Field of Science

Science and faith in a ceremonial cave



The hour was late, but it was still hot. Frijoles Canyon loomed to my right, showcasing its surfeit of stratigraphic tuff and igneous ash layerings and ponderosa pines. I was about a hundred and fifty feet up on the mountain face in a reconstructed cave with a ceremonial kiva or well. The cave was accessible by climbing a series of narrow steps and four ladders inclined against the steep rocks: not recommended for those with a fear of heights. On this particular day I was alone there; it was a hot weekend, and not too many hikers and tourists had scattered themselves around Bandelier National Park where the cave’s located.
It’s tough not to fall in love with the American Southwest. There is no other part of the United States which combines so uniquely and generously Native American, Spanish and Anglo-American culture with spectacular desert and mountain expanses as far out as the eye can see. Our trip had started with the Grand Canyon, whose first display of infinite recesses and a blaze of colors is sufficient to stop almost any conversation for a few seconds. It had then continued through Indian reservations spread across three states – albeit still crammed into nooks and crannies relative to their original seemingly limitless expanse – which took us through the incredible towering structures of Monument Valley to New Mexico.
In Monument Valley, our guide had made us lie down on the cool, hard bed of a sandstone cave while gazing up at the giant outline of an eagle carved out by water, wind and time into the ceiling of the cave. An older Native American had sung an ancestral song while his nephew who accompanied us played a trifurcated flute, the sounds reverberating through the cavernous structure. It couldn’t have been much different thousands of years ago, when men and women not very different from us made such rituals part of their lives, when they must have silently held communion with dead and living kin looking out across a blanket of stars and red desert.
The stunning mountain wonders of New Mexico are always a treat for the eyes, but nothing evokes a sense of awe and beauty for me as much as Valles Caldera. As you drive past Los Alamos into the Jemez Mountains, you are taken completely by surprise as you navigate a switchback and are suddenly greeted with what looks like a huge African Savannah, an immense grassy expanse reaching out across the horizon with a considerable hill jutting out in the middle; you half expect to see herds of zebras or bison stampeding across the plains. If you didn’t know better, you would think you were the first humans to emerge from the wilderness into this giant volcanic field, formed by a massive eruption about 1.2 million years ago. The hill is a lava dome, formed by the violent ejection and slow outflow of hot magma; time has carpeted the dome and the surrounding field with vegetation since its creation. It used to be a lake once. Mountains dotted with ponderosa pines and Douglas Firs rim the caldera. The floor of this giant bowl is spread across over fourteen miles, and the sheer size became clear when, unaided by binoculars, what looked like ants turned out to be herds of hundreds of grazing elk. Ten thousand years ago the natives wandered over this expanse, grazing their own livestock and looking for hard, black obsidian for their arrow and spear heads. Given how much the region has remained constant for thousands of years, even as geothermal activity and hot springs have gently but firmly caused local deformations, it’s hard not to feel a connection with those who came and went here over the years; their eyes saw what ours did.
The same sense of shared kinship strikes one in that cave in the Bandelier tuff which might have held twenty five Anasazi, or Ancestral Puebloans. Eight hundred years ago the place was a beehive of activity, with the peak population predicted to be about five hundred. Between the 12th and 13th century the Anasazi departed, dispersed and largely disappeared; for what reasons it’s still debated, although a mix of climate change – especially drought – and economic instability seems to be our best bet. While they lived in regions like Bandelier and Chaco Canyon they created a flourishing culture, both primitive and enlightened in parts. Economic trade with neighboring tribes was widespread, and animal skins, gems, pottery were exchanged extensively at key commercial sites like Chaco Canyon. The natives pioneered novel methods of harvesting and storing corn, of insulating their ground and cliff homes from excessive heat and cold, of waging war and brokering peace. But perhaps no other creation of the human mind infused their culture as much as religious belief.
It was everywhere. From dictating what directions to build their caves in to how to harvest their grains to elaborate rituals for burying their dead, religion filled every nook and cranny of their thoughts and emotions. It was pagan worship writ large, and no other relationship exemplified its intensity as much as their connection with nature. It was a connection that I especially pondered in the ceremonial cave, and one that was by no means unique to Native Americans. But seen from the eyes of a native, everything that I was seeing – the pines and firs and medicinal plants in the canyon, the mountain lions and bears and rattlesnakes lurking (fortunately far), the wind howling through the trees, the rough grains of cave wall tuff – imbibed special and essential spirits, good and evil. You went through elaborate rituals to please the good spirits and appease or drive away the evil ones, and you could not imagine a life without them.
Every living and non-living thing was a religious symbol of sorts, and the random motions of nature and life – an eagle jousting with a snake, a mountain lion choosing not to eat you, a trifecta of pines silhouetted against the dimming sunset – were pregnant with meaning and prediction. Nothing just existed, and surely nothing was the result of blind chance and the vagaries of geological and biological events. If I closed my eyes and took it all in, I could almost fancy myself at night in this hollow; wearing elk skins, beating drums, chanting, drawing geometric figures on the walls, reassuring myself that I was appeasing my favorite spirit with my actions.
