Field of Science

The birth of a new theory: Richard Feynman and his adversaries




Leading physicists discuss their field's most pressing problems
at Shelter Island in April 1947; including, among others, Julian
Schwinger, Richard Feynman and J. Robert Oppenheimer
This post was written on occasion of Richard Feynman's 100th birthday on May 11th and was first published on the website 3 Quarks Daily. It's the second in a pair of articles about two landmark meetings in postwar American physics.
A new theory seldom comes into the world like a fully formed, beautiful infant, ready to be coddled and embraced by its parents, grandparents and relatives. Rather, most new theories make their mark kicking and screaming while their fathers and grandfathers try to disown, ignore or sometimes even hurt them before accepting them as equivalent to their own creations. Ranging from Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection to Wegener’s theory of continental drift, new ideas in science have faced scientific, political and religious resistance. There are few better examples of this jagged, haphazard, bruised birth of a new theory as the scientific renaissance that burst forth in a mountain resort during the spring of 1948.
April 2, 1948. Twenty-eight of the country’s top physicists met at the Pocono Manor Hotel near the Delaware Water Gap in Pennsylvania. Kept apart from their first love of fundamental research in physics by the war, they were eager to regroup and rethink the problems which had plagued the heights of their profession before they were called away for war duty to Los Alamos, Cambridge and Chicago.
The listing of participants provides a rare snapshot of one of those hallowed transitions in the history of science, a passing of the torch. Both the old and the new guards were there. The old guard was represented, among others, by Niels Bohr, Paul Dirac and Eugene Wigner – the men who had formulated and then shaped the material world in its quantum mechanical image during the 1920s and 30s. The new guard was represented by Richard Feynman, John Wheeler and Julian Schwinger – the swashbuckling young theorists who wanted to take quantum theory to new heights, even if it meant challenging the old wisdom. J. Robert Oppenheimer who led the conference represented a prophet of the middle ground; a guide joining old hands with new. In retrospect, a clash of worldviews seems almost inevitable.
The problem that was at the forefront of everyone’s attention was the plague of infinities. The infinities had started showing up just a few years after the quantum revolution had burst upon the world. Within a short span of five years or so, between 1925 and 1930, a handful of theorists in their twenties and thirties including Dirac, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, Max Born and Wolfgang Pauli had completely reworked the foundations of our physical picture of the world. Niels Bohr who along with Albert Einstein and Max Born had kicked off the revolution a decade before was their avuncular godfather; Einstein himself was a reluctant pioneer. The father of quantum mechanics, Max Planck, had showed that energy came only in discrete packets; now these new frontiersmen extended the concept to every physical entity in the universe. The work done by the quantum pioneers revealed a world steeped in probabilities rather than certainties, a world where you could not know the values of even simple parameters like a particle’s position and momentum to infinite precision, a world where particles and waves blurred themselves into each other in a mirage of probability amplitudes and wavefunctions. It was this fundamental ambiguity about what you could know about subatomic entities that led to Einstein’s famous remark about God playing dice.
And yet the theory was accuracy exemplified. Whatever its mathematical and philosophical ambiguities, it kept on providing astonishingly accurate answers to both old and new problems in disparate branches of physics. Whether it was a matter of calculating the frequency of radiation emitted by electrons transitioning in an atom or the resistance of metals to electrical current, quantum theory gave you the right answers, marching in perfect lockstep with numbers from experiment. It seemed to work for virtually every problem you threw it at. Except one.
That puzzle was the interaction between light and matter. It turned up in the simplest of situations, such as calculating the energy of an electron in an atom, and was recognized by the father of quantum field theory, Paul Dirac. Quantum field theory is the most comprehensive description of the world of subatomic particles, and in its simplest sense involves subjecting both particles and the electromagnetic fields which surround them to the rules of quantization. But even a cursory glimpse at the issue made the intractability clear: the energy of a charge in an electromagnetic field – called the ‘self energy’ – is given by the ratio of the strength of the field at various points and the distances between the charge and these points. One calculates the total self-energy by summing up the values at every point. The difficulty is obvious when you think about it: at distances close to zero, you divide by an increasingly smaller number, blowing up the value precipitously. Exactly at the location of the charge, where the distance is zero, the energy becomes infinite; the writers Robert Crease and Charles Mann have described it as a plane being blown to smithereens in its own wake. Clearly this is an absurd result since every energy value which you measure in a real world laboratory is finite.
Starting in about 1930, this problem of infinite self-energy was tackled by many of the most brilliant theoreticians of their time without resolution: Oppenheimer, Heisenberg, the acerbic Wolfgang Pauli and his mild-mannered assistant Victor Weisskopf all described the problem and tried to resolve it in various ways. If anything the picture got even worse; instead of just one infinity, other infinities started rearing their ugly heads like the heads of the mythical Hydra. One of these infinities was pointed out by Dirac. It turns out that during its transition in an atom, an electron can briefly spit out a photon and reabsorb it; this seemingly ex nihilo act of creation is allowed by quantum mechanics as long as it’s done in an exceedingly small amount of time. The problem is that the energy between the electron and this so-called ‘virtual’ photon can be apportioned again in an infinite numbers of ways. If you sum up all these ways you again get the dreaded explosion of infinity.
There seemed to be no end to attempts to exorcising these infinities. Then war intervened, the community of American physicists was drawn up for work on radar and the bomb, and the community of European physicists, many of whom had already fled from Hitler and Mussolini and were scattered across at least two continents, joined them. There the matter of the infinities rested until 1947, when an extraordinary conference of physicists was organized at a small inn off the coast of Long Island near New York City. The Shelter Island conference later went down in history as the conference that kicked off the postwar rejuvenation of particle physics, but in April 1947 it still represented the first stirrings of a revolution. The conference was again chaired by Oppenheimer and included a mix of the old and young guards.
The attention of the participants at Shelter Island was focused on one number of singular importance. Sometimes it takes hard experiment to cut the theoretical Gordian knot. While the theorists had struggled with infinities even before the war, they were galvanized by the experiments of Willis Lamb and his colleague Robert Retherford. Lamb was one of those rare breeds of scientist who are comfortable with both theory and experiment. Combining highly skilled techniques in microwave spectroscopy developed during wartime work on radar with a good understanding of the problems with infinities plaguing quantum field theory, Lamb and Retherford discovered a slight difference in energy between two states of the hydrogen atom at a place where the original Dirac theory predicted no difference. In science revolutions are sometimes engineered by the slightest and most mundane-looking discrepancies in the behavior of matter – Arthur Eddington’s measurement of a tiny shift in the position of the stars predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity comes to mind – and the Lamb Shift is as good an example as any of this pivot point in scientific history.
The Lamb Shift is also a telling example of what happens when multiple ideas are in the air, vying with each other for publicity and survival. In the conference Weisskopf had already presented a calculation that could potentially explain the shift, and so had one of the members of the old guard, Hendrik Kramers, who had been Niels Bohr’s assistant. But neither of these efforts got rid of the infinities. It took Hans Bethe with his absolutely mastery of synthesizing different ideas to take the Lamb Shift to its logical conclusion. Nobody surpassed Bethe in his knowledge of multiple branches of physics and his ability to calculate real world answers using the right combination of mathematical techniques and approximations. During a train journey back from Shelter Island, Bethe had the stroke of insight to attempt a calculation of the Lamb Shift using a non-relativistic approximation that ignored effects due to Einstein’s special theory of relativity. In addition, he introduced a physically sensible cutoff for the infinities to get a finite answer. Everyone knew that a correct quantum field would have to include special relativity, so it took some courage on Bethe’s part to attempt a non-relativistic calculation. Strikingly, the result was very close to experiment; 1040 MHz vs 1000 MHz. It still wasn’t the exact answer, but Bethe’s calculation was a shot in the arm, a signal that the theorists’ thinking was on the right track. It was also a fine illustration of how sometimes even a strictly non-realistic, approximate model can guide you in the right direction.
Bethe’s work breathed new life into the work of many others, including Weisskopf and Lamb, both of whom kicked themselves for not thinking about it first. But the biggest impact was on two young members of the group who had already distinguished themselves by their brilliant work during the war – Julian Schwinger and Richard Feynman.
Feynman and Schwinger were two of the earliest products of the American school of theoretical physics. Until the 1930s or so, most American theorists had to go to Europe to learn quantum mechanics at the feet of the masters: Niels Bohr in Copenhagen, Max Born in Göttingen and Arnold Sommerfeld in Munich. In the 30s the center of research started moving to the United States, partly engendered by the exodus of Jewish refugee physicists and partly because of the creation of prominent schools of physics by American physicists themselves. Two of the most prominent schools were Robert Oppenheimer’s at Berkeley and John Archibald Wheeler’s at Princeton. Schwinger came from Oppenheimer’s school; Feynman came from Wheeler’s.
Both Schwinger and Feynman were from New York, but otherwise were very different characters. Feynman was a practical joker who cracked safes, disdained pretension, played the bongos and spoke in colloquial New York City slang. While he had been recognized as a brilliant physicist, he still did not enjoy the star power that Schwinger – a child prodigy who had written his first paper on quantum electrodynamics when he was sixteen – did. Unlike Feynman, the leonine Schwinger wore expensive suits, drove a Cadillac and was the very picture of the distinguished academic. Physicists of the stature of Bethe and Fermi had already paid homage to Schwinger and everyone thought him to be the future. At Shelter Island they had listened to him with reverence; as Oppenheimer put it, “When other physicists do a calculation they want to tell you how they do it; when Schwinger does a calculation he wants to tell you that only he can do it.”
After Shelter Island, the physicists went off to their universities and laboratories, attempting a full calculation of quantum electrodynamics that was relativistic. Schwinger managed to calculate a precise value for the magnetic moment of the electron – a parameter for which comparison between theory and experiment would come to represent the most accurate agreement in all of physics – for the first time in November 1947. Most importantly, the calculation gave a finite answer. One of the elder statesmen of physics, a tough-minded New Yorker named Isidor Rabi, rushed off a note to Bethe: “Schwinger’s calculation is as accurate as yours. God is Great!”.
Feynman was on a completely different track. Working with John Wheeler, he had come up with a novel approach called the path integral approach that included particles traveling backward and forward in time. His bookkeeping technique used a principle familiar from classical mechanics, the principle of least action, that minimized the energy a particle takes in order to travel from A to B. For quantum theory, in Feynman’s hands, one had to consider every single trajectory that the particle would take in order to calculate the most probable one. This so-called 'sum over histories' approach was completely different from anyone else's, although its first trappings had been anticipated by the always prescient Dirac in a paper which Feynman had eagerly read in the Princeton library as a graduate student. Feynman represented his calculations in the form of squiggly and straight lines symbolizing virtual and real particles traveling backward and forward in time. When the Pocono Conference rolled around, he was ready to dazzle his listeners.
Unfortunately Feynman was up against two major obstacles. One was the traditional and hidebound old physics establishment. The other was Julian Schwinger. Schwinger had just given a marathon six-hour talk in which he brought all the formal machinery of mathematical physics to bear on calculating finite answers for electron-photon interactions. His talk was described by some as a virtuoso violin performance, more technique than comprehension. By one account, only Hans Bethe and Enrico Fermi – men who were particularly known for their stamina and powers of concentration – stayed awake and alert enough to follow the entire presentation.
Then Feynman took the podium. Knowing that his listeners would have trouble following the novel derivation of his results, he instead proceeded to simply show them worked out examples. His strategy was understandable, but he was attempting something akin to simply showing worked out examples in a mathematics textbook without showing the underlying theory. For the mandarins of theory who had spent their entire careers trying to take apart and understand all the gory details of how nature worked, this impressionistic-looking display was most unsatisfactory. Immediately they interrupted.
Edward Teller, the Hungarian-born physicist who hadn’t yet achieved the infamous moniker of ‘father of the hydrogen bomb’, thought that Feynman was violating the exclusion principle, a central tenet of physics and chemistry discovered by Wolfgang Pauli that precludes having two electrons with the same energy and spins in the same state. Dirac asked Feynman about a mathematical matrix that carried particle probabilities forward in time. He was wondering about a recondite mathematical property of a matrix called the unitary property that had nonetheless been key in understanding all particle interactions in quantum mechanics. Finally, the elder statesman of physics, the father of them all, Niels Bohr interrupted. Bohr had been impressed at Los Alamos by Feynman’s willingness to brazenly question all authority, including Bohr’s. He now took umbrage at the unfamiliar thicket of squiggles representing particle trajectories. Already in the 1930s, Bohr said in his soft but firm voice, we knew that the classical notion of a trajectory does not make sense in quantum mechanics. Now Feynman seemed to be violating this basic tenet of quantum theory. Bohr strode up to the stage and, standing next to Feynman, speaking in his notorious mumble, delivered a humiliating lecture that seemed to convey Feynman’s lack of understanding of even elementary ideas.
Feynman realized that it was hopeless; Teller was obsessed with a basic fact of quantum mechanics, Dirac was hung up over mathematical formalism, Bohr was still stuck in the 1930s. Clearly his approach was too unconventional and too novel for the old guard. The only way they would listen would be if he laid it all out in an academic paper. History was witnessing the passing of the torch between generations, but for the time being it would have to allow the old generation to win the battle, even if they lost the war. Feynman was undoubtedly on the right track. His new theory had given the right answers for all outstanding problems posed by the new physics. And after his talk, in the next few days, he compared his results with Schwinger’s. These two rivals nonetheless had a healthy respect for each other’s unique approaches, and they realized that were both traversing different trajectories on the mountain of truth.
Within a year Feynman had written up a seminal paper spurred by the disappointment and urgency he witnessed at Pocono. “Space-Time Approach to Quantum Mechanics” would become one of the most important physics papers of the twentieth century. In time, Feynman diagrams would come to dot the pages of the leading physics journals like an art form, much like the native art found on the caves at Lascaux represented its creator’s innermost desires and motivations. And like God bringing, in Schwinger’s words, “computation to the masses”, Feynman would have his own prophet: his colleague Freeman Dyson would unify Schwinger and Feynman’s versions of the promised land and deliver a set of powerful tools that would allow physicists to apply the duo’s techniques to problems in fields ranging from particle physics to astrophysics. And finally, like a voice from the deep, a lonesome letter would come floating to America from the troubled East, where a physicist named Sin-Itiro Tomonaga would have astonishingly worked out Schwinger’s formulation of QED in the isolation and destruction of wartime Japan. In time, QED would provide the most astonishingly accurate between theory and experiment in the history of physics.
But it had all started at Shelter Island and Pocono, where history changed hands and took a new direction, where a thirty year old physicist presented a novel vision; in Dyson’s words, “this wonderful vision of the world as a woven texture of world lines in space and time, with everything moving freely, a unifying principle that would either explain everything or explain nothing.”

