Field of Science

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.

Who's the greatest physicist in American history?

A photo of an impish Richard Feynman playing the bongos appears in Ray Monk's sweeping biography of Robert Oppenheimer. It is accompanied by the caption "Richard Feynman, Julian Schwinger's main rival for the title of greatest American physicist in history". That got me thinking; who is the greatest American physicist in history? What would your choice be?

The question is interesting because it's not as simple as asking who's the "greatest physicist in history". The answer to that question tends to usually settle on Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein; in fact few American physicists if any would show up on the top ten list of greatest physicists ever. But limit the question to American physicists and the matter becomes more complicated. Contrast this to asking who's the greatest American chemist in history; there the answer - Linus Pauling - appears much more unambiguous and widely agreed upon.

Any discussion of "greatest scientist" is always harder than it sounds. By what measure do you judge greatness?: A single, monumental discovery? Contributions to diverse fields? Theory or experiment? Creation of an influential school of physics? Or by looking at lifetime achievement which, rather than focusing on one fundamental discovery, involves many important ones? There are contenders for "greatest American physicist" who encompass all these metrics of achievement.

Here's what's concerning: Even a generous, expansive list of contenders for "greatest American physicist" in history is embarrassingly thin compared to a comparable list of European physicists. For instance, let's consider the last three hundred years or so and think up a selection which includes both Nobel Laureates and non-Nobel Laureates. The condition is to only include American-born physicists.

Here's my personal list for the title of greatest American physicist in history, in no particular order: Joseph Henry, Josiah Willard Gibbs, Albert Michelson, Robert Millikan, Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman, Murray Gell-Mann, Julian Schwinger, Ernest Lawrence, Edward Witten, John Bardeen, John Slater, John Wheeler and Steven Weinberg. I am sure I am leaving someone out but I suspect other lists would be similar in length. It's pretty obvious that this list pales in comparison with an equivalent list of European physicists which would include names like Einstein, Dirac, Rutherford, Bohr, Pauli and Heisenberg; and this is just if we include twentieth-century physicists. Not only are the European physicists greater in number but their ideas are also more foundational; as brilliant as the American physicists are, almost none of them made a contribution comparable in importance to the exclusion principle or general relativity.

Note that I said "almost none". If you ask who's my personal favorite for "greatest American physicist in history", it would not be Feynman or Schwinger or Witten; instead it would be Josiah Willard Gibbs, a man who seems destined to remain one of the most underappreciated scientists of all time but who Einstein called "the greatest mind in American history". Feynman and Schwinger may have invented quantum electrodynamics, but Gibbs invented the foundations of thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, a truly seminal contribution that was key to the development of both physics and chemistry. 

It's hard to overestimate the importance of concepts like free energy, chemical potential, enthalpy and the phase rule for physics, chemistry, biology, engineering and everything in between. In fact, so influential was Gibbs's work that it inspired that of Paul Samuelson - who unlike physicists, is actually agreed upon as the greatest American economist in history. If you really want to discuss lists of great American physicists (or scientists in general), you simply cannot exclude Gibbs. In my dictionary Gibbs's contributions are comparable to that of any famous relativist or atomic physicist. Unfortunately Gibbs also remains one of the most little known scientists in America, largely because of his introverted nature and tendency to publish groundbreaking papers in journals like the Proceedings of the Connecticut Academy of Sciences.

More importantly though, the sparse list of great homegrown American physicists makes two things clear. Firstly, that America is truly a land of immigrants; it's only by including foreign-born physicists like Fermi, Bethe, Einstein, Chandrasekhar, Wigner, Yang and Ulam can the list of American physicists start to compete with the European list. Secondly and even more importantly, the selection demonstrates that even in 2018, physics in America is a very young science compared to European physics. Consider that even into the 1920s or so, the Physical Review which is now regarded as the top physics journal in the world was considered a backwater publication, if not a joke in Europe (Rhodes, 1987). Until the 1930s American physicists had to go to Cambridge, Gottingen and Copenhagen to study at the frontiers of physics. It was only in the 30s that, partly due to heavy investment in science by both private foundations and the government and partly due to the immigration of European physicists from totalitarian countries, American physics started on the road to the preeminence that it enjoys today. Thus as far as cutting-edge physics goes, America is not even a hundred years old. The Europeans had a head start of three hundred years; no wonder their physicists feature in top ten lists. And considering the very short time that this country has enjoyed at the forefront of science, we have to admit that America has done pretty well.

The embarrassingly thin list of famous American physicists is good news. It means that the greatest American physicist is yet to be born. Now that's an event we can all look forward to.

Why the world needs more Leo Szilards

The body of men and women who built the atomic bomb was vast, diverse, talented and multitudinous. Every conceivable kind of professional - from theoretical physics to plumber - worked on the Manhattan Project for three years over an enterprise that spread across the country and equaled the US automobile industry in its marshaling of resources like metals and electricity.

