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Freeman Dyson

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Hey, Freeman, are you a bird or a frog?

 

Freeman Dyson thinks of scientists metaphorically as birds or frogs-- those who look down from above with exalted views-- and the “Kermits” who spend their time in the mud exploring things locally. Dyson sees himself as a frog, and therefore something of a contrarian.

 

Dyson’s big talent is writing and interpreting science for the non-scientist reader. With one of the most formidable minds in American life he is also a luminous communicator. Many of his professional ruminations involve space travel. He was a NASA consultant and worked on a myriad of government-related projects. He concluded that large, bureaucratic-run scientific endeavors often exist to justify their own importance. "Once political consensus is made--- scientists put on their blinders and move solely in that direction."

 

In “From Eros to Gaia ” he observed that the practice of science didn’t change much between 1933 and 1991.

 

Dyson’s graduate advisor at Cornell, Hans Bethe, and another Cornell physicist, Richard Feynman, worked on the atom bomb at Los Alamos. Dyson quickly became a colleague. Then he headed off to Princeton as a physics professor at the Institute for Advanced Study. And he began to write about theoretical physics for a broader audience—an activity that became his second career.

 

He worked on nuclear reactors, solid-state physics, ferromagnetism, astrophysics, and bioloby-- always looking for problems where elegant mathematics could be usefully applied.

 

He differed from the faculty in that he saw things from the viewpoint of an engineer (or, as he sees it, a frog). But, in the politics of funding research, the scientific community had disdain for engaging in anything related to engineering. He saw many of his most promising projects scrubbed.

 

One of his specialties is adaptive optics and mirrors that allow ground-based telescopes to view the sky as space-based telescopes. But he’s aware of the dark side of his science and the possibility of military abuse of his work.

 

In recent years, he writes about the ethics and aesthetics of theoretical science issues ranging from nuclear research and space travel to solar power and genetic engineering.

 

He muses about how the human condition affects science, and vice versa. An eloquent example is “Disturbing the Universe,” where he examines the motivations behind political actions.

 

He engages in the tactility of life as a humanist who happens to be a scientist. He equates scientific inquiry with craftsmanship. His ideas are fresh and free of academic constraints. His predictions about the future are equivocal, allowing for the possibility of more than one meaning or interpretation.  

 

His awards are far-reaching. He got the U.S. Enrico Fermi Award for excellence in physics and the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. In its critique of Dyson's "The Scientist as Rebel" the London Times calls him "one of the world's most original minds."

 

Dyson keeps a whimsical view of his place in science. He told Omni magazine "It's amusing to think that someday all my 'serious' work will probably be a footnote in a textbook, when everybody remembers what I did on the side."

 

                                          

 

Form a Washington Post book review:

"The bedazzled reader emerges feeling like he's been in a metaphysical Maytag on spin cycle-- his perspective on man, God, and the cosmos permanently altered. Dyson's language, reminiscent of Orwell's, is eloquently plain, wrought with the unaffected grace of a man certain that he has something to say."

 

Some of his books:

"The Scientist as Rebel," 2006.

"The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet: Tools of Scientific Revolutions," 1999.

"Imagined Worlds," 1997.

Origins of Life," 1985.

Weapons and Hope," 1984.

"Disturbing the Universe," 1979

Some lectures:

"Infinite in All Directions," lecture series, 1985.

"Values at War: Lectures on the Nuclear Crisis," 1983

"The World, the Flesh, and the Devil," Bernal Lecture, 1972.

 

 

                                      

 

 

(fyi - His daughter Esther Dyson is the computer consultant extraordinaire.) 

Freeman Dyson thinks that with optical and radio detection and data processing advances we may find evidence of extra-terrestrial life within the next fifty years. And why not?

return to "Searching the Future"

Remain curious.