Secrets of the Old One

In 1968, James Watson published “The Double Helix”, a personal account of the history of the race to discover the structure of DNA. The book was controversial and bracingly honest, a glimpse into the working style and personalities of great scientists like Francis Crick, Lawrence Bragg, Rosalind Franklin and Linus Pauling, warts and all. The vividness of Watson’s recollections and the sometimes almost minute-by-minute account make his memoirs a unique chronicle in the history of scientific autobiography.

After Watson’s book had been published, the physicist Freeman Dyson once asked him how he could possibly remember so many details about events that had transpired more than a decade ago. Easy, said Watson: he used to write to his family in America from Cambridge and had kept all those letters. Dyson who had been writing letters to his parents from the opposite direction, from America to Cambridge, asked his mother to keep all his letters from 1941 onwards.

The result is “Maker of Patterns”, a roadside view of the remarkable odyssey of one of the finest scientific and literary minds of the twentieth century. Letters are a unique form of communication, preserving the urgency and freshness of the moment without the benefit and bias of hindsight. They recall history as present rather than past. One wonders if the incessant barrage of email will preserve the selective highlights of life that letters once preserved. Dyson’s letter collection was initially titled “The Old One”. The allusion was to a famous letter from Einstein to Max Born in which Einstein noted his dissatisfaction with quantum theory: Quantum mechanics demands serious attention. But an inner voice tells me that this is not the true Jacob. The theory accomplishes a lot, but it does not bring us closer to the secrets of the Old One. In any case, I am convinced that He does not play dice”.

