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Freeman Dyson

(photo 2005)
Born December 15, 1923 (1923-12-15) (age 86)
Crowthorne, Berkshire, England
Nationality American
Fields Physics, Mathematics
Institutions Royal Air Force
Institute for Advanced Study
Duke University
Cornell University
Alma mater University of Cambridge
Doctoral advisor None
Known for Dyson sphere
Dyson operator
Advocacy against nuclear weapons
Dyson conjecture
Dyson's eternal intelligence
Dyson number
Dyson tree
Dyson's transform
Notable awards Heineman Prize (1965)
Wolf Prize (1981)
Templeton Prize (2000)
Pomeranchuk Prize (2003)
Notes
He is notably the son of George Dyson (composer), and father of Esther Dyson, Dorthy Dyson, Mia Dyson, Rebecca Dyson, Emily Dyson, and George Dyson (science historian).

Freeman John Dyson FRS (born December 15, 1923) is a British-born[1] American [2] theoretical physicist and mathematician, famous for his work in quantum field theory, solid-state physics, and nuclear engineering. Dyson is a member of the Board of Sponsors of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Dyson has lived in Princeton, New Jersey for over fifty years.[3]

Contents

Biography

Personal

Dyson's father was the English composer George Dyson. Despite sharing a last name, he is not related to early 20th century astronomer Frank Watson Dyson. However, as a small boy, Freeman Dyson was aware of Frank Watson Dyson; Freeman credits the popularity of someone with the same last name with inadvertently helping to spark his interest in science. Dyson received an honorary Sc.D. from Bates College in 1990.

Dyson's mother was trained as a lawyer but worked, after Dyson was born, as a social worker.[4]

Dyson has six children, two of them (Esther and George) with his first wife, mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson, and the other four with his second wife, Imme Dyson, a masters runner who married him in 1958.[3] Due to issues with some of his children not being recognized as British citizens he abjured his allegiance to Britain, and became a naturalized American citizen.[1][2]

His eldest daughter is Esther Dyson, the noted digital technology consultant. His son is digital technology historian George Dyson.[5]; one of whose books is Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957–1965.

Friends and colleagues describe him as shy and self-effacing with a contrarian streak that his friends find refreshing but his intellectual opponents find exasperating. "I have the sense that when consensus is forming like ice hardening on a lake, Dyson will do his best to chip at the ice," physics Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg said of him. His friend, the neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, said: "A favorite word of Freeman's about doing science and being creative is the word 'subversive.' He feels it's rather important not only to be not orthodox, but to be subversive, and he's done that all his life."[3]

Career

Although Dyson has won numerous scientific awards, he has never won a Nobel Prize, which has led Nobel physics laureate Steven Weinberg to state that the Nobel committee has "fleeced" Dyson. Dyson has said that “I think it’s almost true without exception if you want to win a Nobel Prize, you should have a long attention span, get hold of some deep and important problem and stay with it for 10 years. That wasn’t my style.”[3]

Dyson was a Scholar at the renowned Winchester College from 1939 to 1941. He then worked as an analyst for RAF Bomber Command at RAF Wyton for the remainder of World War II, where he would come to create what would be later known as operational research.[6] After the war, he obtained a BA in mathematics from Cambridge University (1945) and was a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge from 1946 to 1949. In 1947 he moved to the US, on a fellowship at Cornell University and thence joined the faculty there as a physics professor in 1951 without a PhD. He was elected a FRS in 1952[7] In 1953, he took up a post at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. In 1957, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

Dyson is best known[8] for demonstrating in 1949 the equivalence of the formulations of quantum electrodynamics that existed by that time — Richard Feynman's diagrammatic path integral formulation and the operator method developed by Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga. A by-product of that demonstration was the invention of the Dyson series.[9] It was this Dyson paper that inspired John Ward to derive his celebrated Ward identity.[10]

Dyson also did work in a variety of topics in mathematics, such as topology, analysis, number theory and random matrices.[11]

From 1957 to 1961 he worked on the Orion Project, which proposed the possibility of space-flight using nuclear pulse propulsion. A prototype was demonstrated using conventional explosives, but a treaty which he was involved in and supported, banned the testing of nuclear weapons other than underground, and this caused the project to be abandoned.

In 1958 he led the design team for the TRIGA, a small, inherently safe nuclear reactor used throughout the world in hospitals and universities for the production of isotopes.

A seminal work by Dyson came in 1966 when, together with A. Lenard and independently of Elliott H. Lieb and Walter Thirring, he proved rigorously that the exclusion principle plays the main role in the stability of bulk matter.[12] Hence, it is not the electromagnetic repulsion between electrons and nuclei that is responsible for two wood blocks that are left on top of each other not coalescing into a single piece, but rather it is the exclusion principle applied to electrons and protons that generates the classical macroscopic normal force. In condensed matter physics, Dyson also did studies in the phase transition of the Ising model in 1 dimension and spin waves.[11]

Dyson was awarded the Lorentz Medal in 1966 and Max Planck medal in 1969.

