Field of Science

A review of Philip Schewe's "Maverick Genius", a biography of Freeman Dyson

Freeman Dyson is a unique treasure; he is not only a brilliant and accomplished physicist who has made important contributions to an astonishingly diverse range of topics in physics and mathematics, but he is also one of the very few scientists around who can craft genuinely eloquent prose. His writing is simple, elegant, and enriched by the words of poets, historians and famous literary lights. Most importantly, Dyson evidences in his writings a quality that is extremely rare among scientists: a deep-seated sensitivity to human problems and to the state of the world that reflects sincere humanism. Indeed, he might be the best living example of someone who can reach across both of C. P. Snow's "two cultures". Meeting him at length twice was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

Dyson's capacity to stride both the natural and the humanities is emblematic of many other contrasts in his personality. A mathematician who is unabashedly at home in the rarefied realms of pure thought, he has also worked on hard engineering problems related to nuclear reactor and spaceship design. He constantly emphasizes that he is a problem-solver and not a philosopher, yet he manages to write superbly on speculative and philosophical topics like the propagation of life across the cosmos. He is almost ninety and looks like a frail wizard, yet he speaks authoritatively, has a solid memory unmarred by age and confidently strides the grounds of the Institute for Advanced study in Princeton with the energy of someone in their twenties. He is unfailingly cordial, shy and avuncular, yet is not afraid to hold back with his opinions. And in most of his writings he demonstrates an endlessly interesting contrarian streak that has led to his reputation as a maverick; one of his best-selling collections of essays is in fact a paean to the rebel streak in science.

All these qualities are on display in Phillip Schewe's biography of Dyson. The biography does a very good job of evocatively narrating key events from Dyson's life and many of the chapters are quite captivating, but I wish it emphasized Dyson's science more. In addition the biographer is somewhat at a disadvantage since Dyson has himself recounted the facts of his life until about 1980 in his wonderful memoir "Disturbing the Universe". Where the reader does benefit from this book is in learning about Dyson's life after 1980 and about parts of his personal life that he has not talked about. A caveat: The volume is not based on interviews with Dyson himself, but it is enriched by interviews with scores of Dyson's family members, friends and colleagues.

Schewe starts with an account of Dyson's upbringing in wartime England where he was raised by upper middle-class parents who were highly educated and socially responsible. His mother was a lawyer and his father was a noted music composer who was later knighted. His mother especially drove home the importance of empathizing with people at an early age. Dyson's intellect and his love for science, languages and poetry developed at Britain's elite Winchester College. At Cambridge University Dyson learnt mathematics and physics from the very best minds including Paul Dirac and G. H. Hardy. Working as a statistician in the Royal Air Force during World War 2 was a formative experience for the young Dyson. It was here that he learnt about the bonds that bind people during difficult times, the capacity of science to inform political and military decisions, and the capacity of politicians to ignore scientific advice.

After the war Dyson came to the United States where his unique talents as a mathematician allowed him to make a key contribution to the then developing field of quantum electrodynamics which deals with the interaction of light and matter; in his own memoirs Dyson has evocatively narrated the story of how he collaborated and argued with leading physicists like Feynman, Oppenheimer and Bethe in formulating his theory. Dyson's accomplishment was to unify two very disparate-sounding theories and to provide an array of powerful mathematical tools that have made their way into the theoretical physicist's standard vocabulary. From a pure scientific viewpoint this contribution stands as his most important one and many think that he should have shared a Nobel Prize for it. The work brought him instant fame, most impressively the offer of a professorship before he a got a Ph.D. and election to Britain's Royal Society at the tender age of twenty-eight.

Yet almost right away Dyson started demonstrating that he was unusual among theoretical physicists in having a very broad variety of interests and abilities He wrote important papers on solid-state physics, pure mathematics, astronomy and particle physics. He started consulting for the defense department and worked for the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. He embarked on a lifelong interest in speculating on the human colonization of space, and consulted for Stanley Kubrick on his groundbreaking space opera. He found that he had a talent for writing popular science articles. He even wrote articles on finding aliens which immortalized him among science fiction fans as the originator of the so-called "Dyson sphere". Most prominently, he seriously worked on a spectacular spaceship fueled by hydrogen bombs named Orion and an "intrinsically safe" nuclear reactor named Triga. Orion especially was the most exciting time of his life and the project demonstrated his amazing interdisciplinary talents. Schewe also talks about Dyson's involvement with the defense-consulting group called JASON during the Vietnam War when Dyson and a handful of other scientists wrote a report on the futility of using nuclear weapons in Vietnam. This involvement was controversial and underscored to Dyson the conflicts between science and public policy. 

