Field of Science

Infinite in All Directions: Freeman Dyson at 93

The author with Freeman Dyson at his 90th birthday celebration
One afternoon when I was in college, classes were getting characteristically dull, so I decided to step into the library for my weekly random stroll through the stacks. There, lying on the floor and covered with dust and neglect, was a book named "Disturbing the Universe", by an author I had never heard of before. Taking the book home, I was almost startled by the sheer range of the mind that wrote it and tore through it in one night. There was talk of nuclear weapons, and extraterrestrials, and T.S. Eliot, and number theory, and Yeats, and a life-changing ride with Richard Feynman, and space colonization, and growing up in wartime England. But it wasn't just the intellect that shone through. The prose flowed like silk, often glowing with eloquence, humanity and poignancy without sentimentalism. It ranged across the entire landscape of science, technology, politics and history, lovingly presenting ideas both big and small. How could a scientist write like this? The author also seemed to be friends with some of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century - Robert Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe, Feynman, Francis Crick. Whoever this Freeman Dyson was, I decided that he must be a very special person.

My first correspondence with him was in 2005 when the great physicist Hans Bethe who was Dyson's advisor at Cornell University died at the ripe age of ninety eight. Bethe who was one of the truly great minds and human beings of the 20th century continues to be a hero of mine. I sent Dyson a letter about Bethe which I had gotten published in the magazine Physics Today, and he immediately replied with warm appreciation. Much later when I was living in New Jersey, I realized that Dyson lived and worked only a half an hour or so away from me at the famed Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. With some trepidation I decided to ask him for an audience. Knowing that even in his 80s he was a busy man who wrote books, traveled around the world giving talks and consulted with the government, I certainly did not expect a quick reply, if at all. In keeping with one of his signature habits, not only did he reply to my email almost instantly but invited me over for lunch and a conversation in his office. So began a memorable correspondence. Like countless friends of his around the world, I soon started addressing him as Freeman.

I remember the date - November 10, 2010. The leaves were still changing color as I parked my car and made my way to the brickstone building, struck by the serenity that had drawn Einstein, Gödel, Oppenheimer and von Neumann to the place. I walked into an office on the second floor and saw an elfin-looking man sunk deep in his chair, staring intently at a document on his computer screen. So intently that when I called out his name he did not hear it. The second time I called it out he jumped about two inches in his chair, and I immediately felt guilty about interrupting his reverie. But this was Freeman Dyson after all, a man whose powers of concentration were the stuff of cafeteria banter.

Like many others who have met him, I was immediately struck by his slight but impressively energetic frame, honest cackles of laughter, studied powers of concentration and most of all, his striking and intent gray-blue eyes full of endless curiosity and wonder. His brilliance combined with his deceptive frailty made him look like a wizard from an enlightened world. What followed was a uniquely memorable meeting lasting several hours. Talking to him was like taking a random walk around an exotic garden filled with intellectual treats. I struggled to keep up with both his quick stride and his nimble mind as we walked to the cafeteria. Once we got our lunch trays, our conversation ranged over a huge spectrum of topics ranging from politics and family to physics and biology. He was pointedly opinionated but also consummately cordial. I told him about modeling water molecules in proteins, he told me about his belief that it might be impossible to observe single gravitons. I told him about my father's intense love of books which he passed on to me, he told me about his father's notable contributions to music, conceived even as bombs were falling on London. I told him about my sister's family in Tasmania, he mentioned strolling through a forest in Tasmania that was the densest he had seen. Discussions about science were punctuated by warm reminiscences about colleagues and fond stories about his grandchildren - all sixteen of them. The meeting told me what I had already learnt from his books; Freeman Dyson is one of the most human of all scientists and thinkers, imbibed with an even greater concern for the well-being of humanity as for the mysteries of the universe.

By any definition he's one of the great thinkers and polymaths of the twentieth century. He was a founding father of quantum electrodynamics, was elected to the Royal Society at age 30, made important contributions to everything from quantum mechanics to spaceship design, became a professor at Cornell with no more than a B.A. but has received more than twenty honorary PhD degrees, contributed enough as a consultant to the defense establishment to receive the Fermi Award and contributed enough to the dialogue about science and religion to receive the Templeton Prize. He is a mathematician who is as adept at calculating continued fractions and shock absorber stresses as the energy levels in atoms. Even if you consider his purely technical ideas, his range is astonishing; at his 90th birthday celebration, his colleagues spoke of at least half a dozen major contributions in fields as diverse as solid state physics and astrophysics which had opened new areas of research and engaged scores of researchers for a decade or more. At 93 he continues to be active; only two years ago he wrote a controversial and highly cited paper on game theory. He has won every award except the Nobel Prize, and regarding that omission he wryly quotes Jocelyn Bell Burnell, another omitted Nobel Laureate: "It's better that people ask me why I did not win it rather than why I did".