Publishers sometimes change titles to suit their whim. Perhaps the publisher changed the title here because they thought it was presumptuous to compare Freeman Dyson to God. I would concede that Dyson is not God, but it’s the metaphor that counts; as these letters indicate, he is certainly full of observations and secrets of the universe. The letters contain relatively little science but lots of astute observations on people and places. Where the science does get explained one senses a keen mind taking everything in and reveling in the beauty of ideas.

Dyson’s letters begin in 1941 when he was a seventeen-year-old student in Cambridge and his parents were in London. They talk about mathematics, mountaineering and the state of the Second Word War. Freeman’s father was a renowned composer and conductor and his mother was a successful lawyer and promoter of women’s suffrage. It seemed to everyone that it was a miserable time to be alive. Hitler had just attacked England the year before and the entire country was suffering from bombing. Cambridge was hollowed out and only a few professors and students were left. The advantage of this situation was that you could learn at the feet of the masters, or in Dyson’s case, around the billiard table. The billiard table belonged to Abram Besicovitch, a brilliant and voluble Russian mathematician who was a formative influence on young Dyson; Dyson used to go on long walks with him on which Besicovitch insisted that the young student speak only in Russian. This solidified a lifelong love of the Russian language in Dyson. He used to usually find Besicovitch and Hardy at the billiard table. In the letters he discusses everything with them, from mathematics to politics. He enjoys attending all their lectures: “Dirac is very slow and easy to follow; Pars and Besicovitch a bit quicker, but still comfortable; Hardy goes like an avalanche and it is all I can do to keep up with him. One learns about three times as much from Hardy in an hour as from anyone else; it is a testing business keeping the thread of his arguments.…”. What Dyson does not mention but what he evocatively described in another volume was the image of Hardy huddled up in his rooms with six students sitting around the table and Dyson feeling that he should just go and hug the old man. At one point he’s appointed “staircase marshal, which means I have to look after my staircase, put out bombs and carry out corpses”. Fortunately all he had to do was operate a fire pump.

During the war, Dyson spent his time first studying at Cambridge and then working for Bomber Command on the bombing campaign over Germany. This was a rather dismal experience, a classic case of muddle-headed bureaucracy winning over saving lives. No letters were written during this time since Dyson used to visit his parents once a week, but he has documented this experience well in his wonderful memoir “Disturbing the Universe”. But there was still mathematics to do. There is mention of getting a manuscript of Kurt Gödel’s and of listening to John Maynard Keynes on uncovering Newton’s astonishing secret work on alchemy and religion which cast him in the light of a magician rather than a rational scientist. On Gödel’s manuscript on the continuum hypothesis, “I have been reading the immortal work (it is only sixty pages long) with [Thomas Mann’s] “The Magic Mountain” and find it hard to say which is the better.” After the war ended, Dyson made his way to Münster, Germany, to a meeting between German and British students to rekindle old relationships. He captures the drama of destruction and the resilience of the citizens in this old city; people even organize makeshift classical music performances among the ruins. There is a brief platonic romantic meeting with a girl who quotes Yeats and warns Dyson to “tread softly, for you tread on my dreams”.

Dyson’s journey toward scientific greatness started when he came to America at the recommendation of Geoffrey Taylor, a well-known hydrodynamics expert who had worked on the bomb at Los Alamos. When Dyson asked him what place he should consider for his PhD studies, Taylor unhesitatingly recommended Cornell University, adding that that’s where all the bright people had gone after the war. This statement was not an exaggeration. Cornell boasted a star-studded constellation of physicists including Hans Bethe, Richard Feynman, Robert Wilson and Philip Morrison. Dyson was assigned to Bethe as a PhD advisor. His first impression of Bethe was characteristic: “Bethe is an odd figure, large and clumsy with an exceptionally muddy old pair of shoes. He gives the impression of being clever and friendly but rather a caricature of a professor; he was second in command at Los Alamos, so he must be a first-rate organiser as well.” And indeed he was. Bethe who was one of the greatest scientific minds of the century had a great ability to pitch problems to every student based on their capabilities; Dyson was undoubtedly the best student he had.

Bethe does figure in Dyson’s accounts, but the real attraction is the young Richard Feynman. Feynman had come from Los Alamos, leaving behind memories of the untimely death of a beloved wife. He was trying to put his life and physics back together and had visions of a new physics of particles and fields that he was constructing from scratch. Dyson was taken by this very American scientist from the very beginning. “Feynman is a man for whom I am developing a considerable admiration; he is the brightest of the young theoreticians here and is the first example I have met of that rare species, the native American scientist…His most valuable contribution to physics is as a sustainer of morale; when he bursts into the room with his latest brain wave and proceeds to expound it with lavish sound effects and waving about of the arms, life at least is not dull.” He later understood Feynman’s tempering through tragedy; both because of his wife’s early death and his experience with the bomb, he had matured beyond his years. Another one of Dyson’s heroes was Philip Morrison who not only had large stores of knowledge about virtually any topic under the sun, but also equally large stores of integrity that allowed him to withstand the onslaught of McCarthyism and refuse to rat out his friends.

Dyson quickly impressed the American community of physicist by his facility with advanced mathematics. Bethe thought so highly of him that he recommended him for a fellowship at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies which sported a roster of theoretical physicists and mathematicians that was unequalled anywhere. Robert Oppenheimer had been appointed director and Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel and John von Neumann were permanent members. Paul Dirac, Niels Bohr and Wolfgang Pauli were frequent visitors. When Dyson arrived at the Institute, it was already populated by a group of brilliant students from America and Europe. One of them stood out – Cecile Morette who was one of the very few female theoretical physicists around. She and Dyson struck up a close friendship that lasted until her death a few years ago. Life at the institute was a curious mixture of idyllic and intense. Dyson found Americans’ commitment to a full workday curious and took advantage of the picturesque countryside: “In the afternoons I have managed to explore the country around here. It is excellent walking country, and I have met numbers of strange new birds, insects, and plants. The weather could not be better, and I hope to continue this form of exercise indefinitely. My young colleagues are unwilling to join me, as they are obsessed with the American idea that you have to work from nine to five even when the work is theoretical physics. To avoid appearing superior, I have to say that it is because of bad eyes that I do not work in the afternoons.”

There was tea in the British tradition, and parties where Oppenheimer charmed everyone with his dazzling range of scientific, literary and culinary knowledge. A memorable occasion was when Morette convinced a shy T. S. Eliot who was visiting to join the group of young scholars. Another memorable episode was when a drunk Adele, Kurt Gödel’s wife, grabbed Dyson and made him dance with her while an awkward Gödel stood around looking miserable. Gödel was a brilliant, strange man who had discovered the incompleteness theorem, one of the most startling and important results in the history of mathematics and logic. He was loath to engage in casual conversation; only Einstein who adored him and who walked home with him every day was his friend. And yet Dyson seems to have visited the Gödels several times and found Kurt friendly.

Dyson’s profile of Oppenheimer is the most penetrating of anyone’s in the volume. He saw Oppenheimer’s self-destructiveness and self-loathing which translated into casual cruelty. As memorably recounted in his memoirs, Dyson had just finished a marathon road trip with Feynman across the American South and Midwest during which he had come up with his most famous contribution to science: a bridging together and reinvention of two competing theories of quantum electrodynamics, the theory of light and matter, by Feynman and Julian Schwinger. The epiphany had come to him during a bus ride from Albuquerque to Chicago, right after he had been out west and painted some evocative pictures of America; the Ozarks with their beautiful mountains and crushing poverty, the slums of Philadelphia, flash floods in Oklahoma, Melvin Calvin doing Nobel Prize-winning experiments on the path of carbon in photosynthesis in Berkeley.

After he came back his job was to convince Oppenheimer. This turned out to be a nasty little uphill battle. The chain-smoking Oppenheimer used to constantly interrupt speakers with derisive remarks, and Dyson captured his defects well: “I have been observing rather carefully his behaviour during seminars. If one is saying, for the benefit of the rest of the audience, things that he knows already, he cannot resist hurrying one on to something else; then when one says things that he doesn’t know or immediately agree with, he breaks in before the point is fully explained with acute and sometimes devastating criticisms, to which it is impossible to reply adequately even when he is wrong. If one watches him, one can see that he is moving around nervously all the time, never stops smoking, and I believe that his impatience is largely beyond his control.” After Dyson had tried several times to explain his synthesis of Feynman and Schwinger’s theories to Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe came down from Cornell and intervened. As Dyson recounts, he told Oppenheimer and the others that they needed to use Dyson and Feynman’s methods if they wanted to avoid talking nonsense. Bethe’s authority combined with Dyson’s accomplishment finally swayed minds. The next day Dyson found a note from Oppenheimer in his mailbox inscribed with a single phrase – “Nolo contendere”, or “I plead no contest”.

From then on Dyson’s star was on the rise. At important meetings his work was praised by Feynman, Oppenheimer and others. Colleagues and even reporters thronged him, and job offers came flying from left and right. Dyson spent two years in Birmingham to complete the requirements of the fellowship that had brought him to America. Then Feynman left Cornell for Caltech and Bethe recommended him for a position at Cornell. Before he was thirty, Dyson had been elected a fellow of the Royal Society and had become a full professor at Cornell. He did important research in particle physics, but – partly encouraged by a devastating critique of his work by Enrico Fermi in Chicago - he also wisely realized that his interests were not in pursuing one line of research for a long time and teaching students. Oppenheimer had already indicated that he would welcome him for a permanent position at Princeton. 

In the meantime, Dyson had fallen in love. Verena Huber was an accomplished mathematician who Dyson had met at the Institute earlier: “I will not make this a long letter, because in these last days my mind has been completely occupied with problems even more incommunicable than those of mathematical physics. In short, I am in love.” He was as taken by her two-year-old daughter Katrin as by Verena. Dyson’s relationship with Katrin marked the beginning of a delightful lifelong affinity for children; he has had six children and sixteen grandchildren. By the time he made his way to Cornell, two of his children on the way – George and Esther. When Oppenheimer invited him to Princeton, the allure of intellectual freedom and job security for himself and his growing family beckoned, and Dyson accepted. Dyson has been a fixture at the institute in Princeton ever since then, although now and then he has expressed some ambiguous feelings about the ivory tower sheen of the place which has marketed itself as, in Oppenheimer's words, "an intellectual hotel".

The next few years saw Dyson ranging far and wide over mathematics, physics and engineering, a trait which has made him one of the most unique and wide-ranging thinkers of his time. He worked in Berkeley on solid-state physics and in La Jolla on a nuclear powered spaceship and a safe reactor. The nuclear powered spaceship was a lifelong dream, and one which briefly possessed Dyson like a spell: “You might as well ask Columbus why he wasted his time discovering America when he could have been improving the methods of Spanish sheep farming.” The project was housed on a bluff with spectacular views of the Pacific in La Jolla, and Dyson vividly recounts excursions to a glider club on the cliff. He made a trip to the Soviet Union which after the death of Stalin wanted to establish better relations with the United States. 

In Berkeley he first met Edward Teller and worked with him closely on the safe nuclear reactor, and unlike many other physicists Dyson and Teller retained a long friendship. Dyson saw Teller’s very human qualities, but also recognized his fundamental flaws: “It is exciting and infuriating to work with Teller. I had often heard about scientists behaving like prima donnas, and now I know what it means. We had yesterday a long meeting at which I disagreed with him, and he was in a filthy temper. Finally he won the argument by threatening to leave the place if we would not do things his way. I did not know whether to laugh or cry, but it was clear that the best thing was to laugh and go along with him. I do not have to take this seriously. But I understand now what a misery he must have been for Oppenheimer at Los Alamos. Oppenheimer could not let him run the whole show his own way. I am glad I am not likely ever to be Teller’s boss.”

The next part of the collection is the most poignant and personal. Dyson’s wife Verena Huber left him for a man, a mathematician named George Kreisel who ironically Dyson had been instrumental in getting invited as a visiting scientist at the institute. At the age of thirty-five, he had now been left to care for two small children. He implored his parents not to pity him and was astonishingly generous toward Verena: “Please do not offer me your sympathy or your pity. I have been happy in this marriage, and I have no regrets now it is over. It has enriched my life in many ways, and this enrichment is permanent. Second, about Verena. You can blame her for what she has done. But I do not. I consider that she has fulfilled her obligation to me, by bearing me two fine children, by caring for all of us through the difficult years when the babies were small and money was short, and by loving me faithfully for seven years. She leaves me now just when our family life is getting to be easy and comfortable, the children soon to be all at school, the finances ample, and a beautiful house to live in. What she has done may be crazy, but it is not irresponsible. I believe that she has earned her freedom, that she is doing the right thing in following her own star wherever it leads.

He succeeded admirably in taking care of his children and in bearing the blow of a divorce, partly because he got along with children so well and partly because of Imme Jung, a young caretaker and daughter of a country doctor from rural Germany who had come to look after the children even before Verena left Freeman. This was a very fortuitous development; both the children and Freeman became so attached to Imme that Freeman and Imme got married. Gradually she became fondly integrated into Dyson’s community of friends and colleagues and formed a great partnership with Freeman. They remain happily married sixty years later.


The children were meanwhile turning out to be delightful, engaging in the kind of wise and funny conversation that only children’s unfiltered minds can conceive. Dyson doted on them and often recounted these conversations in his letters. “The children go on with their lives as gaily as ever. Breakfast table conversation. George: “I know that first there were only ladies in the world, and then afterwards the men came.” Esther: “But that is all nonsense. Don’t you know that at the beginning there were just two people, Eve and that other guy, what was his name?” Another conversation, showing the difference between the scientific and the practical approach. George: “I can understand how a boat moves along when you push on the oars. You push the water away and so it makes room for the boat to move along.” Esther: “But I can make the boat move along even without understanding it.”

But George turned out to have an independent streak that was perhaps too independent for his own good. As a teenager he started hanging out with the wrong gang, doing drugs and turning into a hippie. Freeman was not willing to toe the boundaries here, and once when George was arrested for illegal possession Freeman refused to bail him out so that he would learn a lesson. After this George became sullen and withdrawn while Esther went off to Harvard as a confident feminist. George finally decided to stake it out on his own, hiking through the Midwestern wilderness and finally making his home in the sublime coastal country of British Columbia, living in a tree for three years, building canoes in his spare time and making friends with the rustic natives who have made that part of the country their home.

The sixties saw an important evolution of Dyson’s life as he moved from pure physics to applied problems, especially problems of war and peace. He had gotten into the fray during the negotiations that led to the limited test ban treaty banning nuclear tests anywhere but underground. During this debate Dyson was pitted between his old friend Hans Bethe and his new friend Edward Teller, but his friendship with both men escaped unscathed. He was elected to the chairmanship of the Federation of American Scientists that was involved in important issues related to national policy. He became a member of JASON, a crack team of scientists advising the US government on defense problems. And he also joined the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, an organization that was formed under President Kennedy’s authority to study disarmament. Dyson found himself working in Washington DC during the early part of the decade.

It was as if fate had placed him here for a historic event. It just so happened that he was giving a testimony to a Senate committee on August 28, 1963. When he came out of the Capitol he saw a large crowd of people marching to the Washington Mall. Martin Luther King was about to give one of the greatest speeches in history. Dyson stood only a few feet away from him and witnessed history in the making: “I would like to write to you about today’s events while they are fresh in my mind… The finest of [the speakers] was Martin Luther King, who talks like an Old Testament prophet. He held the whole 250,000 spellbound with his biblical oratory. I felt I would be ready to go to jail for him anytime. I think this whole affair has been enormously successful. All these 250,000 people behaved with perfect good temper and discipline all day long. And they have made it unmistakeably clear that if their demands are not promptly met, they will return one day in a very different temper. Seeing all this, I found it hard to keep the tears from running out of my eyes.” 

