Freeman Dyson combined a luminous intelligence with a genuine sensitivity toward human problems that was unprecedented among his generation’s scientists. In his contributions to mathematics and theoretical physics he was second to none in the 20th century, but in the range of his thinking and writing he was probably unique. He made seminal contributions to science, advised the U.S government on critical national security issues and won almost every award for his contributions that a scientist could. His understanding of human problems found expression in elegant prose dispersed in an autobiography and in essays and book reviews in the New Yorker and other sources. Along with being a great scientist he was also a cherished friend and family man who raised six children. He was one of a kind. Those of us who could call him a friend, colleague or mentor were blessed.
Now there is a volume commemorating his remarkable mind from MIT Press that is a must-read for anyone who wants to appreciate the sheer diversity of ideas he generated and lives he touched. From spaceships powered by exploding nuclear bombs to the eponymous “Dyson spheres” that could be used by advanced alien civilizations to capture energy from their suns, from his seminal work in quantum electrodynamics to his unique theories for the origins of life, from advising the United States government to writing far-ranging books for the public that were in equal parts science and poetry, Dyson’s roving mind roamed across the physical and human universe. All these aspects of his life and career are described by a group of well-known scientists and science writers, including his son, George and daughter, Esther. Edited by the eminent physicist and historian of science David Kaiser, the volume brings it all together. I myself was privileged to write a chapter about Dyson’s little-known but fascinating foray into the origins of life. Read more »
On February 28th this year, the world lost a remarkable scientist, thinker, writer and humanist, and many of us also lost a beloved, generous mentor and friend. Freeman Dyson was one of the last greats from the age of Einstein and Dirac who shaped our understanding of the physical universe in the language of mathematics. But what truly made him unique was his ability to bridge C. P. Snow’s two cultures with aplomb, with one foot firmly planted in the world of hard science and the other in the world of history, poetry and letters. Men like him come along very rarely indeed, and we are poorer for his absence.
The world at large, however, knew Dyson not only as a leading scientist but as a “contrarian”. He didn’t like the word himself; he preferred to think of himself as a rebel. One of his best essays is called “The Scientist as Rebel”. In it he wrote, “Science is an alliance of free spirits in all cultures rebelling against the local tyranny that each culture imposes on its children.” The essay describes pioneers like Kurt Gödel, Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer and Francis Crick who cast aside the chains of conventional wisdom, challenging beliefs and systems that were sometimes age-old, beliefs both scientific and social. Dyson could count himself as a member of this pantheon.
Although Dyson did not like to think of himself as particularly controversial, he was quite certainly a very unconventional thinker and someone who liked to go against the grain. His friend and fellow physicist Steven Weinberg said that when consensus was forming like ice on a surface, Dyson would start chipping away at it. In a roomful of nodding heads, he would be the one who would have his hand raised, asking counterfactual questions and pointing out where the logic was weak, where the evidence was lacking. And he did this without a trace of one-upmanship or wanting to put anyone down, with genuine curiosity, playfulness and warmth. His favorite motto was the founding motto of the Royal Society: “Nullius in verba”, or “Nobody’s word is final”. Read more »