Dusk was approaching, so I took in the view one last time and climbed down the ladders and single-file steps, quickly attaching and detaching my hands from the still hot rungs. The path to the visitor center at Bandelier runs through a pleasant tree-lined corridor intertwined with a stream, a stream that was muddy and wet then but which always runs the risk of sustaining unexpected flash floods. And as I walked and pondered my time during the previous few days in the cave and in the Jemez mountains and among the red sandstone monuments, I was suddenly struck by two thoughts. First: Thank God for modern science. And second: it’s not that simple. With its overabundance of sprits and essences with their own agency, the world which the natives inhabited was a world full of wonder, but it was also a frightening world. Even if I were the smartest Native American in Frijoles Canyon, I could not have possibly figured out why there was lightning, why fire worked, how I could prevent or cure disease, why my crop failed this year, why my niece was carried off by a mountain lion or by pockmarks on her face. I would have been miserable in the face of misfortune and had scant recourse except for trial and error to stave it off. Everything in the universe was haunted, blessed, cursed, and that was the only way to explain life and death in my little settlement.
It’s easy today for us to underestimate the emotional reassurance that science has provided, even as it has paradoxically revealed a universe without design. Today we no longer feel that light and dark are governed by battles between gods and demons or that we must simply please a deity rather than calculate the coming and going of the seasons using a calendar to figure out the best times and practices for crop rotation. Perhaps most significantly in terms of emotional amelioration, we now no longer believe that diseases are caused by malevolent forces beyond our control and have found countless ways of understanding, preventing and treating them; even if we cannot cure every disease, the mere fact of rational understanding provides comfort. We have sculpted and reworked the material world to our own uses, to build towering structures and weapons glistening with metal and fire that would keep mountain lions at bay. And we no longer fear lightning and have harnessed similar forces of electricity for heating and cooling our houses, for connecting us to people around the planet, for being the candle that lights up both the dark and our ignorance. In that sense, there’s no getting around the fact that we have evolved many fold over the ancients.
And yet it’s clear that in many ways we have also fallen behind, and that was the second thought I had as I made my way back. The physicist Niels Bohr once said that one of the cardinal principles ruling the behavior of the physical world was one he called the principle of complementarity. The principle says that a physical system embodies one or more qualities, all of which are essential for its description but none of which are visible at the same time. For instance, an electron can behave like a wave and particle, and it will behave like one or the other depending on the experiment you set up, but never both at the same time. But Bohr also extended his principle of complementarity to mean something bigger, a principle of paradox. Bohr loved paradoxes and always tried to explore them in science, but he also explored them in human affairs. During the Second World War, he found a much bigger hook to hang that hat on – nuclear weapons. He realized that the same weapons which can annihilate much of humanity can also bring an end to war. The destructive and pacifist nature of nuclear weapons can thus not be separated from each other.
In one sense it’s this principle of paradox that governs the supposedly unscientific religious beliefs of the natives. For in their fear and respect for the spirits of nature is their respect for nature itself. Native Americans had a far better relationship with their natural environment that one we can even dream of, especially in developed capitalist countries. Their worship of the rain, animals and plants went hand in hand with their sustainable use of these entities. They usually took from the earth only what they needed, and they almost never hunted animals for sport but only for their skins and meat; whenever they killed an animal they offered an invocation thanking the creature for its service. They were acutely aware of climate change, especially droughts, even if they may have been largely powerless to act against it. Their religious ethos led to a great ethos of environmentalism, and it’s not possible to separate the two.
In my opinion, the greatest value of Native American culture to our own modern sensibilities stems from its intimate and productive relationship with the environment. We seem to have lost that ethos of responsible environmental stewardship and sustainable practices even as we have largely and rightly cast aside the trappings of both pagan and organized religion. Westward expansion fueled in part by racial beliefs has further downplayed important values of ancient cultures. We have largely cloistered ourselves away from the forests and streams in our malls and cities, and most of us grow up without having any idea of how fragile ecosystems are because we were never forced to depend on them the way the natives did.
And yet we still do. Deforestation and climate change and ocean acidification don’t stop just because we enclose ourselves in our air-conditioned cubicles. Unlike the ancients, we certainly have the technological wherewithal to withstand the adverse impacts of the environment, but we cannot insulate ourselves from our own adverse impact on key ecosystems like glaciers, forests and oceans for too long. The center has to give in someday. But the solution, at least in principle, is not too difficult to comprehend. It’s Niels Bohr’s principle of complementarity applied to Native American cultures, with a twist. We can respect their religious traditions without believing in their literal meaning, because the same traditions that make us believe in a holy spirit in nature can also make us respect nature independent of that literal meaning.
In that sense we can again be the Anasazi looking on toward the horizon in an alcove high up in the mountains, but this time armed with rational scientific skepticism and a fundamental faith in a complementarity meld of man and environment. The same scientific tradition that helped us to cast off primitive beliefs now has the power to help us protect the environment. Let us use it wisely. We don’t have to pick and choose between the two.
This is my latest monthly column for 3 Quarks Daily.

