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Where will our inventions lead?

26 September 2020

9:00 AM

26 September 2020

9:00 AM

Analogia: The Entangled Destinies of Nature, Human Beings and Machines George Dyson

Allen Lane, pp.304, 25

When reviewers say that some new book reminds them of some famous old book, it often ends up as a blurb on the paperback edition, so I want to be clear: when I say that George Dyson’s Analogia reminds me of Robert Pirsig’s New Age classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I do not mean it exactly as a compliment.

I don’t mean it as a dig, either. I just mean it has the same sense of dreamy, ambitious oddness, of trying to piece together some grand theory from disparate parts, from practical techne as much as academic logos.

Pirsig’s book was a theory of philosophy dressed up as a memoir of a motorcycle trip; Dyson’s is a memoir of a strange childhood and youth, dressed up as a theory of —what? Intelligence? Humanity’s technological future? Something. It’s hard to classify. It is a compelling and oddly beautiful book, but never quite achieves what it sets out to achieve.

It veers, as Pirsig’s did, from detailed accounts of working with one’s hands (on kayaks, rather than motorcycles) to equally detailed discussion of serious research (scientific, rather than Greek and eastern philosophy). And it wants to use them both to point to some deep truth beneath the surface.

There is a fine line to walk with a work like this between great profundity and a sort of wild-eyed red-string-on-a-noticeboard conspiracy theorising: ‘Look! Can’t you see? It all connects! All of it!’ Pirsig walked that line confidently. Dyson stumbles around rather more.


Analogia reads rather like a series of introductions to some great work that never arrives. It begins with a tale about Leibniz, at the court of Peter the Great, coming up with the idea of a digital computer; then it’s about the Bering expedition, sent by Peter to find whether western America and eastern Russia connect; then it’s about the nascent US Army using heliograph technology to signal to each other across the Arizona desert as they tried to catch Geronimo and his fugitive American Indians. (Some of the accounts of European atrocities towards indigenous Americans are genuinely horrifying.) Then Marconi, Edison, the invention of the vacuum tube. And so on. Each is interesting, but feels standalone.

I kept expecting a turn — ‘all this may seem disconnected, but in fact…’. That never came: Dyson seems to assume the connections are obvious. It’s something to do with the fact that natural technologies are analogue, involving a sliding scale with infinitely many variations; whereas modern technology is digital, with discrete sets. But (for me at least) the picture he sees never quite revealed itself.

The book did, though, suddenly make sense to me about half way through, while discussing Freeman Dyson, the great nuclear physicist who went to the US to help design nuclear bombs after the second world war. He was the creator of the near-mythical Project Orion, a plan to power huge, deep-space craft with exploding nukes. But the key that unlocked it was the phrase ‘My mother, [the mathematician] Verena Huber-Dyson…’,
and I realised it was a memoir.

The younger Dyson, born in 1953, grows up surrounded by the great minds of 20th-century atomic physics: Gertrud Szilard, widow of Leo, who developed the neutron fission reaction, takes him weekly for lunch; his babysitter had been Einstein’s personal secretary. Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman and John von Neumann all appear on stage.

Then Dyson’s life goes somewhat off-piste: he drops out of high school and heads up to the Pacific Northwest, sailing boats, living for three years in a tree house, and building a series of ever larger kayaks. One moment he is sleeping in a one-man canoe surrounded by orca, the next he is sewing up an axe-wound in his right hand, using a sail needle and dental floss held in his left.

This middle section of the book is wonderful; Dyson has had a strange life. He sometimes throws in the digital-analogue-technology stuff, talking about laminar flow over the prow of an Aleut kayak (I hope one day to love something as much as George Dyson loves Aleut kayaks). But here, it makes sense. Seeing the intellectual excitement of 1950s physics from within is exhilarating; reading about years spent in the wilderness of the Canadian and Alaskan Pacific, the solitude and the grandeur, is thrilling.

Then it reverts to another meandering essay, about Samuel Butler’s Erewhon and how evolution applies to machines as well, before a somewhat generic ‘the tools we built to help us may enslave us’ conclusion: ‘The machines we call “servers” have become our masters,’ he writes, which felt overly pat. He may be right, of course, but quite where it fits in with the previous 240 pages of interleaved historical essays and kayak-building anecdotes wasn’t clear.

Analogia is not Zen and the Art… It never quite builds its earthy, practical parts and its transcendent visionary parts into a unified picture. But even in its failure, it is poetic, and sad, and lovely. You may, if you like, put that sentence on the blurb.

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