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George Dyson: From Tree House to Turing’s Cathedral

Story by Ted Rosen

“If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine. It is lethal.”
– Paulo Coelho

There’s something curious about George Dyson. You won’t see it when you meet him. He’s a fairly non-descript, private fellow with a slight build and a rumpled appearance. He doesn’t exude charisma and gravitas. But behind his green eyes is a man of deep intellect and determination. It isn’t apparent. You’ve got to dig a little…

George’s father, Freeman Dyson, is a world-famous physicist who revolutionized quantum electrodynamics. Freeman’s speculations about alien life have spawned entire genres of science fiction. But it’s unfair to say that George grew up in the shadow of his famous father. That’s because George doesn’t see any shadow. George is George and Freeman is Freeman. There is no competition. That’s why George has no qualms about having ditched academia and gone on to startle the world in his own way: perhaps more subtly, but no less effectively.

Out to Sea
Way back in 1970, 17-year-old George attended his sister’s wedding in Vancouver, BC. While there, he answered a classified ad for a deckhand – even though he had never been to sea in his life. “The boat wasn’t even finished; I helped build it. And then one day – August 11th, 1970 – we put the boat in the water and suddenly we were out to sea! One day the boat was in the water and the next day we went up to Johnstone Strait. I still remember the first day, going out in all these strong northwest swells. I just loved it! Half the people were seasick but I just took to it very naturally.”

Thus began a series of seafaring odysseys that George undertook among the forested islands, rainy inlets and rocky shores of British Columbia and southeast Alaska. Leaving behind the noise and tumult of human society, George built a tree house 90 feet high in an ancient cedar amidst the quiet calm of Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet. Below his lofty abode, he built a work shop from which he would produce increasingly complex and seaworthy kayaks.

Not just any kayaks, though. George researched and studied the Aleut-style skin-on-frame kayaks known as baidarkas that First Nations people created (and Russians adopted) to ply the coastal waters of southern Alaska. These sturdy, lightweight, efficient machines fascinated George. Building them and piloting them became his obsession. From the geometric beauty of their ribbed design to the mathematical efficiency of their skin surfaces against salt water, the baidarka was more than a kayak. It was a harmonious exaltation of human ingenuity in design.

George’s adventures were famously documented in Kenneth Brower’s wonderful book The Starship and the Canoe. The son of George’s personal hero, Sierra Club founder David Brower, Ken spent months in George’s company and paddled with him on several journeys. His book remains a favorite among kayakers all over the world and should be read by anyone who cares to reflect on nature.

Kayaking has plenty of rewards. Skimming quietly over the waves, paddling rhythmically and getting a surf’s-eye-view of the glory of Earth’s coastlines, paddling has an unmatched charm all its own. This joy is all the more visceral when you experience it like George did.

“I like long trips. I don’t want to go kayaking for an hour or two hours or even three days. To me it only makes sense to be kayaking for months. If you’re hiking or bicycling, you can predict a path. Unless something goes drastically wrong, you can stay on schedule. With kayaking, it is absolutely unpredictable. Some days, I’d make five miles. Other days, I’d make eighty or ninety miles. You just can’t tell. It’s very hard to plan a one week kayak trip. You may have a good day, then need more than a week to get back, so where can you go?”

You see, for George, kayaking was not a hobby. It was everything. It was the culmination of his beautiful baidarka designs. It was his way of communing with nature and it was his primary form of transportation. The Starship and the Canoe contains many moving and haunting tales of George’s experiences among the waves in his baidarkas, including a chilling description of hearing whales and wolves giving a call-and-response to each other as George slipped silently through the inky black night of the coastal waters.

In the light of day, George had his usual pragmatic assessment of kayaking at night: “I traveled a lot at night. I think recreational kayakers don’t and I don’t understand why. You can make really good progress at night. It can be windy all day and then it calms down at night. It can be a good and interesting way to travel.”

Indeed.

Among the Machines
After many years among the trees and waves, George emerged from the forest. If he was going to return to the World of Man, he would do it on his own terms. He knew there was something compelling about the elegance and symmetry of the baidarka, so George started designing and building them for a living. Unique and elegant, George’s baidarkas quickly became known around the world as a pinnacle of kayak design.

Along with a select group of friends and boat builders, George had spurred a renaissance of the centuries-old design. In 1986, George published Baidarka: the Kayak, a concise and exhaustively researched photo book on the subject. The book was a modest success. More importantly, the work in researching and composing the book sparked the nascent writer in George.

Having educated himself in the academia of Nature, George had amassed knowledge that he could share with, and contrast among, the other thinkers of the natural sciences. After years of exhaustive research, George published Darwin Among the Machines: The Evolution of Global Intelligence, a startling revelation of what it means to be sentient.

The book follows the concept of the machine mind from the Enlightenment, through the inchoate computing machines of the 1950’s to the explosive evolution of the internet and concludes that intelligence will indeed emerge from our machines – because that is the natural order of things.

From much farther than left field, George had produced a work that earned praise from scientists and science fiction writers alike. He had successfully distilled his world and ours into an almost inescapable logic: that the natural order doesn’t dissolve just because we think we’ve somehow overcome it.

Darwin Among the Machines put George on the map of modern scientific thinkers. It also put him on the map of book publishers. Over the next several years, George went back to work researching and writing his next book, Project Orion: the True Story of the Atomic Spaceship. This time, George went back to his childhood at Princeton and re-entered his father’s world to describe a plan America had in the 1950’s to build a spaceship powered by thermonuclear explosions.
As abhorrent as the idea may sound, it had plenty of backers – including George’s father Freeman, who remained a central figure in the secret program until it eventually fell out of favor for more reasonable approaches. As ever, George’s book was exhaustive in both historical detail and scientific context.

George had become a celebrated thinker in American academic circles. He has given several “Ted Talks” on the popular ted.com lecture website. His latest book, Turing’s Cathedral: the Origins of the Digital Universe, is an enormously successful history of the birth of computing. Alternately whimsical and reverent, it details the eccentric nature of computing’s forefathers and how these very clever fellows changed our world.

Despite his success, George continues to hew to the call of his coastal wilderness. Those formative experiences in a forest tree house and skimming over the waves in his baidarka remain the touchstones of his experience on this Earth. Rejoining the modern world and finding success as an author are all well and good, but it’s not the continuation of his adventure; it’s a way station.

“I used to have great contempt for writers and it’s almost a revenge of fate that I’ve become a writer myself,” says George. “I believe in balance, but I got completely off balance. This last book I published I spent 10 years researching … but I do feel lucky. Everybody knows how rare it is to support yourself as a writer. So many writers write books but can’t get published, and to have publishers wanting your book? You can’t turn that down.

“But now I’m done. Now I’m firmly trying to get back to doing some real things. I’m looking at getting another boat again. I’ve agreed to write another book but it’s not a research project. It’s more my own stories. I should be able to sit on a beach and write it with a fountain pen…”

We can only hope he builds a great baidarka, loads up some notepads and fountain pens, paddles off to a remote tree house and shares with us his vision of what constitutes truth, beauty and the natural order of things.

George Dyson continues to own and operate Dyson, Baidarka & Co. on the waterfront of Bellingham, Washington.

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