JFK, nuclear weapons and the 1963 'Peace Speech': Looking back sixty five years



Sixty five years ago, on June 10, 1963, President John F. Kennedy made an impassioned plea for peace to the world on the campus of American University in Washington D.C. The speech was carefully crafted, copies were shown to only a few trusted advisors for comment, and Kennedy's ace speechwriter Ted Sorensen worked on it day and night to meet the president's schedule. In his book "To Move the World: JFK's Quest for Peace”, the economist Jeffrey Sachs considers this to be Kennedy's most important speech; JFK delivered many inspiring speeches – including the famous moon speech at Rice University (“We choose to go to moon not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard”) – but I tend to agree with Sachs that among all of them, no other speech has the sense of urgency and the long term relevance of the peace speech.

JFK's dedication to peacemaking shines through in his words. The piece contains one of the most memorable paragraphs that I have seen in any presidential speech. In words that are now famous, Kennedy appealed to our basic connection on this planet as the most powerful argument for worldwide peace:

"So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal."

Kennedy was saying these words through hard experience, against the background of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 that had brought the world to the edge of nuclear war. Recently declassified documents now indicate that the Soviets had more than 150 nuclear weapons in Cuba, and there were many close calls which could have sent the world over the precipice. For instance, a little known submarine officer Vasili Arkhipov refused to launch his submarine's nuclear torpedo even as American planes were dropping dummy depth charges around the submarine. Contrary to what the self-serving accounts of Bobby Kennedy, McGeorge Bundy and other Kennedy advisors would later indicate, it was JFK himself who played the most pivotal role in keeping the crisis from escalating. When world war was averted, everyone thought that it was because of rational men's rational actions, but Kennedy knew better; he and his advisors understood how ultimately, helped as they were by their stubborn refusal to give in to military hardliners' insistence that Cuba should be bombed, it was dumb luck that saved humanity. Even later, George Lee Butler who headed the US Strategic Command during the end game of the Cold War said, “We escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck, and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.”

Kennedy was thus well aware in 1963 of how quickly and unpredictably war in general and nuclear war in particular can spiral out of everyone's hands; two years before, in another well-known speech in front of the United Nations, Kennedy had talked about the ominous and omnipresent sword of Damocles that everyone lives under, "hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness". His Soviet counterpart Nikita Khrushchev understood this too, cautioning JFK to not tighten the "knot of war" which would eventually have to be catastrophically severed. As one consequence of the crisis, a telephone hotline was established between the two countries that would allow their leaders to efficiently communicate with each other.