A few weeks after King’s speech, the nuclear test ban treaty was ratified by the Senate. Peace at least on one front, even as it escapes on others as JFK is assassinated. While acknowledging the great tragedy, Dyson’s take on the event is characteristically unexpected and astute: “It is a great pity that Kennedy is dead. But to me the moral shock of his killing was much less than that of the killing of Medgar Evers, the negro who was killed in exactly the same way in Mississippi last summer. Evers was an even braver man than Kennedy and is probably harder to replace.”

The next few letters contain items various and sundry; meetings with various scientists like Yuval Neeman and Abdus Salam, accounts of Dyson’s interactions with friends including Leo Szilard and his wife Gertrude Weiss and with Einstein’s formidable secretary Helen Dukas, the death of Dyson’s father – there is a short but touching letter acknowledging his friendship with so many people and not just his stature as a musician – and organizing a sixtieth birthday event and then, in 1967, a funeral for Oppenheimer. It is clear from the letters that Oppenheimer’s influence on Dyson was considerable, and Dyson clearly understood both his deep flaws but also his fundamental greatness. He poignantly talks about how, just before Oppenheimer’s death, his wife Kitty desperately asked Dyson if he could work with Oppenheimer on a piece of physics to lift his spirits. But Dyson realized that the best thing he could do at that point was to hold Robert’s hand.

Life ebbs and flows. After news from his mother of a suspected colon cancer: “In these days I think of the years when I was close to you and spending many days walking and talking with you, the years we lived in London until I went to America, from 1937 to 1947. I was lucky to have you then to see me through the years of Sturm und Drang, to broaden my mind and share with me your rich knowledge of people. I remember reading aloud with you Sons and Lovers by Lawrence, knowing that you and I were a little like Lawrence and his mother, and that this perfect intellectual companionship which we had together could not last forever.” Fortunately the cancer turned out to be curable and Dyson’s mother lived for seven more years. And whenever the news turned grim, mathematics and the excellence of the life it brings always provided succor: “Today I discovered a little theorem which gave me some intense moments of pleasure. It is beautiful and fell into my hand like a jewel from the sky.”

In February 1970, Dyson had his first impressions of a brilliant young physicist from Cambridge who had been struck with an incurable malady. He recognized Stephen Hawking’s greatness even then: “I was taking care of Stephen Hawking, a young English astrophysicist who came here for a six-day visit. I had never got to know him till this week. Stephen is a brilliant young man who is now dying in the advanced stages of a paralytic nerve disease. He got the disease when he was twenty-one and he is now twenty-eight, so his whole professional life has been lived under sentence of death. In the last few years he has produced a succession of brilliant papers on general relativity… These days while Stephen was here, I was in a state of acute depression thinking about him, except for the hours when I was actually with him. As soon as you are with him, you cannot feel miserable, he radiates such a feeling of strength and good humour.”

The early 70s saw Dyson as a veteran scientist, advisor and thinker, sagely advising younger members of the institute in Princeton. He saw himself as a ‘psychiatric nurse’, taking care of young minds who were facing anxiety or depression because of the immense pressure to perform and produce groundbreaking science in their twenties. He recounts two stories, one of which is strange and the other harrowing. The strange story is about a historian of physics named Jagdish Mehra who was accused of stealing and then returning a letter from Einstein without the permission of Einstein’s ferociously loyal secretary Helen Dukas. Mehra later became a distinguished biographer of Feynman, Schwinger and other famous physicists. The harrowing incident was about a Japanese visiting student who committed suicide. Dyson who felt a measure of guilt in not perhaps being attuned to the signs decided to accompany his distraught wife back to Japan, and things got a bit difficult in the air when she loudly started accusing Dyson of murdering her husband and wishing death on his family. These accounts of Dyson’s experience as a psychiatric nurse attests to the enormous pressures that young scientists face at elite institutions.

The late 70s conclude the letter collection. They mark a transition period in Dyson’s life, marked by two events. The first was the death of his mother at age ninety-four. Dyson wrote a moving letter to his sister Alice, imagining how his mother’s sharply observant spirit would be watching over all of them and making sure they stayed on the right track. The second event was a trip to British Columbia to mend the rift with his son George. In Vancouver the Dysons were joined by Ken Brower, a writer who would later write an evocative book called “The Starship and the Canoe” about the father-son relationship. Interspersed with these experiences are meetings with Carl Sagan and Edward Wilson and a citizens’ meeting in Princeton debating a potential ban on recombinant DNA research at Princeton University. The meeting showed how important it is to involve ordinary townsfolk in decisions affecting public policy, and how intelligent ordinary townsfolk are in enabling such decisions.

On the Vancouver coast Freeman encounters whale worshippers whose “love for the animals has the passionate purity of a religious experience”. He feels the primitive harmony of whale song in the infinite silence of the night, observes George building kayaks and sails with him and meets George’s friends who are all perfectly tuned to the rhythms of nature. About two friends who taught George canoe building, one of them crippled, who walk into the rain holding a baby in their arms, “It was pitch dark when Jim and Allison left. I watched them walk slowly down the beach to the boat, in the dark and pouring rain, Jim on his crutches, Allison carrying the baby in her arms. It was like the last act of King Lear, when the crazy old king and his faithful daughter Cordelia are led away to their doom.” Fortunately, Dyson’s view of Jim turned out to be wrong. He patched up his injuries and still spends his time patching up boats. There is a metaphor for the future here somewhere.

Even though the letter collection concludes in 1978, Dyson continued to be immensely valued as a scientist, writer and thinker from the 80s all the way up to the present. As of 2018, at age ninety-four, the Old One continues to speak and write on a variety of topics and continues to be nurtured by Imme, his six children and sixteen grandchildren. George and Esther are leading thinkers, writers and activists themselves, and all the other children lead productive lives as citizens, spouses and parents. He has said on multiple occasions that family, friends and work are the most important things in his life, in that order, and the letters reflect these priorities; I would wager that the word "friend" appears more often in this volume than any other. Since the nineties, when email replaced letters as the chief mode of communication, Dyson has carried out an extended correspondence with friends all around the world. For eight years, both virtually and in person, I have been honored to be one of them.

Along with this volume, two other books by or about Dyson deserve to be read. One of these is his autobiography, “Disturbing the Universe”, which remains the most eloquent, literary and passionate testament by a scientist concerned with human problems that I have read. “Disturbing the Universe” was written in 1979, and it marked Dyson’s transition from being mainly a scientist to being mainly a writer. The memories in that volume complement or overlap the ones in this, and it also contains interesting thoughts on fascinating topics that Dyson didn’t really discuss with his parents; nuclear power, genetic engineering, extraterrestrial life. The second volume is “Dear Professor Dyson” which recounts more than twenty years of correspondence that Dyson has carried out – first through letters and then through email – with undergraduate students at Southern Nazarene University. Those letters also range over a bigger variety of topics and cover important matters like the ethics of defense and the relationship between science and religion.


Freeman Dyson has lived an extraordinary life through momentous times, populated with extraordinary characters and remarkable ideas. The letters in this collection tell us how, and Dyson’s life as described in them is perhaps best captured by something he said a long time ago: “We are human beings first and scientists second, because knowledge implies responsibility."

This is my latest monthly column for the website 3 Quarks Daily.

Dreams of a technocrat: Review of William Perry's "My Journey at the Nuclear Brink"

Technocrats have had a mixed record in guiding major policies of the United States government. Perhaps the most famous technocrat of the postwar years was Robert McNamara, the longest serving secretary of defense who worked for both John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Before joining Kennedy’s cabinet McNamara was the president of Ford Motor Company, the first person from outside the Ford family to occupy that position. Before coming to Ford, McNamara had done statistical analysis of the bombing campaign over Japan during the Second World War. Working under the famously ruthless General Curtis LeMay, McNamara worked out the most efficient ways to destroy the maximum amount of Japanese war infrastructure. On March 9, 1945, this kind of analysis contributed to the virtual destruction of Tokyo through bombing and the deaths of a hundred thousand civilians in a firestorm. While McNamara later expressed some regrets about large-scale destruction of cities, he generally subscribed to LeMay’s philosophy. LeMay’s philosophy was simple: once a war has started, you need to end it as soon as possible, and if this involves killing large numbers of civilians, so be it.

