Freeman Dyson on working with the greatest physicists of the 20th century

Steve Paulson writes: One gets the sense that Freeman Dyson has seen everything. It’s not just that at 92 he’s had a front row seat on scientific breakthroughs for the past century, or that he’s been friends and colleagues with many of the giants of 20th-century physics, from Hans Bethe and Wolfgang Pauli to Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Feynman. Dyson is one of the great sages of the science world. If you want to get a sense of where science has come from and where it might be headed, Dyson is your man.

Dyson grew up in England with a gift for numbers and calculating. During World War II, he worked with the British Royal Air Force to pinpoint bombing targets in Germany. After the war, he moved to the United States where he got to know many of the physicists who’d built the atomic bomb. Like a lot of scientists from that era, excitement over the bomb helped launch his career in physics, and later he dreamed of building a fleet of spaceships that would travel around the solar system, powered by nuclear bombs. Perhaps it’s no accident that Dyson became an outspoken critic of nuclear weapons during the Cold War.

For more than six decades, Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study has been his intellectual home. Dyson has described himself as a fox rather than a hedgehog. He says scientists who jump from one project to the next have more fun. Though no longer an active scientist, he continues to track developments in science and technology. Dyson seems to be happy living in a universe filled with answered questions, and he likes the fact that physics has so far failed to unify the classical world of stars and the quantum world of atoms.

When I approached Dyson about an interview on the idea of the heroic in science, he responded, “I prefer telling stories to talking philosophy.” In the end, I got both stories and big ideas. Dyson isn’t shy about making sweeping pronouncements—whether on the archaic requirements of the Ph.D. system or the pitfalls of Big Science—but his manner is understated and his dry sense of humor is always just below the surface. [Continue reading…]

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