Image by ioerror – Flickr
Freeman Dyson passed away this week at the age of ninety-six. His passing has left a massive hole in the scientific establishment, which we are unlikely to fill in the foreseeable future. Born in England in 1923, Dyson was the son of a knighted music composer father and a social worker mother. He began studying mathematics at an early age, entering the tutelage of G. H. Hardy (of the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium) at the age of fifteen. Shortly thereafter, Dyson contributed to the war effort, working as a statistician in the Royal Air Force. He returned to school after the war, earning a BA in mathematics from Cambridge. Unlike most scholars, this would be Dyson’s terminal degree.
Dyson soon moved to the US to take up a position at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, where he worked with Richard Feynman to develop proofs for several principles of quantum electrodynamics. Following a stint as a professor at Cornell University, Dyson was offered a permanent position by Robert Oppenheimer at IAS, where he would remain until 1994, when he retired at the age of seventy-one.
Dyson made numerous contributions to science: from his early work on quantum electrodynamics to his many fundamental elaborations of number and set theory and his ideas about space exploration and the future of life. It’s difficult to sum up all his contributions in a single list, and even harder to quantify his influence. His career was arguably more prolific and illustrious than that of any other scientist of our current era.
What is extraordinary about Dyson, aside from his impressive list of accomplishments, is what is missing from his resume. Dyson never obtained a PhD—remarking that he was “lucky [he] didn’t have to go through [the PhD process],” a system which he regarded as an “abomination” and a “gross distortion of the educational process.” Many of Dyson’s ideas and much of his career focused on the intersection between science and speculation that many would call science fiction. He was absolutely committed to the truth and earned the right to reject the importance of scientific consensus. Despite the respect he garnered from the scientific establishment, his critics were some of the most frustrated people in science.
Throughout his life, Dyson was seen as a rebel—and rightfully so. He was a theist, publicly remaining a Christian throughout his life. He expressed profound criticisms of the current era of climate change models, and had a deep-seated commitment to opposing scientific orthodoxy. While he was humble—after some conflicts with Fermi in early life, he realized that he was not destined to be a particle physicist—Dyson was steadfast in his commitment to what he saw as truths. He was not only aware of his controversial position, he saw it as deeply moral and essential to the progress of science. Speaking at the Pardee Center for the Study of Longer-Range Future in 2005, Dyson said, “The prevailing dogmas may be right, but they still need to be challenged. I’m proud to be a heretic. The world always needs heretics to challenge the prevailing orthodoxy. We are lucky that we can be heretics today without being burned at the stake.”
Dyson was a rare entity in science and a human treasure. Though we live in an era of Open Science, science as an institution is more closed than ever before. Even within Open Science, there are fewer questions being posed today than there were thirty years ago. While it’s more common than ever for scientific articles to have multiple authors, this trend has led to more group consensus, not less. In many fields, creativity is being stifled and it’s become harder for controversial thoughts to make a dent. Publication schemas, professional organizations and academic cancelings have made controversy unpalatable for most scientific institutions. It is no surprise that most scientists therefore avoid controversy.
Dyson’s career highlights the importance of patronage—which enabled him to obtain professional positions without the expected academic credentials. His death marks the end of such patronage. The tenure system, which Dyson avoided, is not designed to protect those with controversial beliefs, but to reward those who think like the pack. Dyson was a true believer in science and therefore had a commitment to truth in its heterodox form. When journalist Wim Kayzer asked him to define his motto in life, Dyson answered, “[Diversity] is my guiding principle, if I have one at all.” I imagine Dyson was alluding to diversity of ideas as much as any other kind.
Dyson exemplified a scientific approach outlined by philosopher Paul Feyerabend: one that viewed science as more creative than procedural, a field that demanded original thinking and rigorous testing, but in which creativity was fundamental to progress. Dyson was also somewhat soft on a number of traditional scientific principles. Speaking about the laws of nature to an audience that included philosopher Daniel Dennett, biologist Rupert Sheldrake, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and neurologist Oliver Sacks, Dyson expressed openness to a number of controversial ideas arguing, “In the hard sciences, we mostly talk about models, rather than laws … Roughly speaking, a law is just a model we’ve gotten used to. There’s no sharp distinction between models and laws.” This attitude influenced his view of his own career and his scientific speculations. Looking back on his life, Dyson noted, “I had this skill with mathematical tools, and I played these tools as well as I could just because it was beautiful. Just as rather in the same way a musician plays the violin, not expecting to change the world, but just because he loves the instrument.”
Dyson was an outsider—and it showed. It is unlikely that we will ever see an outsider like him in academia again. The institution science has become is not meant for the Dysons of our time. This is to the world’s detriment. Despite the Open Science movement, science as it is today and science as it was when Dyson was hired at Cornell without a doctorate in 1951 are very different worlds. Dyson will surely be missed, and his personality must never be forgotten.
He left us with a final note for today’s scientists: “The long-range future is not predetermined. The future is in your hands. All our fashionable worries and all our prevailing dogmas will probably be obsolete in less than thirty-five years. My heresies will probably also be obsolete. It’s up to you to find new heresies to guide our way to a more hopeful future.” We can only hope to see more Dysons in the future.
It’s so much easier to be a Ta-Nehisi Coates or Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez than a Freeman Dyson or a Murray Gell-Mann! Back in the late 1960’s, when I was a graduate student in Modern European History at the University of Virginia, in a couple of letters to friends I divided the students (both undergraduate and graduate) I observed at U.Va., plus what I read and heard in the media about student (and also faculty) at other American colleges and universities into four main basic categories, in what I saw as ascending levels of intellectual seriousness: (1) The totally or almost totally non-intellectual “Joe and Jane Colleges,” “jocks,” frat-boys, sorority girls, Business and Phys. Ed. Majors, “Big Man on Campus” types, “preppies,” young men mainly trying to avoid the draft, young women mainly “going for their Mrs. degree,” etc. (2) The serious and dedicated but narrow-focus nose-to-the-grindstone aspiring young academic careerists devoted… Read more »
As a noted scientist doubling as a polymath with many diverse intellectual interests, Freeman Dyson was perhaps most closely marched in our own time by Murray Gell-Mann (1929-2019), the Nobel Prize winner for Physics in 1969, who passed away last May 24 at age 89. Born on September 15, 1929 in New York City to Austrian Jewish immigrant parents and growing up as a precocious child educated in a special school for gifted children, Gell-Mann received the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the theory of elementary particles. He was the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Theoretical Physics Emeritus at the California Institute of Technology, a professor of physics at the University of New Mexico, and the Presidential Professor of Physics and Medicine at the University of Southern California. He spent several periods at the nuclear research facility CERN in Switzerland, among others as a John Simon… Read more »
To use a much-overused cliche, Freeman Dyson was a true “Renaissance Man,” a polymathic genius with a universal curiosity about many, many seemingly disparate fields and topics, and intelligent, well-informed, if sometimes unorthodox or unusual views about all of them. He was thus a figure of a wholly different order of mental magnitude from the general run of well-trained well-read reasonably competent specialists on particle physics, organic chemistry, zoology, set theory, analytical philosophy, literary criticism, American or British history, economics, or French literature with few deep or serious interests outside their particular scientific or scholarly specialty who however gain a public and media reputation as “intellectuals” by continually sounding off on politics (or on issues like feminism or immigration), signing petitions, joining (or denouncing) boycotts, endorsing (or anathematizing) candidates, etc.
The Starship and The Canoe – great read from my youth. Just re-ordered today as this reminded me of it.
Thanks for this fitting eulogy.