The Second World War was a transformational conflict in terms of applying the techniques of statistics and engineering to war problems. In many ways the war belonged to technocrats like McNamara and Vannevar Bush who was one of the leaders of the Manhattan Project. The success that these technocrats achieved through inventions like radar, the atomic bomb and the development of the computer were self-evident, so it was not surprising that scientists became a highly sought after voice in the corridors of power after the war. Some like Richard Feynman wanted nothing to do with weapons research after the war ended. Others like Robert Oppenheimer embraced this power. Unfortunately Oppenheimer’s naiveté combined with the beginnings of the Cold War generated paranoia and resulted in a disgraceful public hearing that stripped him of his security clearance.

After McNamara was appointed to the position by Kennedy, he began a tight restructuring of the defense forces by adopting the same kinds of statistical research techniques that he had used at Ford. Some of these techniques go by the name of operations research. McNamara’s policies led to cost reduction and consolidation of weapons systems. He brought a much more scientific approach to thinking about defense problems. One of his important successes was to change official US nuclear posture from the massive retaliation adopted by the Eisenhower administration to a strategy of more proportionate response adopted by the Kennedy administration. At this point in time McNamara was playing the role of the good technocrat. Then Kennedy was assassinated and the Vietnam War started. Lyndon Johnson put pressure on McNamara and his other advisors to expand American military presence in Vietnam.

To obey Johnson’s wishes, McNamara used the same techniques as he had before, but this time to increase the number of American troops and firepower in a remote country halfway around the world. Just like he had during the Second World War, he organized a series of bombing campaigns that laid waste not just to North Vietnamese military installations but to their dams and rice fields. Just like it had during the previous war, the bombing killed a large number of civilians without having a measurable impact on the morale or determination of Ho Chi Minh’s troops. The lessons of the Second World War should have told McNamara that bombing by itself couldn’t end a war. The man who had studied moral philosophy at Berkeley before he got ensnared by the trappings of power failed to realize that you cannot win over a nation through technology and military action. You can only do that by winning over the hearts and minds of its citizens and understanding their culture and history. Not just McNamara but most of Kennedy and Johnson’s other advisors also failed to understand this. They had reached the limits of technocratic problem solving.

William Perry seems to have avoided many of the problems that beset technocrats like McNamara. Perry was secretary of defense under Bill Clinton. His memoir is titled “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink”. As the memoir makes clear, this journey is one the entire world shares. The book is essentially a brisk and personal ride through the journey but there is little historical detail that puts some of the stories in context; for this readers would have to look at some of the references cited at the back. Perry came from a bonafide technical background. After serving at the end of the war and seeing the destruction in Tokyo and Okinawa, he returned to college and obtained bachelors and graduate degrees in mathematics. He then took the then unusual step of going to California, at a time when Silicon Valley did not exist and the transistor had just been invented. Perry joined an electronics company called Sylvania whose products started getting traction with the defense department. By this time the Cold War was in full swing, and the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations wanted to harness the full potential of science and technology in the fight against communism. To provide advice to the government, Eisenhower set up a president’s science advisory committee (PSAC) which included accomplished scientists like Hans Bethe and George Kistiakowsky, both of whom had held senior positions in the Manhattan project.

One of the most important uses of technology was in reconnaissance of enemy planes and missiles. Perry’s company developed some of the first sensors for detecting radar signatures of Soviet ICBM’s and their transmitters. He also contributed to some of the first communication satellites and played an important role in deciphering the images of medium range nuclear missiles installed in Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Perry understood well the great contribution technology could make not just to offense but also to defense. He recognized early that electronic technology was moving from analog to digital with the invention of the integrated chip and decided to start his own company to exploit its potential. His new company built sophisticated systems for detecting enemy weapons. It was successful and ultimately employed more than a thousand people, making Perry a wealthy man. It was while heading this company that Perry was invited to serve in the administration of Jimmy Carter in the position of undersecretary of defense for research and development. He had to make a significant personal financial sacrifice in divesting himself of the shares of his and other companies in order to be eligible for government service.

Perry’s background was ideal for this position, and it was in this capacity that he made what I think was his greatest contribution. At this point in history, the Soviet Union had achieved nuclear parity with the United States. They could achieve parity by building missiles called MIRVs which could house multiple nuclear warheads on one missile and target them independently against multiple cities. The introduction of MIRVs was not banned by the ABM treaty which Nixon had signed in the early 70s. Because of MIRV’s the Soviets could now field many more nuclear weapons than they could before. The US already possessed tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, most of them at hair trigger alert. Perry wisely recognized that the response to the Soviet buildup was not a blind increase in the US nuclear arsenal. Instead it was an increase not in nuclear but in conventional forces. Over the next few years Perry saw the development of some of the most important conventional weapons systems in the armamentarium. This included the Blackbird stealth fighter which had a very small radar signature as well as smart sensors and smart bombs which could target enemy installations with pinpoint accuracy. These weapons were very useful in the first Iraq War, fought two decades later. Today Perry’s contribution remains enduring. The strength of the US military’s conventional weapons is vast and this fact remains one of the best arguments for drastically reducing America’s nuclear weapons.

When Ronald Reagan became president he adopted a much tougher stance against the Soviets. His famous ‘Evil Empire’ speech cast the Soviet Union in a fundamentally irreconcilable light while his ‘Star Wars’ speech promised the American people a system of ballistic missile defense against Soviet ICBMs. Both these announcements were deeply flawed. The Evil Empire speech was flawed from a political standpoint. The Star Wars speech was flawed from a technical standpoint. On the political side, the Soviets would only construe Reagan’s stand as an excuse to build more offensive weapons. On the technical side, it had been shown comprehensively that any defense system would be cheaply overwhelmed using decoys and countermeasures, and it would take only a fraction of the launched missiles to get through to cause terrible destruction. Standing on the outside Perry could not do much, but because of his years of experience in both weapons development and talking to leaders and scientists from other countries, he initiated what he called ‘Track 2 diplomacy’, that is diplomacy outside official channels. He established good relationships with Soviet and Chinese generals and politicians and made many trips to these two and other nations. Like others before and after him, Perry understood that some of the most important geopolitical problem solving happens at the personal level. This fact was especially driven home when Perry spent a lot of his time as secretary of defense advocating for better living conditions for American troops.

In his second term Reagan completely reversed his stand and sought reconciliation with the Soviets. This change was driven partly by his own thinking about the catastrophic consequences of nuclear war and largely by the ascendancy of Mikhail Gorbachev. As Freeman Dyson has pointed out, it's worth noting that the largest arms reductions in history were carried out by supposedly hawkish right-wing Republicans. Reagan and George H W Bush and Gorbachev dismantled an entire class of nuclear weapons. Before that, Republican president Richard Nixon had unilaterally got rid of chemical and biological weapons. Republican presidents can do this when Democratic presidents cannot because they cannot be easily accused of being doves by their own party. I believe that even in the future it is Republicans rather than Democrats who stand the best chance of getting rid of nuclear weapons. Because people like William Perry have strengthened the conventional military forces of the US so well, the country can now afford to not need nuclear weapons for deterrence.

When Bill Clinton became president Perry again stepped into the limelight. The Soviet Union was collapsing and it suddenly presented a problem of very serious magnitude. The former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan suddenly found themselves with thousands of nuclear weapons without centralized Soviet authority. Many of these weapons were unsecured and loose, and rogue terrorists or states could have easily obtained access to them. Two American senators from opposing parties, Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, proposed a plan through which the US could help the Soviets dismantle their weapons and buy the nuclear material from them. Nunn and Lugar worked with Perry and weapons expert Ash Carter to secure this material from thousands of warheads, blending it down from weapons-grade to reactor-grade. In return the US destroyed several of its own missile silos and weapons. In one of the most poignant facts of history, a sizable fraction of US electricity today comes from uranium and plutonium from Russian nuclear bombs which had been targeted on New York, Washington DC and San Francisco. The Nunn-Lugar program of denuclearizing Russia is one of the greatest and most important bipartisan triumphs in American history. It has undoubtedly made the world a safer place, and Nunn and Lugar perhaps along with Perry and his Russian counterparts surely deserve a Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.

