Freeman John Dyson

The physicist Freeman Dyson (born 1923) has worked on wide-ranging projects in his field, always attracted by the latest developments. He is best known, however, for his speculations on the philosophical implications of science and its political uses.

Freeman John Dyson was born in Crowthorne, Berkshire, England, on December 15, 1923. His father, Sir George Dyson, was a famed composer and musician who was from 1937 to 1952 director of London's Royal College of Music. Young Dyson's mother worried about her son's solitary pursuit of mathematics (he taught himself calculus from a textbook during one Christmas holiday), but his interests proved to be varied if not always sociable. The early science fiction of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne attracted him, and in his teens an interest in the causes of war led him to create a metaphysical faith which he called Cosmic Unity.

Wartime Service

Dyson entered Cambridge University in 1941 but was soon recruited by C. P. Snow, the future novelist, to work on statistical calculations for the Royal Air Force. The study involved the survival odds for bomber crews making runs over the European continent. There he had his first taste of technically interesting work, but he considered the bombing strategy to be a foolish endangerment of lives. He took his baccalaureate degree from Cambridge in 1945 and was made a junior fellow at Trinity College.

Two years later Dyson won a fellowship to Cornell University in the United States, where he was able to study under such internationally acclaimed scientists as Hans A. Bethe and Richard P. Feynman. It was here that he made perhaps his most significant theoretical contribution to the physics of quantum electrodynamics—the making compatible of previous work by Bethe, Feynman, and Julian Schwinger. He explained two conflicting theories on the interaction of electromagnetic waves with matter by showing them to be essentially the same.

Philosophy and Physics

Many of Dyson's new teachers had been involved with developing the atomic bomb during World War II, and the moral implications of this particular application of science was often a subject of discussion between them and their students. Dyson's continued interest in the philosophical questions concerned with physics—and particularly the practice of that science in morally and politically ambiguous contexts—led friends to introduce him to J. Robert Oppenheimer, sometimes referred to as the father of the atomic bomb. Dyson went to study with him at Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Study, which Oppenheimer then headed. During his year there, Dyson debated with, and finally convinced his mentor regarding his aforementioned synthesis of the theories of Feynman and Schwinger. In 1953, Oppenheimer was instrumental in obtaining for his protégé a faculty position in physics at the Institute.

At Princeton Dyson worked on queries into spin waves and the stability of matter. In 1956 he also began work with Edward Teller on designing an inherently "safe" nuclear reactor—that is, one which would necessarily shut itself down if it over-heated. As Dyson often had reason to complain, this technically interesting subject was cut short by more practical considerations. Although the two men came up with a design they called the High Temperature Graphite Reactor (HTGR), it was rejected by an industry that wanted lower costs for start-up. Dyson protested that "nobody any longer has any fun building reactors." Two years later he also associated himself with the Orion Project group in La Jolla, California, which was attempting to design a nuclear-powered spacecraft for manned exploration. When further work on the design was canceled by the government, Dyson complained loudly and publicly about political interference but later admitted that it was a poor way to explore space.

Grew Liberal in Beliefs

In 1959 he worked briefly with Edward Teller in developing the neutron bomb and soon became one of the leading scientific critics of the proposed nuclear test ban. At the same time, through the Federation of American Scientists (of which he became chairperson in 1962) he worked hard and effectively for the creation of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Eventually he came to believe that his earlier opposition to the test ban had been "wrong technically, wrong militarily, wrong politically, and wrong morally."

Dyson went on to argue for the colonization of space, though he insisted on plans of a smaller scale and less costly than many of those which were popularly acclaimed. His own "Dyson sphere" advanced the idea of rearranging the orbit of planets to construct a ring that could support life, if it orbited an energy-producing star such as the sun. By the 1990s the Dyson sphere was so well-known among the scientific community that it was even mentioned in an episode the science-fiction television series Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Distinguished Author

Many of Dyson's original ideas were explored in depth in his books. Beginning with Disturbing the Universe (1979)—part autobiography, part treatise on morally ambiguous scientific matters such as nuclear arms and biogenetic engineering—the book won laudatory reviews for its accessibility to both learned and lay audiences. In its follow-up, Weapons and Hope (1984), Dyson joined a growing number of scientists who questioned the marriage of nuclear science and political strategy. During this era, many leading citizens such as Dyson became concerned about the proliferation of nuclear weapons and the growing tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, and would serve as the disarmament movement's most eloquent advocates.

Dyson, still a professor at Princeton during the 1980s, also wrote Origins of Life (1986) and Infinite in All Directions (1988). In 1991 he became president of the Space Studies Institute, an organization founded to raise more widespread awareness and support for the idea of space settlements open to the general public. Dyson advocates the idea of first sending people to colonize the Earth's moon because of its difficult environment: "Once there are people established on the Moon, if they can actually cope with that, they can cope with almost anything," he told Ad Astra magazine in 1994. As a leading scientist, he has also voiced criticism of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for its misuse of resources and has called for its decentralization.

In the 1990s Dyson continued his active role in the scientific community. His 1991 book From Eros to Gaiais a collection of anecdotes from inside the scientific community. For instance, he relates how the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun used the strategy of the 1949 Berlin airlift in his 1952 conceptualization of a Mars colonization project. At the time, scientists actually considered the possibility of sending out four flights a day for several months. In the same lighthearted vein, Dyson includes a short piece he wrote at age ten in From Eros to Gaia.

New Issues for the 21st Century

Imagined Worlds (1997) was written after Dyson became professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Studies in 1994. Again, he examines leaps in scientific feasibility with the moral issues they raise; the colonization of space, radiotelepathy, and the use of computers to engineer human reproduction are some of the topics touched upon. Dyson's essays have also been published in Scientific American and the New Yorker, and he appeared as one of six panelists on the 15-hour PBS documentary A Glorious Accident, which aired in 1994.

Dyson has a son and a daughter from his first wife, Verena Haefeli-Huber, and four daughters born after his 1958 marriage to Imme Jung. He became a naturalized American citizen in 1957. His many honors include being made a member of the National Academy of Science, a fellow of the Royal Society of London, and a recipient of the German Physical Society's Max Planck Medal; in 1991 he was awarded the Oersted Medal by the American Association of Physics Teachers for his work in increasing public awareness in scientific matters.

Further Reading on Freeman John Dyson

Dyson's technical work can be approached undiluted through his many papers in the scientific literature. Mixed with political and philosophical thoughts, and even some autobiographical material they can be found in his books Disturbing the Universe (1979); Weapons and Hope (1984); Values at War (1985); Origins of Life (1986); Infinite in All Directions (1988); From Eros to Gaia (1991); and Imagined Worlds (1997). There is also a interview with Dyson in Ad Astra magazine (March/April, 1994). A more intimate look at Dyson can be found in Kenneth Brower's The Starship and the Canoe (1983), a dual biography of the visionary scientist and his back-to-nature, tree-dwelling son.