An Evening with George Dyson

[This is an extended version of an email I sent to the Culture list, hence the slightly bizarre structure. I thought it was a bit long to put in ‘Middling’].

So I was walking through Trinity College Great Gate when I see none other than the overlord of all evil, Rich Baker, who was also coming to see the lecture that evening by George Dyson. Rich presented me with one of his new business cards after we’d had a glass of wine, whereupon I made some remark about American Psycho and the business card scene (I haven’t seen the movie but I’m informed that said scene is very amusing). Apparently I was the second person that day to make an American Psycho, which prompted me to ruminate on the likelihood of this (high, I ventured, because Rich’s circle of friends is very film-literate and I certainly don’t receive that many business cards from friends).

The talk was excellent; George Dyson is actually the son of Freeman Dyson, a fact which laudably was not stated on the (two) promotional posters in existence. Under the enormous pressure of having a world-famous physicist as a father and the director of the Royal College of Music as a grandfather, he went and lived in a tree for a few years, and then became a world-famous kayak builder. George wrote a book, then wrote another book about Project Orion. Project Orion was the codename for a US spaceship powered by nuclear bombs.

Some interesting factoids: One of the Project Orion plans specified an 8 megaton advanced spacecraft that would use 2500 nuclear bombs. As these things happen, it got shelved due to safety concerns and political reasons, although for a while the militar kept it knocking it about as a contingency plan ‘in case the Russians occupied Jupiter’.

Also, George Dyson seems to have the largest collection of Project Orion materials in the world. When NASA wanted to get a copy of the original ARPA contract to initiate multimillion dollar Project Orion (~20 pages long), he had to sign a NASA contract for the single figures dollar transaction (~30 pages long).

There were plans for a related ‘Doomsday’ weapon by the US military which would have several spacecraft outside the orbit of the Moon, 1 day away, with enough nukes to flatten the entire of Russia.

During almost every stage of Project Orion, the researchers were allowed to do essentially whatever they wanted as long as they were being supervised by a responsible physicist. George rather wisely pointed out the flaw in this, namely the ‘responsible physicist’ part, and then went on to tell us about how the Project Orion team used large amounts of C4 to launch a demonstration craft (blowing lots of other stuff up in the process).

He also showed us a diagram of how to make a shaped nuclear charge, which he told us was technically classified and illegal, but it didn’t matter since someone had sent it to him by mistake in the first place and he just put it in his book.

Before George finished, he remarked that it was well worth our time coming back next week to see Neal Stephenson, who he said was never seen in the US, so a public appearance by him in the UK was amazing. The Trinity don who’s organising the lectures said, well, it wasn’t quite public, was it, since Trinity is a private college. He then laughed heartily in a matter I found mildly unsettling, as if saying ‘Foolish mortals, only Trinity College members may gaze upon the visage of the slow-to-write one you call ‘Neal Stephenson’!’.

I had a few words with George after the lecture, asking him about other forms of nuclear propulsion (he isn’t so hot on them) and whether attitudes might change sufficiently in the future to allow nuclear propulsion in space (he thinks so). He also said that his father, Freeman, holds an interesting if politically-incorrect view about nuclear proliferation. Apparently Freeman thinks that if Hitler used a nuclear weapon in WW2, they would’ve been so stigmatised to have been abandoned by the world. Perhaps.

2 Replies to “An Evening with George Dyson”


    Orion is one of the great “what if’s” of the twentieth century. Today, nuclear powered spaceships seem like little more than laughably naive 1950’s science fiction, but it might have been otherwise…and still could be. Orion was the code name of a project aimed at discovering the feasibility of spaceships driven by nuclear bombs.
    The initial plan called for manned missions to Mars by 1965 and Saturn by 1970. After seven years of work, the project’s technical challenges seemed surmountable, but political obstacles brought the effort to a halt.

    Perhaps it’s time to revisit the past and revive the space age.

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