Writing that rocks – Disturbing the Universe

You can find the most interesting things in other people’s garages.

We were all at Brother #2’s house, a few months ago (this was the same visit where I learned of the North Sentinel Islands), and the guys and I ended up in the garage, looking through boxes of books that hadn’t been unpacked yet, after my brother’s recent move. We kept exclaiming over novels that we’d all read as children, some of which I hadn’t seen in almost thirty years. Of course, as soon as we’d “Oh-my-goshed” over a book, we immediately tried to identify which of us the book originally belonged to.

Such things are taken seriously, in my family.

After a few minutes of this, my brothers picked up a paperback book and started raving about how great it was. It had a creased cover and yellowish pages and was titled Disturbing the Universe, by Freeman Dyson. I’d never seen it before.

“You’ve got to read this,” both brothers said. “It’s by a scientist, a physicist…it’s his memoir.”

What luck! This dovetailed nicely with my very recent obsession with space and physics.

They handed the book to me, and I added it to a small stack of books that I’d pulled out because they either belonged to me; probably belonged to me; or possibly belonged to me, subject to further investigation. When we left that day, I jammed the books into the back of our van, where they tumbled over and fanned out across the floor. (My patient husband didn’t say a word. We’ve been married for twenty-one years and he knows, by now, that no matter where we are, books tend to attach themselves to me like barnacles.)

A few days later I picked up Disturbing the Universe and started reading. And, oh my stars.

First of all, Freeman Dyson is a great writer, not in a flashy way, but in a steady, sturdy, draws-you-in kind of way. Secondly, the book covers a particularly fascinating period in history, a period which included the creation of the atom bomb and the birth of space exploration. Dyson includes everything from technological details to arguments over the morality of both programs. There is philosophy. There is quoted poetry, quite a lot of it (Dyson is something of a Renaissance man.) There is, of course, physics.


Dyson was born in England in 1923, and became captivated by science as a small boy. During World War II he worked for Bomber Command, using mathematical analysis to try to reduce Allied casualties (all the while wrestling with his personal moral opposition to bombing.)

After the war he came to America for graduate studies, then went to California and worked on the General Atomic program (which eventually foundered.) He was involved in the test-ban negotiations of the 1960’s, and he spends chapters musing over the ethics of everything from defense strategies to DNA research. He worked alongside some of the most brilliant minds of the 20th-century, and he pays tribute to them with a great many personal anecdotes.

The last third of the book is devoted to space exploration, and this section is particularly dazzling (at least, if you’re a space nerd, like me.) The book was published in 1973, and it is evident that Dyson thought that by now (2010), the space program might have been more advanced than it is. He discusses all the possibilities that physicists were then debating, including extraterrestrials and interplanetary colonization. (He also admits that the latter is not likely to happen, and explains why.)

Disturbing the Universe is still in print, a testament to its enduring appeal. After I’d finished it, and was raving about it on Facebook, Brother #1 told me, “You know, I think that copy is actually mine.”

To which I maturely replied, “I don’t see your name in it. Finder’s keepers.”

Because blood may be thicker than water, but when it comes to a good book, it’s every man for himself.

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4 thoughts on “Writing that rocks – Disturbing the Universe

  1. Btw, I’ve seen brother #2s garage and also the map from a previous post, so I can follow along more vividly. Lisa and I stood in his office and talked using the map, unfortunately, I think he was the only one that could reach it to point at things.

    I’m also curious why space colonies are not feasible. Even I thought in the 70s that we would be living on Mars by now and I still don’t have my rocket car and robo dog.

  2. Keep writing, you are doing great!! I,m all caught up now and love reading your blog. One day SOON i will have time to join you in reading again.
    your dad

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