The book also recounts several personal aspects of Dyson's life including his divorce, his initially difficult relationship with his son George (a noted writer himself) which has now been mended and the two times when he almost got killed. There are plenty of anecdotes about life in Princeton - including ones regarding affairs - but the thrust of the discussion is to emphasize the freedom that Dyson's institute offered him for exploring his interests. The institute also gave him a front-row seat to cutting-edge research and allowed him to rub shoulders with some of the leading thinkers of the twentieth century. At the same time the ivory-tower environment occasionally engendered a sense of isolation in Dyson and this was partly responsible for his "escape" into other projects in different parts of the country.

From the 80s onwards Dyson focused much more on his outstanding writing career and Schewe succinctly describes this part of his life. Throughout his life Dyson has been a big fan of diversity in all its forms, and he has superbly conveyed this fondness in his books which cover topics ranging from history and literature to politics and engineering. Writing has also provided him with an opportunity to indulge his varied scientific interests, including a solid foray into the field of origins-of-life. Distinguished invited lectures like the Gifford Lectures in Scotland gave him a chance to pen eloquent, clear and wide-ranging ruminations on science for the public. He also started writing thoughtful book reviews for the New York Review of Books, an activity that continues unabated. For his interdisciplinary contributions he received many important awards like the Wolf Prize, the Fermi Award and the Templeton Prize; the latter was awarded for his belief that science and religion can be reconciled and has sparked some controversy. Work on defense-related matters and especially arms reduction also continued and this thinking resulted in a thoughtful and soul-searching book on the nuclear arms race called "Weapons and Hope". He also started writing about the fledgling field of biotechnology which he thinks will soon become "domesticated" just like computer technology did during the last three decades; he has high hopes for the combined success of biotechnology and space technology in human colonization of the universe. 

In recent years Dyson has become well known for his skeptical views on climate change. As Schewe says, his opinion on the topic was blown out of proportion by a New York Times Magazine profile in 2009; the fact is that climate change occupies very little of Dyson's time and he himself has admitted that he is not an expert. In addition his views on the topic are in the best skeptical tradition of science which does not regard anyone's word as final (one of Dyson's favorite quotes is the Royal Society's motto; "Nullius in Verba", or "nobody's word is final"). They are a testament to his view that hard consensus in science should never stifle dissenting opinions.

Celebrating his 92nd birthday this year, Dyson continues to be remarkably active. He is involved in research on gravitational waves and on game theory, continues to write, travel, consult and give public talks, and still puts in a full day's work at the institute. Schewe ends by conveying Dyson's reflections on mortality, the future of humanity and on family which he considers all-important. Overall you get an excellent sense for what makes this extraordinary man who he is. There are two main reservations I have about the book. Firstly, Schewe uses a lot of metaphors to make the writing more evocative and interesting and for the most part he succeeds. Some of these are amusing; for instance Dyson's transition from England to Cornell University in Ithaca, NY after the war is compared to Ulysses' voyage to Ithaca after the Trojan War. But comparing Dyson's appeals to have his work on quantum electrodynamics recognized by the bigwigs to the Beatles' song "Please please me" is embarrassing. 

However my main disappointment with the book was with its relative lack of discussion of Dyson's science. To be fair Schewe declares upfront that this is a biography, not a science history. But the fact is that all of Dyson's interests flow from his scientific thinking and it seemed prudent to delve into the scientific details. Dyson worked on very interesting projects which are still relevant but Schewe never really gets into their nuts and bolts. For instance he does not discuss what the merits of Orion were, or what experts in the field think of it today as an enabling technology for space exploration. The same goes for Dyson's contributions to nuclear reactor design, a subject of contemporary relevance on which Dyson himself has occasionally written. 

There's also relatively little background on the half-dozen scientific topics Dyson worked on, including highly regarded papers on spin waves and the stability of matter. The same goes for details of Dyson's work on pure mathematics. In addition the book doesn't say much from a scientific viewpoint about Dyson's skepticism regarding climate change; it would have been especially interesting to know more about the climate models that Dyson criticizes. Perhaps Schewe could have lifted a page from James Gleick's outstanding biography of Richard Feynman ("Genius") which has extensive discussions of the science. Whatever other talents Dyson has, he is first and foremost a scientist and I thought the biography could have discussed the science more than what it does.

But these limitations do not detract from the book's strengths. The writing is often vivid and transmits a sense of the excitement that Dyson feels for science and its myriad consequences. The sheer range of his interests and accomplishments is overwhelmingly clear, so is his concern for the human race. Overall I would very much recommend the volume as a readable biography of a truly remarkable individual; it gives us a fascinating overview of Dyson's life and thoughts and demonstrates why he is one of the most wide-ranging, accomplished and sensitive thinkers and writers of our time.


  1. John McPhee's 'The Curve of Binding Energy' has a lot of interesting detail on Project Orion, its PM, Ted Taylor, and Freeman Dyson. Well worth looking up.


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS