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Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American

Too Hard for Science? Freeman Dyson--ESP


What does the scientist who talked about enclosing stars with globes think might be too hard for science?

In "Too Hard for Science?" I interview scientists about ideas they would love to explore that they don't think could be investigated. For instance, they might involve machines beyond the realm of possibility, such as particle accelerators as big as the sun, or they might be completely unethical, such as lethal experiments involving people. This feature aims to look at the impossible dreams, the seemingly intractable problems in science. However, the question mark at the end of "Too Hard for Science?" suggests that nothing might be impossible.

I asked famed physicist Freeman Dyson, who came up with the notion of the Dyson sphere, a globe surrounding a star to capture as much of its energy as possible, what he thought might be too hard for science.


Dear Charles Choi,

Thank you for your message. I have nothing original to suggest for your column. The obvious subject that has resisted attempts to investigate it with the tools of science is ESP, Extra-Sensory Perception. As you know, these attempts have a long and sad history. For two hundred years, experiments on humans have failed to produce convincing evidence of ESP. Humans are too smart, too much emotionally involved in the outcome of the experiment, and too good at cheating. Recently Rupert Sheldrake did some interesting experiments on ESP in dogs. Dogs are much better than humans for such experiments. Dogs are dumb, they are not interested in the outcome of the experiment, and they do not cheat. Unfortunately Rupert Sheldrake is not a dog. He is human, and his essential role in his experiments makes his results questionable. What is needed is an experiment conducted entirely by dogs without any participation of humans. I propose this as a possible topic for your column. Rupert Sheldrake would be the best person for you to interview.

Yours sincerely, Freeman Dyson.

Image of Freeman Dyson from his Web page.


If you have a scientist you would like to recommend I question, or you are a scientist with an idea you think might be too hard for science, e-mail me at

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About the Author: Charles Q. Choi is a frequent contributor to Scientific American. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Science, Nature, Wired, and LiveScience, among others. In his spare time he has traveled to all seven continents. Follow him on Twitter @cqchoi.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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