When Perry became secretary of defense under Clinton, much of his time was occupied with North Korea, an issue that continues to confront the world today. North Korea has been fighting an extended war with the United States and South Korea since the 1950s ever since the Korean War ended only in a truce. In the 90s the North Koreans announced that they would start reprocessing plutonium from their nuclear reactors. This would be the first step toward quickly building a plutonium bomb. Both South Korea and the US had serious concerns about this. Perry engaged in a series of diplomatic talks, some involving former president Jimmy Carter, at the end of which the North Koreans decided to forgo reprocessing in return for fuel to help their impoverished country. Perry’s accounts of North Korea contains amusing facts, such as the New York Philharmonic organizing a concert in Pyongyang and Perry entertaining a top North Korean general in Silicon Valley. Today the problem of North Korea seems serious, but it’s worth remembering that someone like Kim Jong Un who relishes such total control over his people would be reluctant to lose that control willingly by initiating a nuclear war in which his country would be completely destroyed.

The greatest problem, however, was Russia and today many of Perry’s thoughts and actions from the nineties about Russia sound prescient. After the Cold War ended, for some time US-Russia relations were at an all time high. The main bone of contention was NATO. Many former Soviet-controlled countries like Poland and Ukraine wanted to join NATO to enjoy the same security that other NATO members had. Perry was in favor of letting these countries join NATO, but he wisely understood that too rapid an assimilation of too many nations into NATO would make Russia uneasy and start seeing the US as a threat again. He proposed asking these nations to join NATO along a leisurely timeline. Against his opinion Clinton provided immediate support for NATO membership for these countries. A few years later, after George W Bush became president, partly because of US actions and partly because of Russia’s, Perry’s fears turned out to be true. The US withdrew from the ABM treaty because they wanted to put ballistic missile defense in Eastern Europe, ostensibly against Iranian ICBMs. Notwithstanding the technical flaws still inherent in missile defense, the Russians unsurprisingly questioned why the US needed this defense against a country which was still years away from building ICBMs and construed it as a bulwark against Russia. The Russians therefore started working on their own missile defense and a MIRV missile as well as new tactical nuclear weapons themselves. Unlike high-yield strategic weapons which can wipe out cities, low-yield tactical weapons ironically increase the probability of nuclear war since they can be used locally on battlefields. When Obama became president of the United States and Medvedev became president of Russia, there was a small window of hope for reduction of nuclear weapons on both sides, but the election of Putin and Trump has dimmed the chances of reaching an agreement in the near future. North Korea has also gone nuclear by conducting a nuclear test in 2006.

Perry’s greatest concern throughout his career has been to reduce the risk of nuclear war. He thinks that nuclear war is quite low on the list of public concerns, and this is a strange fact indeed. Even a small nuclear bomb used in a major city would lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths and severe social and economic disruption. It would be a catastrophe unlike any we have faced until now and would make 9/11 look like child’s play. With so many countries having nuclear weapons, even the small risk of a rogue terrorist stealing a weapon is greatly amplified by the horrific consequences. If nuclear weapons are such a serious problem, why are they largely absent from the public consciousness?

It seems that nuclear weapons don’t enter the public consciousness because of a confluence of factors. Firstly, most of us take deterrence for granted. We think that as long as most countries have nuclear weapons, mutually assured destruction and rationality would keep us safe. But this is little more than a false sense of security; mutually assured destruction is not a rational strategy, it is simply an unfortunate reality that emerged from our collective actions. We are very lucky that no nuclear attack has taken place after Nagasaki, but there have been scores of nuclear accidents that almost led to bombs being exploded, some near American cities. The book “Command and Control” by Eric Schlosser describes dozens of such frightening accidents. Just a few years ago there was an incident in which American military planes flew from North Dakota to Louisiana without realizing that there were nuclear bombs onboard. In addition, even during events like the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world came very close to nuclear war, and a slight misunderstanding could have triggered a nuclear launch: in fact it is now widely acknowledged that dumb luck played as big a role in the crisis not escalating as any rational action. There are also false alarms, one of which Perry recollects: an accidental playing of a training exercise tape led a general to the erroneous conclusion that two hundred nuclear tipped missiles were heading from the Soviet Union toward the US. Fortunately it was discovered that this was a false alarm in seconds, but if it had not, according to protocol American ICBMs would have been launched against Russia within minutes, and the Russians would have retaliated massively. The problem with nuclear weapons is that the window of prevention is very small, and therefore accidents are quite likely. The reason the American public does not fear nuclear weapons as much as it should is because it sees that the red line has never been crossed and it believes that the line will never be crossed, but it does not see how close we already came to crossing it.

Secondly, the media is much more concerned with reporting on the latest political or celebrity scandal and important but much less precipitous problems like climate change rather than on nuclear weapons. Of the two major problems confronting humanity – nuclear war and climate change – I believe nuclear war is the more urgent. The impacts of climate change are mixed, longer term and more unpredictable. The impacts of nuclear war are unambiguously bad, immediate and more predictable. Unfortunately climate change especially has been an obsession with both the media and the public in spite of its uncertainties, whereas the certain consequences of a nuclear attack have been ignored by both. The supposed dangers of climate change have been widely publicized by self-proclaimed prophets like Al Gore, but there are no such prophets publicizing the dangers of nuclear weapons. For one reason or another, both the public and the media consider nuclear weapons to be a low priority because no nuclear accident has happened during the last fifty years, but they keep on ignoring the very high costs of even a low risk attack. If nuclear weapons received the kind of massive publicity that global warming has received, there is no doubt that they too would loom large on everyone’s mind.

Changing attitudes is hard, although Perry certainly has tried. Nuclear weapons were born of science, but their solution is not technical. With his colleagues Sam Nunn, George Schultz, Henry Kissinger and Sidney Drell, Perry started an initiative whose goal is the reduction of nuclear weapons through both official and unofficial diplomacy. All four of these people have had deep experience with both nuclear weapons and diplomacy. Encouraging economic and trade relationships between traditional rivals like India and Pakistan for instance would be a key strategy in reducing the risk of nuclear conflict between such nations: one reason why an actual war between the US and China is highly unlikely is because both countries depend heavily on each other for economic benefits. The key objective in caging the nuclear genie is to remind nations of their common security and the fact that individual lives are precious on all sides. During the Cold War, it was only when the US and the Soviet Union recognized that even a “win” for one country in a nuclear war would involve large-scale destruction of both countries did they finally realize how important it was to cooperate.


Finally, Perry has made it his life’s goal to educate young people about these dangers, both through his classes at Stanford University as well as through his website. The future is in these young people’s hands, and as much of the world including Russia seems to be reverting to the old ways of thinking, it’s young people whose minds are unspoiled by preconceived notions who give us our best chance of ridding the world of the nuclear menace.

This is my latest column for 3 Quarks Daily.

Bridging the gaps: Einstein on education

This is my latest column for 3 Quarks Daily.

The crossing of disciplinary boundaries in science has brought with it a peculiar and ironic contradiction. On one hand, fields like computational biology, medical informatics and nuclear astrophysics have encouraged cross-pollination between disciplines and required the biologist to learn programming, the computer scientist to learn biology and the doctor to know statistics. On the other hand, increasing specialization has actually shored up the silos between these territories because each territory has become so dense with its own facts and ideas.

We are now supposed to be generalists, but we are generalists only in a collective sense. In an organization like a biotechnology company for instance, while the organization itself chugs along on the track of interdisciplinary understanding across departments like chemistry, biophysics and clinical investigations, the effort required for understanding all the nuts and bolts of each discipline has meant that individual scientists now have neither the time nor the inclination to actually drill down into whatever their colleagues are doing. They appreciate the importance of various fields of inquiry, but only as reservoirs into which they pipe their results, which then get piped into other reservoirs. In a metaphor evoked in a different context - the collective alienation that technology has brought upon us - by the philosopher Sherry Turkle, we are ‘alone together’.

