Friday, January 27, 2017

Freeman Dyson ~ Social Compacts

Freeman Dyson (b. 1923) was born at Crowthorne in Berkshire, England, the son of George Dyson, an English composer and Mildred Atkey Dyson, a lawyer.  After World War II Dyson earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Trinity College, Cambridge.  Although he never got a PhD, he is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.  Freeman Dyson is the author of seven books, among them Disturbing the Universe, Weapons and Hope, Origins of Life, and From Eros to Gaia.

When Freeman Dyson was nine years old, he wrote a story, “Sir Philip Robert’s Erolunar Collision.”  It was inspired by the story From Earth to Moon and a Trip Round It by Jules Verne and the discovery that in 1931 a minor planet named Eros was going to come close to the Earth in its orbit. 

In Dyson’s story, Sir Philip is the director of the British South-African Astronomical Society who discovers that the planet Eros is on a collision course with Earth’s moon.  He shares his discovery with his fellow scientists who do not panic; instead, they cheer.  They realize that they have a problem, but it is not that the impact will shatter the moon.  No, their problem is how to get to the moon to observe the collision.  Science at any cost! 
In the end, Sir Philip and his colleagues decide to send up a manned projectile by means of a columbiad–a large-caliber, muzzle-loading cannon.

One of the things I love about this story is the title–it’s so pragmatically descriptive.  It reminds me of a drawing my son made in preschool titled “Earth Eagle with Hot Lava Wings”and Julian Lennon’s drawing titled “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” The other thing I love about this story is that the conflict–a collision between two satellites–is a fitting metaphor for competing social compacts.

“Will Eros really go right through our satellite?” said Major Forbes.
“Yes,” said Sir Philip, “Its speed, and its small weight and resistance, will bring it through our satellite, it will be a picture, suddenly rising white-hot from the Moon’s internal fires, followed by a stream of liquid lava.”

Think of it!  Eros is happily hurtling through space, unencumbered by any thought of meeting resistance.  Like the god for whom it is named, it is all motion and heat.  The goddess Moon, on the other hand, follows her elliptical path in calm assurance that she will always do so.  Neither Eros nor the Moon has the slightest awareness of the other’s existence.  And why should they?  They are each obeying the strictures of their own social compacts, their own orbits.  It is just happenstance that their paths collide at a given time on a given day.

Isn’t that how conflict begins?  Whenever two or more social compacts compete for the same space at the same time, there is bound to be a collision.  In polite society, most of the damage is not seen on the outside.  People are trained to hide it with tight smiles and cold handshakes, but the lava still burns inside.  Some authors are masters at creating these kinds of conflicts; Edith Wharton and Anthony Trollope come to mind.

I think of this type of conflict on a continuum.  On one end is the Erolunar Collision with its advance warning, its huge blast, and its flowing lava.  On the other end is the unseen, non-violent, unremarkable conflict.  Its lava flows just as hot, but no one notices it. 

What about you?  Can you think of literary examples of two social compacts colliding?  Where are they on the continuum?  I would like to know.

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