The project may have been the product of this sprawling hive mind, but one man saw both the essence and the implications of the bomb, in both science and politics, long before anyone else. Stepping off the curb at a traffic light across from the British Museum in London in 1933, Leo Szilard saw the true nature and the consequences of the chain reaction six years before reality breathed heft and energy into its abstract soul. In one sense though, this remarkable propensity for seeing into the future was business as usual for the Hungarian scientist. Born into a Europe that was rapidly crumbling in the face of onslaughts of fascism even as it was being elevated by revolutionary discoveries in science, Szilard grasped early in his youth both a world split apart by totalitarian regimes and the necessity of international cooperation engendered by the rapidly developing abilities of humankind to destroy itself with science. During his later years Szilard once told an audience, "Physics and politics were my two great interests". Throughout his life he would try to forge the essential partnership between the two which he thought was necessary to save the human species from annihilation.

A few years ago Bill Lanouette brought out a new, revised edition of his authoritative, sensitive and outstanding biography of Szilard. It is essential reading for those who want to understand the nature of science, both as an abstract flight into the deep secrets of nature and a practical tool that can be wielded for humanity's salvation and destruction. As I read the book and pondered Szilard's life I realized that the twentieth century Hungarian would have been right at home in the twenty-first. More than anything else, what makes Szilard remarkable is how prophetically his visions have played out since his death in 1962, all the way to the year 2014. But Szilard was also the quintessential example of a multifaceted individual. If you look at the essential events of the man's life you can see several Szilards, each of whom holds great relevance for the modern world.
There's of course Leo Szilard the brilliant physicist. 

Where he came from precocious ability was commonplace. Szilard belonged to the crop of men known as the "Martians" - scientists whose intellectual powers were off scale - who played key roles in European and American science during the mid-twentieth century. On a strict scientific basis Szilard was not as accomplished as his fellow Martians John von Neumann and Eugene Wigner but that is probably because he found a higher calling in his life. However he certainly did not lack originality. As a graduate student in Berlin - where he hobnobbed with the likes of Einstein and von Laue - Szilard came up with a novel way to consolidate the two microscopic and macroscopic aspects of the science of heat, now called statistical mechanics and thermodynamics. He also wrote a paper connecting entropy and energy to information, predating Claude Shannon's seminal creation of information theory by three decades. In another prescient paper he set forth the principle of the cyclotron, a device which was to secure a Nobel Prize for its recognized inventor - physicist Ernest Lawrence - more than a decade later.

Later during the 1930s, after he was done campaigning on behalf of expelled Jewish scientists and saw visions of neutrons branching out and releasing prodigious amounts of energy, Szilard helped perform some of the earliest experiments in the United States investigating fission, publishing key papers with Enrico Fermi and Walter Zinn in 1939. And while he famously disdained getting his hands dirty, he played a key role in helping Fermi set up the world's first nuclear reactor. As the scientists celebrated the historic moment with a bottle of Chianti, Szilard seems to have stood on the balcony and said, "This will go down as a dark chapter in the history of humanity". Once again he saw the Faustian bargain that the scientists were making with fate.

Szilard as scientist also drives home the importance of interdisciplinary research, a fact which hardly deserves explication in today's scientific world where researchers from one discipline routinely team up with those from others and cross interdisciplinary boundaries with impunity. After the war Szilard became truly interdisciplinary when he left physics for biology and inspired some of the earliest founders of molecular biology, including Jacques Monod, James Watson and Max Delbruck. His reason for leaving physics for biology should be taken to heart by young researchers - he said that while physics was a relatively mature science, biology was a young science where even low hanging fruits were ripe for the picking.

Szilard was not only a notable theoretical scientist but he also had another strong streak, one which has helped so many scientists put their supposedly rarefied knowledge to practical use - that of scientific entrepreneur. His early training had been in chemical engineering, and during his days in Berlin he famously patented an electromagnetic refrigerator with his friend and colleague Albert Einstein; by alerting Einstein to the tragic accidents caused by leakage in mechanical refrigerators, he helped the former technically savvy patent clerk put his knowledge of engineering to good use (as another indication of how underappreciated Szilard remains, the Wikipedia entry on the device is called the "Einstein refrigerator"). Szilard was also finely attuned to the patent system, filing a patent for the nuclear chain reaction with the British Admiralty in 1934 before anyone had an inkling what element would make it work, as well as a later patent for a nuclear reactor with Fermi.

He also excelled at what we today called networking; his networking skills were on full display for instance when he secured rare, impurity-free graphite from a commercial supplier as a moderator in Fermi's nuclear reactor; in fact the failure of German scientists to secure such pure graphite and the subsequent inability of the contaminated graphite to sustain fission damaged their belief in the viability of a chain reaction and held them back. Szilard's networking abilities were also evident in his connections with prominent financiers and bankers who he constantly tried to conscript in supporting his scientific and political adventures; in attaining his goals he would not hesitate to write any letter, ring any doorbell, ask for any amount of money, travel to any land and generally try to use all means at his disposal to secure support from the right authorities. In his case the "right authorities" ranged, at various times in his life, from top scientists to bankers to a Secretary of State (James Byrnes), a President of the United States (FDR) and a Premier of the Soviet Union (Nikita Khrushchev).

