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IAS Program Pays 90th Birthday Tribute To Maverick Scientist, Freeman J. Dyson

BUDDING SCIENTIST: As a schoolboy, Freeman Dyson was a great fan of Jules Verne’s 1877 adventure “Hector Servadac” (or “Off on a Comet”). When he read the book, he took it to be true and was disappointed to discover that it “was all made up.” Nonetheless Verne’s style inspired Mr. Dyson’s own boyhood writings. Shown here is the distinguished scientist alongside an image from one of his early notebooks.(Images Courtesy of the Institute for Advanced Study)

BUDDING SCIENTIST: As a schoolboy, Freeman Dyson was a great fan of Jules Verne’s 1877 adventure “Hector Servadac” (or “Off on a Comet”). When he read the book, he took it to be true and was disappointed to discover that it “was all made up.” Nonetheless Verne’s style inspired Mr. Dyson’s own boyhood writings. Shown here is the distinguished scientist alongside an image from one of his early notebooks. (Images Courtesy of the Institute for Advanced Study)

At the age of nine, Freeman J. Dyson who celebrates his 90th birthday this year, began writing a novel, Sir Phillip Roberts’s Erolunar Collision. When his mother died at the age of 94, the unfinished manuscript was found among her papers. “My hero Sir Phillip is clearly based on Sir Frank Dyson, the literary style is borrowed from Jules Verne’s story From the Earth to the Moon and a Trip Around It, and the theme of a collision between the asteroid Eros and the Moon must have been suggested by the close approach of Eros to the Earth in the year 1931,” explains the author in the preface to his 1992 popular book, From Eros to Gaia. 

In 1931, Frank Dyson, who was apparently not related to Freeman Dyson’s family, was England’s Astronomer Royal. He had organized the expeditions to Africa and Brazil that had tested Einstein’s theory of general relativity during the solar eclipse of 1919 and he influenced his young namesake to become a scientist.

On discovering his youthful story, Mr. Dyson wrote: “I was amused to see how little I had changed. I was a writer long before I became a scientist. And I was always in love with spaceships. In all my writing, the aim is to open windows, to let the experts inside the temple of science see out, and to let the ordinary citizens outside see in.”

Today, Mr. Dyson is a hero to many who admire his writings.

As a theoretical physicist and mathematician, he has contributed to numerous branches of physics, engineering, astronomy, among others. Honored and distinguished for his academic work, he has done a great deal to make science accessible to the layman.

In Disturbing the Universe (1979), his most autobiographical work, he eloquently shares his sense of wonder from childhood reading through his involvement as a civilian statistician in operations research for the Royal Air Force Bomber Command during World War II; his visit after the war to the United States, where he studied with Hans Bethe at Cornell; and his relationships with J Robert Oppenheimer, Richard P. Feynman, and Edward Teller. He also shares thoughts on a vast range of subjects from nuclear war to nuclear-powered space-exploring rocket ships, from poetry to extraterrestrial intelligence, and from nuclear disarmament to religion.

Born December 15, 1923, Mr. Dyson spent his boyhood in the cathedral town of Winchester where his father, the composer Sir George Dyson taught music at Winchester College, a private boys’ school. His father later became head of the Royal College of Music. His mother had studied law. Mr. Dyson graduated from Cambridge University in 1945 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. His first visit to the Institute was in 1948–49. He became a professor in 1953. He became a citizen of the United States in 1957.

One of his most notable contributions to science was the unification of the three versions of quantum electrodynamics invented by Feynman, Julian Schwinger, and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga. He worked on nuclear reactors, solid state physics, ferromagnetism, astrophysics, and biology, looking for problems where elegant mathematics could be usefully applied. From 1957 to 1961 he worked on the Orion Project, a plan for space-flight using nuclear pulse propulsion.

As readers of the New York Review of Books know, Mr. Dyson, a regular contributor, has many interests and an ability to instigate dialogue and inspire generations of scholars. Shy and self-effacing, he is known to have an impish contrarian streak. His books for the general public, include Infinite in All Directions (1988) and The Scientist as Rebel (2006).

Married twice, Mr. Dyson has two children, Esther and George with his first wife, the mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson, and four daughters, Dorothy, Mia, Rebecca, and Emily with his second wife, Imme Dyson. His eldest daughter Esther, is a digital technology consultant. His son George is an historian of science and author of Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957–1965.

This year also marks Mr. Dyson’s 60th year as a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). To mark the event, his colleagues in the School of Natural Sciences have organized a celebratory two-day program this Friday and Saturday, that provides a perspective on his work and its impact across the sciences and humanities.

Titled “Dreams of Earth and Sky” and advertised with a poster that shows the scientist pondering a vast and colorful universe from atop the world, the event brings together many of the scientist’s friends and colleagues for discussions on the numerous topics upon which he has made his mark.

After opening remarks by IAS Director Robbert Dijkgraaf on Friday, September 27, the program gets underway with remarks from Nati Seiberg of the School of Natural Sciences. Talks on mathematics follow before its on to physics with string theorist Ed Witten and others before the topic of global warming gets an airing with a provocatively titled talk by Princeton University’s William Happer, who asks: “Why Has Global Warming Paused?”

On Saturday more topics within Dyson’s huge bag of interests follow: first astronomy with scientist Scott Tremaine from the Institute and M.I.T.’s Sara Seager. Joseph Kirschvink of the California Institute of Technology discusses “A Martian Origin for Terrestrial Life.”

Dyson’s boyhood hero Sir Frank Dyson was Astronomer Royal from 1910 until 1933. The present holder of that title, Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal since 1995, will present a talk on “Our Universe and Others” before the program turns to public affairs with Sidney Drell addressing the question: “Is it Illogical to Work Toward a World Without Nuclear Weapons?”

The event closes with afternoon tea.

Please note that except for a limited number of seats made available to the Princeton community and for which registration must be made in advance, the event is open only to the Institute and broader academic community. For more information, visit: www.ias.edu.

 

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