The Pioneering Odyssey of Freeman Dyson

The Book of the Week is “The Pioneering Odyssey of Freeman Dyson, Maverick Genius” by Phillip F. Schewe, published in 2013. This is a biography of the multi-disciplinary mathematician / scientist, theorist, professor, author and lecturer.

The author named nearly all of the most famous twentieth-century nuclear physicists (and provided historical backdrop that led to scientific advances in physics, war and astronomy), and briefly described their contributions– even a few of whom Dyson hardly knew; that is, except for two scientists, who happened to be female:  Marie Cure and Lise Meitner. This oversight might be due to the fact that the author encountered little or no literature on them (due to their gender) when researching this book. Ironically, the author did admit, however, that Dyson’s marital troubles were due to his sexist hypocrisy.

Anyway, born in Great Britain in 1923, Dyson grew up in a wealthy family in the London suburb of Winchester. His mother was already 43 at his birth. Pursuant to family tradition, he was sent to boarding school at eight years old. Due to WWII, in two years rather than four, he earned a degree in mathematics at Cambridge University.

Dyson was then tapped to use his newly acquired knowledge as a tactical aviation consultant of sorts for the war effort, staying stateside. Postwar, as a graduate, he resumed his education, studying physics at Cambridge and Cornell universities. He never did finish his PhD.

Nevertheless, of all his lifetime’s workplaces, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton was where he spent the longest total time. In the late 1940’s, he was supervised by J. Robert Oppenheimer. He explained the missing link between Richard Feynman’s, Julian Schwinger’s and Shin’ichiro Tomonaga’s ideas about field theory in nuclear physics; more specifically, quantum electrodynamics.

Yes, Dyson did rocket science, too, at the dawn of the 1960’s. However, it was all theoretical. He actually wanted to go on a mission to Mars or Saturn or Jupiter. Dyson’s fluency in Russian allowed him to understand the Soviet mentality on the space and arms races.

Paradoxically, during the Cold War, an adverse consequence of the testing of nuclear weapons included cancer deaths due to radiation exposure; about a thousand of them annually. This was an acceptable sacrifice (in the name of saving the world)– as highway deaths numbered about fifty thousand annually. That changed of course, with nuclear accidents and seat belts in later decades.

In 1976, Dyson supervised a graduate student who wrote a term paper that generated much controversy.  “From non-classified government documents, freely available to anyone, Phillips [the student] proceeded to gather a primer of frightening specificity showing step by step how to build a nuclear bomb.” The student got an “A.”

Read the book to learn of Dyson’s views on extraterrestrials and extrasensory perception, on how religion and science can coexist; his fantasies about what humans could do in outer space in the future; his participation in a think tank named Jason, his take on global warming, the reversal of his beliefs on nuclear matters, and much more.