I am convinced that had Szilard been alive today, his abilities to jump across disciplinary boundaries, his taste for exploiting the practical benefits of his knowledge and his savvy public relations skills would have made him feel as much at home in the world of Boston or San Francisco venture capitalism as in the ivory tower.

If Szilard had accomplished his scientific milestones and nothing more he would already have been a notable name in twentieth century science. But more than almost any other scientist of his time Szilard was also imbued with an intense desire to engage himself politically - "save the world" as he put it - from an early age. Among other scientists of his time, only Niels Bohr probably came closest to exhibiting the same kind of genuine and passionate concern for the social consequences of science that Szilard did. This was Leo Szilard the political activist. Even in his teens, when the Great War had not even broken out, he could see how the geopolitical landscape of Europe would change, how Russia would "lose" even if it won the war. When Hitler came to power in 1933 and others were not yet taking him seriously Szilard was one of the few scientists who foresaw the horrific legacy that this madman would bequeath Europe. This realization was what prompted him to help Jewish scientists find jobs in the UK, at about the same time that he also had his prophetic vision at the traffic light.

It was during the war that Szilard's striking role as conscientious political advocate became clear. He famously alerted Einstein to the implications of fission - at this point in time (July 1939) Szilard and his fellow Hungarian expatriates were probably the only scientists who clearly saw the danger - and helped Einstein draft the now iconic letter to President Roosevelt. Einstein's name remains attached to the letter, Szilard's is often sidelined; a recent article about the letter from the Institute for Advanced study on my Facebook mentioned the former but not the latter. Without Szilard the bomb would have certainly been built, but the letter may never have been written and the beginnings of fission research in the US may have been delayed. 

When he was invited to join the Manhattan Project Szilard snubbed the invitation, declaring that anyone who went to Los Alamos would go crazy. He did remain connected to the project through the Met Lab in Chicago, however. In the process he drove Manhattan Project security up the wall through his rejection of compartmentalization; throughout his life Szilard had been - in the words of the biologist Jacques Monod - "as generous with his ideas as a Maori chief with his wives" and he favored open and honest scientific inquiry. At one point General Groves who was the head of the project even wrote a letter to Secretary of War Henry Stimson asking the secretary to consider incarcerating Szilard; Stimson who was a wise and humane man - he later took ancient and sacred Kyoto off Groves's atomic bomb target list - refused.

Szilard's day in the sun came when he circulated a petition directed toward the president and signed by 70 scientists advocating a demonstration of the bomb to the Japanese and an attempt at cooperation in the field of atomic energy with the Soviets. This was activist Leo Szilard at his best. Groves was livid, Oppenheimer - who by now had tasted power and was an establishment man - was deeply hesitant and the petition was stashed away in a safe until after the war. Szilard's disappointment that his advice was not heeded turned to even bigger concern after the war when he witnessed the arms race between the two superpowers. In 1949 he wrote a remarkable fictitious story titled 'My Trial As A War Criminal' in which he imagined what would have happened had the United States lost the war to the Soviets; Szilard's point was that in participating in the creation of nuclear weapons, American scientists were no less or more complicit than their Russian counterparts. Szilard's take on the matter raised valuable questions about the moral responsibility of scientists, an issue that we are grappling with even today. 

The story played a small part in inspiring Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov in his campaign for nuclear disarmament. Szilard also helped organize the Pugwash Conferences for disarmament, gave talks around the world on nuclear weapons, and met with Nikita Khrushchev in Manhattan in 1960; the result of this amiable meeting was both the gift of a Schick razor to Khrushchev and, more importantly, Khrushchev agreeing with Szilard's suggestion that a telephone hot-line be installed between Moscow and Washington for emergencies. The significance of this hot-line was acutely highlighted by the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Sadly Szilard's later two attempts at meeting with Khrushchev failed.

After playing a key role in the founding of the Salk Institute in California, Szilard died peacefully in his sleep in 1964, hoping that the genie whose face he had seen at the traffic light in 1933 would treat human beings with kindness.

Since Szilard the common and deep roots that underlie the tree of science and politics have become far clearer. Today we need scientists like Szilard to stand up for science every time a scientific issue such as climate change or evolution collides with politics. When Szilard pushed scientists to get involved in politics it may have looked like an anomaly, but today we are struggling with very similar issues. As in many of his other actions, Szilard's motto for the interaction of science with politics was one of accommodation. He was always an ardent believer in the common goals that human beings seek, irrespective of the divergent beliefs that they may hold. He was also an exemplar of combining thought with action, projecting an ideal meld of the idealist and the realist. Whether he was balancing thermodynamic thoughts with refrigeration concerns or following up political idealism with letters to prominent politicians, he taught us all how to both think and do. As interdisciplinary scientist, as astute technological inventor, as conscientious political activist, as a troublemaker of the best kind, Leo Szilard leaves us with an outstanding role model and an enduring legacy. It is up to us to fill his shoes.