“Here is a scientist who can really write,” the physicist Hans Bethe observed in his review of Freeman Dyson’s first book, “,” in 1979. Dyson, who died on Friday, at the age of ninety-six, was a mathematician and theoretical physicist by training, but became best known to most Americans as a writer. The book, a poignant collection of essays, some of which appeared in The New Yorker, was a finalist for the National Book Award; he went on to publish ten more. For twenty-five years, he was a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, writing on a dazzling range of authors and topics—from Daniel Kahneman to Michael Crichton, the history of the Galápagos to the concept of infinity. His , on “the outcast genius” and physicist Fritz Zwicky, appeared six weeks before his death.
Even by physicists’ standards, Dyson’s thinking was strikingly unconstrained by the here and now. One moment, he was delving into the esoterica of quantum theory, and, the next, he was speculating about the logistics of alien civilizations. In the nineteen-fifties, he led the team developing a new type of nuclear reactor, which included several novel safety features; soon after, he was designing an interstellar spacecraft propelled by nuclear bombs. (His plans were scuttled by the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty.) Many of his views were penetrating, a few—like his insistence that fears about rising CO22020欧洲杯体育投注网 levels were overblown—more than a little eccentric. To the end, he was a mental adventurer, not so much iconoclastic as intellectually fearless and relentlessly curious.
I first met Dyson in January, 2001. He greeted me at the Institute for Advanced Study (I.A.S.), in Princeton, New Jersey, where he had worked, by then, for nearly a half century. Though he was in his late seventies, Dyson was elfish and spry, bounding up stairs two at a time. I was there to interview him for a book I was writing, about how physicists had learned to calculate subtle effects among elementary particles using a theory known as quantum electrodynamics, or Q.E.D. Dyson had played a pivotal role in those developments during the late nineteen-forties, consolidating and pushing forward the insights of three other physicists—Richard Feynman, Julian Schwinger, and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga. These three later shared the Nobel Prize for the work, but it was Dyson’s contribution that made Q.E.D. a workable theory. Building directly on Dyson’s work, physicists have been able to make theoretical predictions about the behavior of particles like electrons with unprecedented accuracy. When compared with the results of ultra-sensitive experiments, their answers agree to one part in a trillion. That’s like estimating the distance from a bench in Central Park to a particular crater on the moon, and getting the answer right within the width of a human hair.
2020欧洲杯体育投注网That January afternoon, Dyson graciously sat with me for a two-hour interview, fielding my questions about the origins of Q.E.D.—how the theory had evolved in collaboration with students and colleagues. As we were wrapping up, I sheepishly asked about something more personal. I’d recently seen some of Dyson’s correspondence quoted in a colleague’s book: letters he had written to his parents and his sister during some of the most exciting periods of his work. Could I see them?
2020欧洲杯体育投注网The moment I spoke the question aloud, I was overcome by awkwardness. It felt like asking to read his childhood diary. But, without hesitating, Dyson hopped out of his chair, pulled open some file cabinets, and produced several thick folders, bulging with letters. Even more remarkably, he set me up with a photocopy machine and a spare key to his office, so I could make copies of the entire collection.
The letters I looked at began in September, 1947, Dyson’s first month living in the United States. Born in Berkshire, England, Dyson had been a mathematical prodigy, and went on to study at the University of Cambridge. Interrupted by the war, he plied his quantitative skills as an analyst in the Operational Research Section of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command—a sobering experience he later recounted in “Disturbing the Universe.” Back at Cambridge, he switched from mathematics to physics but quickly grew restless. The real excitement in the field, he thought, had shifted to the United States, and so, with the aid of a Commonwealth Fellowship, he set off to pursue graduate study at Cornell.
2020欧洲杯体育投注网From Ithaca, he immediately began sending letters home. “Yesterday I came up here by train,” he wrote to his “dear family” that fall. “A lovely trip over the mountains and up the spectacular Lehigh valley.” He reported that his new room was “very comfortable and suitable for working in. It is not designed for social life, in fact the rules are ‘No cooking, No alcohol, and No women.’ ” The student cafeteria was “simply stacked with the most delicious food, and I shall have no difficulty in growing fat on $2 a day.” Sometimes Dyson wrote out the letters by hand, but most often he used an inexpensive, portable typewriter. The originals give an impression of his quick mind at work; often stray letters appear above or below a given line, the typewriter’s strained mechanisms no match for the speed of Dyson’s thinking.
In response to his mother’s questions about his daily routine, he replied, “I am living a highly professionalized existence, without any private life to speak of, and wake up in the mornings thinking about mesons and photons, and there is not much one can say about that.” Rather than dwelling on his studies, Dyson played amateur anthropologist, sending detailed reports about university life. His purview soon included political life, too. Thomas Dewey, the Republican governor of New York and Presidential candidate, struck Dyson as “very greasy” during a visit to campus, while “the notorious Henry Wallace” delivered an electrifying speech to Dyson’s fellow-students and teachers. Roaming beyond Ithaca, Dyson hitchhiked to New York City with friends and took long bus rides up and down the East Coast and into the Midwest. He sent thoughtful observations of race relations in Chicago, St. Louis, and Ypsilanti, Michigan, and described the “endless succession of rich well-tended farms and rich ill-tended industrial cities” on a long ride back East.
His letters also record his deepening friendship—and budding collaboration—with Feynman, who was then a young physics professor at Cornell. The famously charismatic physicist struck Dyson as “half genius and half buffoon, who keeps all physicists and their children amused with his effervescent vitality.” Feynman was still working out a new diagram-based approach to Q.E.D. but had not yet written any detailed account of his thinking. His descriptions of how to use the diagrams struck Dyson as scattered and imprecise.
Dyson learned more about Feynman’s new approach when the two drove across the country together, in June, 1948—Feynman to visit a girlfriend in Albuquerque, and Dyson to take in the sights en route to a physics conference at the University of Michigan. Dyson had sixteen hundred miles to pick Feynman’s brain. But their talk of electrons was interrupted near Oklahoma City, where flooding had closed parts of Route 66, forcing them off the road in a small town. Other stranded travellers had already booked up all the hotel rooms in the area, and Dyson began to get nervous.