The need to bridge disciplinary boundaries without getting tangled in the web of your own specialization has raised new challenges for education. How do we train the men and women who will stake out new frontiers tomorrow in the study of the brain, the early universe, gender studies or artificial intelligence? As old-fashioned as it sounds, to me the solution seems to go back to the age-old tradition of a classical liberal education which lays emphasis more on general thinking and skills rather than merely the acquisition of diverse specialized knowledge and techniques. In my ideal scenario, this education would emphasize a good grounding in mathematics, philosophy (including philosophy of science), basic computational thinking and statistics and literature as primary goals, with an appreciation of the rudiments of evolution and psychology or neuroscience as preferred secondary goals.

This kind of thinking was on my mind as I happened to read a piece on education and training written by a man who was generally known to have thought-provoking ideas on a variety of subjects. If there was one distinguishing characteristic in Albert Einstein, it was the quality of rebellion. In his early days Einstein rebelled against the rigid education and rules of the German Gymnasium system. In his young and middle years he rebelled against the traditional scientific wisdom of the day, leading to his revolutionary contributions to relativity and quantum theory. In his old age he rebelled against both an increasingly jingoistic world as well as against the mainstream scientific establishment.

Not surprisingly, then, Einstein had some original and bold thoughts on what an education should be like. He held forth on some of these in an address on October 15, 1931 delivered at the State University of New York at Albany. 1931 was a good year to discuss these issues. The US stock market had crashed two years before, leading to the Great Depression and mass unemployment. And while Hitler had not become chancellor and dictator yet, he would do so only two years later; the rise of fascism in Europe was already evident.

Some of these issues must have been on Einstein’s mind as he first emphasized what he had already learnt from his own bitter Gymnasium experience, the erosion of individuality in the face of a system of mass education, similar to what was happening to the erosion of individuality in the face of authoritarian ideas.

“Sometimes one sees in the school simply the instrument for transferring a certain maximum quantity of knowledge to the growing generation. But that’s not right. Knowledge is dead; the school, however, serves the living. It should develop in the young individuals those equalities and capabilities which are of value for the welfare of the commonwealth. But that does not mean that individuality should be destroyed and the individual becomes a mere tool of the community, like a bee or an ant. For a community of standardized individuals without personal originality and personal aims would be a poor community without possibilities for development. On the contrary, the aim must be the training of independently thinking and acting individuals, who, however, see in the service of the community their highest life problem…To me the worst thing seems to be for a school principally to work with methods of fear, force, and artificial authority. Such treatment destroys the sound sentiments, the sincerity, and the self-confidence of the pupil. It produces the submissive subject. It is not so hard to keep the school free from the worst of all evils. Give into the power of the teacher the fewest possible coercive measures, so that the only source of the pupil’s respect for the teacher is the human and intellectual qualities of the latter.”

Einstein also talks about what we can learn from Darwin’s theory. In 1931 eugenics was still quite popular, and Darwin’s ideas were seen even by many social progressives as essentially advocating the ruthless culling of ‘inferior’ individuals and the perpetuation of superior ones. Where Einstein came from, this kind of thinking was on flagrant display right on the doorstep, even if it hadn’t already morphed into the unspeakable horror that it did a decade later. Einstein clearly rejects this warlike philosophy and encourages cooperation over competition. Both cooperation and competition are important for human progress, but the times clearly demanded that one not forget the former.

“Darwin’s theory of the struggle for existence and the selectivity connected with it has by many people been cited as authorization of the encouragement of the spirit of competition. Some people also in such a way have tried to prove pseudo-scientifically the necessity of the destructive economic struggle of competition between individuals. But this is wrong, because man owes his strength in the struggle for existence to the fact that he is a socially living animal. As little as a battle between single ants of an ant hill is essential for survival, just so little is this the case with the individual members of a human community…Therefore, one should guard against preaching to the young man success in the customary sense as the aim of life. For a successful man is he who receives a great deal from his fellow men, usually incomparably more than corresponds to his service to them. The value of a man, however, should be seen in what he gives and not what he is able to receive.”

In other words, with malice toward none, with charity toward all.

And what about the teachers themselves? What kinds of characters need to populate the kind of school which imparts a liberal and charitable education? Certainly not the benevolent dictators that filled up German schools in Einstein’s time or which still hold court in many schools across the world which emphasize personal authority over actual teaching.

“What can be done that this spirit be gained in the school? For this there is just as little a universal remedy as there is for an individual to remain well. But there are certain necessary conditions which can be met. First, teachers should grow up in such schools. Second, the teacher should be given extensive liberty in the selection of the material to be taught and the methods of teaching employed by him. For it is true also of him that pleasure in the shaping of his work is killed by force and exterior pressure.”

If Einstein’s words have indeed been accurately transcribed, it is interesting to hear him use the words “grow up” rather than just “grow” applied to teachers. I have myself come across stentorian autocrats who inadvertently reminded students that their charges were in fact the adults in the room. They definitely need to grow up. Flexibility in the selection of the teaching material is a different matter. To do this it’s not just important to offer as many electives as possible, but it’s more important to give teachers a wide berth within their own classes rather than constantly being required to subscribe to a strictly defined curriculum. Some of the best teachers I had were ones who spent most of their time on material other than what was required. They might wax philosophical about the bigger picture, they might tell us stories from the history of science, and one of them even took us out for walks where the topics of discussion consisted of everything except what he was ‘supposed’ to teach. It is this kind of flexibility in teaching that imparts the most enriching experience, but it’s important for the institution to support it.
What about the distinction between natural science and the humanities? Germany already had a fine tradition in imparting a classical education steeped in Latin and Greek, mathematics and natural science, so not surprisingly Einstein was on the right side of the debate when it came to acquiring a balanced education.

“If a young man has trained his muscles and physical endurance by gymnastics and walking, then he will later be fitted for every physical work. This is also analogous to the training of the mental and the exercising of the mental and manual skill. Thus the wit was not wrong who defined education in this way: “Education is that which remains, if one has forgotten everything he has learned in school.” For this reason I am not at all anxious to take sides in the struggle between the followers of the classical philologic-historical education and the education more devoted to natural science.”

The icing on this cake really is Einstein’s views on the emphasis on general ability rather than specialized knowledge, a distinction which is more important than ever in our age of narrow specialization.

“I want to oppose the idea that the school has to teach directly that special knowledge and those accomplishments which one has to use later directly in life. The demands of life are much too manifold to let such a specialized training in school appear possible. Apart from that, it seems to me, moreover, objectionable to treat the individual like a dead tool. The school should always have as its aim that the young man leave it as a harmonious personality, not as a specialist. This in my opinion is true in a certain sense even for technical schools, whose students will devote themselves to a quite definite profession. The development of general ability for independent thinking and judgement should always be placed foremost, not the acquisition of special knowledge. If a person masters the fundamentals of his subject and has learned to think and work independently, he will surely find his way and besides will better be able to adapt himself to progress and changes than the person whose training principally consists in the acquiring the detailed knowledge.”

One might argue that it’s the failure to let young people leave college as ‘harmonious personalities’ rather than problem-solvers that leads to a nation of technocrats and operational specialists of the kind that got the United States in the morass of Vietnam, for instance. A purely problem-solving outlook might enable a young person to get a job sooner and solve narrowly defined problems, but it will not lead them to look at the big picture and truly contribute to a productive and progressive society.

I find Einstein’s words relevant today because the world of 2018 in some sense resembles the world of 1931. Just like it did because of the Great Depression then, mass unemployment because of artificial intelligence and automation is a problem looming on the short horizon. Just like it had in 1931, authoritarian thinking seems to have taken root in many of the world’s governments. The specialization of disciplines has led colleges and universities to increasingly specialize their own curricula, so that it is now possible for many students to get through college without acquiring even the rudiments of a liberal arts education. C. P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ paradoxically have become more entrenched, even as the Internet presumably promised to break down barriers between them. Meanwhile, political dialogue and people's very world-views across the political spectrum have gotten so polarized on college campuses that certain ideas are now being rejected as biased, not based on their own merits but on some of their human associations.


These problems are all challenging and require serious thinking and intervention. There are no easy solutions to them, but based on Einstein’s words, our best bet would be to inculcate a generation of men and women and institutional structures that promote flexible thinking, dialogue and cooperation, and an open mind. We owe at least that much to ourselves as a supposedly enlightened species.