Freeman Dyson’s response to the perplexity of our existence was not purely scientific. A polymath by nature, he responded deeply to art and literature and often framed life’s dilemmas through their lens. Always thinking of himself as a mathematician first, he unified quantum electrodynamics and saw the Nobel Prize go to the three who had formulated, in different ways, its structure, but he would cast himself as the Ben Jonson to Richard Feynman’s Shakespeare, a fact noted by Gregory Benford in his review of Phillip F. Schewe’s recent biography. That would be a typical allusion for a man whose restless intellect chafed at smug over-specialization, something neither he nor Feynman could ever be accused of.
Feynman, Julian Schwinger and Shinichiro Tomonaga each came up with ways to describe how electrons and photons interrelate, but it was Dyson, on one of his long cross-continental bus trips, who worked out the equivalence of their theories, giving us QED. He would publish the unifying paper in Physical Review in 1949. A year later, he met Tomonaga at Princeton, describing him in a June 24, 1950 letter to his parents as “a charming man, like so many of the really good ones. He talked with me for three hours with much humour and common sense… I have the impression that he is an exceptionally unselfish person.”
Which is exactly the impression I had of Dyson in the one interaction (other than email) I had with him, back in 2003 while I was pulling together material for Centauri Dreams and called the Institute for Advanced Study, his scholarly home since 1953, to schedule an interview. It was a spring day and, unfortunately for my purposes, a loud lawn mower was moving up and down outside Dyson’s window. I was having to shout to be heard, a nuisance, and I had trouble hearing him, but we persisted with much repetition and his good humor.
Always associated with Project Orion, the dramatic concept to propel a spacecraft by exploding nuclear charges behind it, Dyson had moved away from the idea, and indeed from nuclear energy entirely. He wanted to talk about microwave and laser propulsion, and expressed an interest in Clifford Singer’s ideas on pellet streams, an idea he liked because of the lack of diffraction. Over a close pass by the outside lawnmower, I heard him clearly: “Nuclear energy doesn’t cut it! Nuclear energy is too small. You’re using less than one percent of the mass with any kind of nuclear reaction so you’re limited to less than a tenth of lightspeed. Nuclear is great inside the Solar System, but not very interesting outside of it.”
If you would know something of this man, of his values and his conception of life, I direct you to the splendid Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters, published in 2018. The concept is daring, for by eschewing standard autobiography to present himself largely through letters he wrote at the time, Dyson gives up the opportunity to edit his persona. None of us can point to a lifetime without contradiction, which is just another way of describing growth. Dyson was willing for that growth to be in full view. Thus the Dyson of 1958, writing about the Project Orion work he would later discount:
The basic idea is absurdly simple. One is amazed that nobody thought of it before. But the only man who could think of it was somebody who had been working and thinking for years with bombs, so that he could know exactly what a bomb of a given size will do. It was not an accident that this man happened to be Ted [Taylor]. The problem is to convince oneself that one can sit on top of a bomb without being fried… Ted’s genius led him to question the obvious impossibility. For the last six months Ted has spent his time talking to people in the government and trying to convince them that this idea is not crazy. He has had a hard time. But it seems we have now a lot of influential people on our side… Ted and I will fly to Los Alamos this evening. We travel like Paul and Barnabas.
Nothing would come of these travels, of course, because of the signing of the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, though Dyson would later support the treaty amid his deep concern over nuclear destruction. The idea of Orion still tantalizes many interstellar advocates today.
The lack of self-justifying ego — so rare in all too many quarters — that informs Dyson’s writings informs his wide reach into non-scientific markets, where he became the eloquent explainer of concepts he worked with in the course of his long life. I doubt there are many Centauri Dreams readers who do not have at least a few of his titles, books like Disturbing the Universe (1981) and Infinite in All Directions (1988). So many concepts sprang from his insistence on seeing things from a cosmological perspective, including for our interstellar purposes the Dyson sphere and the biological, self-replicating probe called ‘astrochicken’ that was enabled by artificial intelligence.
Image: Around the table clockwise are Dyson, Gregory Benford, Jim Benford and David Brin. Taken Jan. 30, 2019, before a discussion between Greg and Dyson at the Clarke Center (available here on YouTube).
All of these concepts he could relate to the general public through a style that was at once clear and enabling, so that the reader would, like this one, often look up from his or her reading to take in the audacity of ideas that were as logical as they were innovative. The archives of this site are awash with references to Dyson’s contributions, a tribute to his range and his reach. Remarkably, that intellect never deserted him even as his physical strength began to fail. Jim Benford, who has known Dyson since the 1960s, told me on the day of Dyson’s death that he had continued his yearly trips across the country to his La Jolla (CA) residence up until last year. This time around, at 96, he told Jim his doctors had argued against it. He would die a week later, a loss as deep to this field as his contribution was rich.
We shall know what we go to Mars for only after we get there. The study of whatever forms of life exist on Mars is likely to lead to better understanding of life in general. This may well be of more benefit to humanity than irrigating ten Saharas. But that is only one of many reasons for going. The main purpose is a general enlargement of human horizons.
Thus Dyson in a letter from La Jolla in 1958. Really, you must read Maker of Patterns. And from my 2003 interview with him:
Look at how people spread around the Earth. It’s not clear why we want to travel so much, but we do. It seems to be characteristic of humans from the time we left Africa. Why do people leave Africa to spread out to all these desolate places, to Siberia and across the Pacific? We know that people just do this. It’s part of human nature…
I think of him foremost as a deeply sane man, one who saw both the aspirations of the human mind as well as its limitations and took on the challenge of explaining life’s mysteries with a fierce joy. No one who reads, and re-reads, his essays and papers can miss this affirmation of mind at work, always building in new directions, unifying, shaping, questioning. It would be superfluous to try to summarize his many accomplishments in one post, for we will, inevitably, be turning his ideas over in our discussions for the rest of the lifetime of Centauri Dreams.