Kennedy followed the Peace Speech with one of the signal achievements of his presidency, the signing and ratification of the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) which banned nuclear tests in the air, underwater and in space. This treaty not allowed prevented untold amounts of radioactive fallout from contaminating the planet, but also made it much harder for other countries to develop nuclear weapons. The effort was far from straightforward; Sachs describes how Kennedy used all the powers of persuasion at his disposal to convince the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Republican hardliners and Southern Democrats to endorse the treaty, while at the same time striking compromises with them that would allow underground nuclear testing.
How have Kennedy's understanding of the dangers of nuclear war, his commitment to securing peace and his efforts toward nuclear disarmament played out in the fifty years after his tragic and untimely death? On one hand there is much cause for optimism. Kennedy's pessimistic prediction that in 1975 ten or twenty countries would have nuclear weapons has not come true. In fact the PTBT was followed in 1968 by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which for all its flaws has served as a deterrent to the formation of new nuclear states. Other treaties like SALT, START and most recently NEW START have drastically reduced the number of nuclear weapons to a fraction of what they were during the heyday of the Cold War; ironically it was Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush who must be credited with the greatest arms reductions. In addition, there are several success stories of countries like South Africa, Sweden, Libya, Brazil and the former Soviet Republics giving up nuclear weapons after wisely realizing that they would be better off without them.
Yet there are troubling signs that Kennedy's dream is still very much a dream. Countries like Israel and India which did not sign the NPT have acquired nuclear arsenals. North Korea is baring its nuclear teeth and Iran seems to be meandering even if not resolutely marching toward acquiring a bomb. In addition, loose nuclear material, non-state actors and unstable regimes like Pakistan pose an ever-present challenge that threatens to spiral out of control; the possibility of "accident, or miscalculation, or madness" is very much still with us.
There are also little signs that the United States is going to unilaterally disassemble its nuclear arsenal in spite of having the most sophisticated and powerful conventional weapons in the world, ones which can hit almost any target anywhere with massive destruction; this development was only made harder by the coming of the Trump administration which understands little about these weapons. In a recent piece in Physics Today, arms experts Richard Garwin, Frank von Hippel and Steve Fetter point out that the United States still possesses four thousand nuclear warheads, each one of which packs a punch that’s an order of magnitude bigger than the weapons which leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki and many of which are designed to be launched within a 10 to 30 minute window of potential detection of enemy launches. As the author Eric Schlosser documented through stories of dozens of accidental almost-launched weapons, this narrow window leaves very little room for false alarms, malfunction or stupidity, each of which humanity possesses in spades. As the trio of physicists in Physics Today also notes, many in this country continue to be obsessed with missile defense; an obsession that goes back to the Reagan years and that time and time again has been shown to be largely unfeasible, both on technical as well as political grounds. Meanwhile, a comprehensive test ban treaty seems as out of reach as ever before.
There are some pinpricks of hope. The US did unilaterally disarm its biological and chemical weapons arsenal in the 70s – Richard Nixon did this virtually overnight, without asking anyone - but nuclear weapons still seem to inspire myths and illusions that cannot be easily dispelled. A factor that's not much discussed but which is definitely the massive elephant in the room is spending on nuclear weapons; depending on which source you are looking at, the US spends anywhere between 20 to 50 billion dollars every year on the maintenance of its nuclear arsenal, more than what it did during the Cold War. Thousands of weapons are still deployment-ready, years after the Cold War has ended. It goes without saying that this kind of spending is unconscionable, especially when it takes valuable resources away from pressing problems like healthcare and education. Eisenhower who warned us about the military-industrial complex lamented exactly this glut of misguided priorities in his own "Chance for Peace" speech in 1953:

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."
It is of course inconceivable to imagine a conservative politician saying this today, but more tragically it is disconcerting to find exactly the same problems that Eisenhower and Kennedy pointed out in the 50s and 60s looming over our future.
As Sachs discusses in his book, in a greater sense too Kennedy's vision is facing serious challenges. Sachs believes that sustainable development has replaced nuclear weapons as the cardinal problem facing us today and until now the signs for sustainable development have not been very promising. When it comes to states struggling with poverty, Sachs accurately reminds us that countries like the US often "regard these nations as foreign policy irrelevancies; except when poverty leads to chaos and extremism, in which case they suddenly turn into military or terrorist threats". The usual policy toward such countries is akin to the policy of a doctor who instead of preventing a disease waits until it turns into a full-blown infection, and then delivers medication that almost kills the patient without getting rid of the cause. Sadly for both parties in this country, drones are a much bigger priority than dams. This has to change.
We are still struggling with the goal laid out by John Kennedy in his Peace Speech, but Kennedy also realistically realized that reaching the goal would be a gradual and piecemeal process. He made it even clearer in his inaugural speech:

"There is no single, simple key to this peace; no grand or magic formula to be adopted by one or two powers. Genuine peace must be the product of many nations, the sum of many acts. It must be dynamic, not static, changing to meet the challenge of each new generation. For peace is a process -- a way of solving problems...(from the inaugural speech) All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin."
Indeed. We do not know where it will end, but it is up to us to begin.

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




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

Secrets of the Old One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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