My Life with the Physics Dream Team: Freeman Dyson on working with the greatest physicists of the 20th century

Steve Paulson in Nautilus:

DysonOne gets the sense that Freeman Dyson has seen everything. It’s not just that at 92 he’s had a front row seat on scientific breakthroughs for the past century, or that he’s been friends and colleagues with many of the giants of 20th-century physics, from Hans Bethe and Wolfgang Pauli to Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Feynman. Dyson is one of the great sages of the science world. If you want to get a sense of where science has come from and where it might be headed, Dyson is your man. Dyson grew up in England with a gift for numbers and calculating. During World War II, he worked with the British Royal Air Force to pinpoint bombing targets in Germany. After the war, he moved to the United States where he got to know many of the physicists who’d built the atomic bomb. Like a lot of scientists from that era, excitement over the bomb helped launch his career in physics, and later he dreamed of building a fleet of spaceships that would travel around the solar system, powered by nuclear bombs. Perhaps it’s no accident that Dyson became an outspoken critic of nuclear weapons during the Cold War. For more than six decades, Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study has been his intellectual home. Dyson has described himself as a fox rather than a hedgehog. He says scientists who jump from one project to the next have more fun. Though no longer an active scientist, he continues to track developments in science and technology. Dyson seems to be happy living in a universe filled with answered questions, and he likes the fact that physics has so far failed to unify the classical world of stars and the quantum world of atoms. When I approached Dyson about an interview on the idea of the heroic in science, he responded, “I prefer telling stories to talking philosophy.” In the end, I got both stories and big ideas.

Are you fundamentally an optimist about the human species?

Yes. It comes from having grown up in the 1930s. In so many ways, things were black in the 1930s, far worse than they are today. People don’t remember, but everything in England was covered with soot. When I would go to London for the day, the color in my shirt would turn black because there was so much soot in the air. England is much cleaner now than it was then. The United States is much cleaner now. Los Angeles was full of smog when I first came there. Economic problems were much worse in the ’30s than they are today. Above all, we had World War II to look forward to. We were all quite aware of Hitler and the fact that we were going to have to fight him, and that we probably wouldn’t survive. That was what I grew up with. That was far worse than the kind of wars we have today.

More here.