Brand: How might long-term ethics differ from ethics as we generally understand them?
Dyson: If you mean balancing the permanent against the ephemeral, it's very important that we adapt to the world on the long-time scale as well as the short-time scale. Ethics are the art of doing that. You must have principles that you're willing to die for.
Brand: Do you have a list of these principles?
Dyson: No. You'll never get everybody to agree about any particular code of ethics.
Brand: But if they're going to be long-term ones, you'd better have some agreement. This is a cross-generational issue. It's caring for children, grandchildren. In some cultures you're supposed to be responsible out to the seventh generation -- that's about 200 years. But it goes right against self-interest.
I'm working on a project, The Long Now Foundation, to encourage long-term responsibility. Esther's on that board, too. We're building a 10,000-year clock, designed by Danny Hillis, and we're figuring out what a 10,000-year library might be good for. If the clock or the library could be useful to things you want to happen in the world, how would you advise them to proceed? For instance, if you want to see humanity move gracefully into space, you have to accept it's going to take a while.
Dyson: I'm accustomed to living among very long-lived institutions in England, and I'm always surprised that the rest of the world is so different. At the beginning of Imagined Worlds, I mentioned the avenue of trees at Trinity College, Cambridge. It is an extremely wealthy foundation, founded by Henry VIII with the money he looted from the monasteries. He put his ill-gotten gains into education, much to our benefit. So we pray for his soul once a year. I went to the commemoration feast last March and duly prayed in appropriate Latin. Trinity is an astonishing place because it has been a fantastic producer of great science for 400 years and continues to be so. Beside Henry VIII, we were celebrating the 100th birthday of the electron, which was discovered there by J. J. Thomson. He was appointed professor at the age of 28.
Anyway, they planted an avenue of trees in the early 18th century, leading up from the river to the college. This avenue of trees grew very big and majestic in the course of 200 years. When I was a student there 50 years ago, the trees were growing a little dilapidated, though still very beautiful. The college decided that for the sake of the future, they would chop them down and plant new ones. Now, 50 years later, the new trees are half grown and already looking almost as beautiful as the old ones. That's the kind of thinking that comes naturally in such a place, where 100 years is nothing.
Chop, baby, chop, and chop now.