder in a spirit of possibility, inviting diversity; indeed, the very infinitude of the universe, and of being within that universe, as it extends in all conceivable directions.