Freeman Dyson’s life of scientific delight

Ann Finkbeiner in Nature:

35187189Freeman Dyson is a mathematically inclined physicist who proved in 1949 that competing theories of quantum behaviour were equivalent. In a career spanning seven decades, he branched out into myriad fields. They included condensed-matter physics, nuclear reactors, astronomical technology, extraterrestrial habitation and advising the US government on national security, sometimes as part of the elite post-war research group JASON.

Dyson grew up in Winchester, UK, and left in 1941 for the University of Cambridge, where he studied mathematics. There, he began a lifelong habit of writing regular letters home. Now, aged 94 and living in the United States, he has published some of them in Maker of Patterns. They cover a remarkable range of scientific interests, acquaintances, opinions and adventures.

The patterns Dyson says he made were first those of ideas in mathematics and physics, and then those in his writing about literature and history. Readers might hope that Dyson’s own pattern — the reference frame in which his remarkable range becomes a coherent whole — would be found in his letters. As a writer who has interviewed Dyson, I would advise against such hope.

The letters read like a travel journal written for people he loves and trusts. “I think the reason I write so openly is just this,” he tells his parents in 1949, “that all these adventures in this strange new world are still somewhat unreal to me, and in writing to you about them, I bring them in contact with my familiar world and lend them some of your reality.”

Dyson notices everything. He describes Americans’ friendliness as a result of their inattention to the past, and thus of their loneliness in time.

More here.