What truly sets Dyson apart though is his command of the English language and his understanding and concern for human problems. The prose is spare and simple and yet luminous; as one of the reviews of his book described it, "full of no little blood and fire". These are qualities that are extremely rare among scientists, and especially among physical scientists. Dyson is as equally at home talking about the S-matrix and about diplomacy with the Soviets as he is mulling over T. S. Eliot's "Murder in the Cathedral". In his writing he offers at least as many original ideas in various fields as in his research. His vast imagination roams across ideas ranging from clever to preposterous and yet semi-serious; over the years he has invented Dyson spheres (featured in an episode of Star Trek) and has proposed that life could thrive better on comets than on distant planets. He has penned endearing - and enduring - portraits of his close friends Richard Feynman, Robert Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe and Edward Teller and demonstrates a rare grasp of the value of human imperfection. His reviews of books for the New York Review of Books are simply an excuse to hold forth on the human condition.

In other writings he has shown himself sympathetic to religion, thinking it to be as necessary to hope and survival as the tools of science. Unlike the so-called "New Atheists" Dyson believes that religion, with all its evils and flaws, has demonstrated itself at the very minimum to be a useful glue that binds human beings to each other in times of adversity. He is a non-denominational Christian who values religion for the sense of community it fosters. Taken as a whole Dyson's thoughts and writings are primarily about science as an instrument of human progress, but they are also equally about the role of history, poetry, literature and politics in making sure that science functions responsibly; when I was a somewhat zealous student of science in college, he was the first scientist who made me appreciate how important it is for a scientist to educate himself in the humanities. And never one to descend into unproductive hand-wringing, his writings glow with optimism and project a bright future for the human species, no matter how dismal the future might occasionally appear. I agree with his biographer Philip Schewe that far and beyond, Dyson will be best remembered as an original essayist.

Over the past few years Dyson has become much more well-known in the public eye for his skepticism regarding climate change, a view made popular in a lengthy 2009 New York Times magazine profile. This was always unfortunate. Both his views and the article were blown out of proportion. In reality, as can be readily judged when you talk to him, Dyson's opinion of climate change is mildly proffered, moderate to a fault and in the best tradition of the same skepticism that has guided science since its inception. He disapproves of faith in computer models and of the zealous dogmatism exhibited by some climate change activists, and both these points are extremely well taken. Ultimately Dyson is saying something simple; that science progresses only when there is a critical mass of skeptics challenging the status quo. It's not about whether the skeptics are right or wrong, it's about whether their voices are drowned out by the consensus. One of his favorite quotes is the motto of the Royal Society, an institution established by freethinkers in the shadow of a heavy-handed monarchy: "Nullius in verba" - Nobody's word is final.

Since our first meeting we have kept up a warm correspondence in person and over email. Every year when I meet him he inevitably invites me to have lunch at the Institute for Advanced Study and gives generously of his time; every meeting provides me with inspiration and ideas. He has recommended rare and underappreciated books by J. B. S. Haldane, H. G. Wells and P. M. S. Blackett which offered unique insights into science, war and the human condition. Among others, I in turn have gifted him books by Andrea Wulf on Alexander von Humboldt and by Peter Conradi on the tragic and brilliant wartime poet Frank Thompson, a fellow Winchester College student who he knew during his time there.

As a role model of science and humanism, I hope Freeman continues to offer us his wisdom and insights, and I look forward to congratulating him on his next milestone. Happy Birthday, Freeman!


  1. Thanks for this. Dyson one of my heroes. Like you, I love his appreciation of the non-scientific as well as the scientific. He was a friend of Immanuel Velikovsky, a pariah to most scientists. Dyson wrote a review of Kahneman's "Thinking Fast and Slow" in NYRB, in which he took great pains to praise Freud as well, in which he portrayed Kahneman's scientific approach and Freud's humanistic approach to psychology as complementary.

    –Peter Shenkin.

    1. I agree, thanks. Dyson is at his best when contrasting scientific and humanistic styles and when he is being an iconoclast.

  2. Thanks for the lucid narrative. I have read many of his article of this living legend in including the present one @ Great human being and down to Earth Brit. I am not sure when you had this conversation but am curious as to what he thinks of # 45 whose quixotic conduct is much to be desired in the realms of science or non-science subjects . His opinion matters as he went through many US president in his long life and much of it in the US. Finally, keep those articles coming and wish you a very happy 2017.

  3. I'm with Anonymous @ 6:21 am. Thanks, Ash, for your always interesting, stylishly scribed & enlightening posts of 2016. I always learn something.

  4. Thank you all for reading. A blog is only as good as its readers.

    Regarding #45, I haven't had a chance to ask him about it, but I won't be surprised if he says something about the fundamental unpredictability of predicting the future.

  5. Great post, thanks - based on your recommendation (relayed above from Dyson), I have acquired and almost finished Wells' 1920 Outline of History. A wonderful book indeed, sweeping and well written. Like Dyson, Wells seems to have been an original and highly independent thinker; I was only familiar with his fiction. Thanks again for this post, and all others over the years.

    1. Delighted to know that you liked the book. I regret the fact that there are so few authors today who combine the sweep and clarity of Wells's writing: he pitched "The Outline of History" at the right level, somewhere between a popular book and a textbook. The simplicity of the language and the sheer scope of the work is remarkable. The closest analog I can think in today's age is Yuval Noah Harari's books. Thanks very much for your message.


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