In 1977, Dyson supervised Princeton undergraduate John Aristotle Phillips in a term paper that outlined a credible design for a nuclear weapon. This earned Phillips the nickname The A-Bomb Kid.

Around 1979, Dyson worked with the Institute for Energy Analysis on climate studies. This group, under the direction of Alvin Weinberg, pioneered multidisciplinary climate studies, including a strong biology group.[13]

In the 1984–85 academic year he gave the Gifford lectures at Aberdeen, which resulted in the book Infinite In All Directions.

In 1989, Dyson taught at Duke University as a Fritz London Memorial Lecturer. In the same year, he was elected as an Honorary Fellow of Trinity College, University of Cambridge.

Dyson has published a number of collections of speculations and observations about technology, science, and the future. In 1996 he was awarded the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science.

In 1998, Dyson joined the board of the Solar Electric Light Fund

In 2000, Dyson was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.

As of 2003, Dyson is the president of the Space Studies Institute, the space research organization founded by Gerard K. O'Neill.

In 2003, Dyson was awarded the Telluride Tech Festival Award of Technology in Telluride, Colorado.

Dyson is a long-time member of the JASON defense advisory group.

Concepts

Biotechnology and genetic engineering

My book The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet (1999) describes a vision of green technology enriching villages all over the world and halting the migration from villages to megacities. The three components of the vision are all essential: the sun to provide energy where it is needed, the genome to provide plants that can convert sunlight into chemical fuels cheaply and efficiently, the Internet to end the intellectual and economic isolation of rural populations. With all three components in place, every village in Africa could enjoy its fair share of the blessings of civilisation.[14]

Dyson cheerfully admits his record as a prophet is mixed, but "it is better to be wrong than to be vague."[15]

To answer the world's material needs, technology has to be not only beautiful but also cheap.[16]

Dyson sphere

One should expect that, within a few thousand years of its entering the stage of industrial development, any intelligent species should be found occupying an artificial biosphere which completely surrounds its parent star.[17]

In 1960 Dyson wrote a short paper for the journal Science, entitled "Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation".[18] In it, he theorized that a technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilization might completely surround its native star with artificial structures in order to maximize the capture of the star's available energy. Eventually, the civilization would completely enclose the star, intercepting electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths from visible light downwards and radiating waste heat outwards as infrared radiation. Therefore, one method of searching for extraterrestrial civilizations would be to look for large objects radiating in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Dyson conceived that such structures would be clouds of asteroid-sized space habitats, though science fiction writers have preferred a solid structure: either way, such an artifact is often referred to as a Dyson sphere, although Dyson himself used the term "shell". Dyson says that he used the term "artificial biosphere" in the article meaning a habitat, not a shape.[19] The general concept of such an energy-reflecting shell had been advanced decades earlier by author Olaf Stapledon in his 1937 novel Star Maker, a source that Dyson has reportedly credited publicly.

Dyson tree

Dyson has also proposed the creation of a Dyson tree, a genetically-engineered plant capable of growing on a comet. He suggested that comets could be engineered to contain hollow spaces filled with a breathable atmosphere, thus providing self-sustaining habitats for humanity in the outer solar system.

Plants could grow greenhouses…just as turtles grow shells and polar bears grow fur and polyps build coral reefs in tropical seas. These plants could keep warm by the light from a distant Sun and conserve the oxygen that they produce by photosynthesis. The greenhouse would consist of a thick skin providing thermal insulation, with small transparent windows to admit sunlight. Outside the skin would be an array of simple lenses, focusing sunlight through the windows into the interior… Groups of greenhouses could grow together to form extended habitats for other species of plants and animals.[20]

Space colonies

I've done some historical research on the costs of the Mayflower's voyage, and on the Mormons' emigration to Utah, and I think it's possible to go into space on a much smaller scale. A cost on the order of $40,000 per person [1978 dollars] would be the target to shoot for; in terms of real wages, that would make it comparable to the colonization of America. Unless it's brought down to that level it's not really interesting to me, because otherwise it would be a luxury that only governments could afford.[17]

Freeman Dyson has been interested in space travel since he was a child, reading such science fiction classics as Olaf Stapledon's Star Maker. As a young man, he worked for General Atomics on the nuclear-powered Orion spacecraft. He hoped Project Orion would put men on Mars by 1965, Saturn by 1970. He's been unhappy for a quarter-century on how the government conducts space travel:

The problem is, of course, that they can't afford to fail. The rules of the game are that you don't take a chance, because if you fail, then probably your whole program gets wiped out.[17]

He still hopes for cheap space travel, but is resigned to waiting for private entrepreneurs to develop something new—and cheap.

No law of physics or biology forbids cheap travel and settlement all over the solar system and beyond. But it is impossible to predict how long this will take. Predictions of the dates of future achievements are notoriously fallible. My guess is that the era of cheap unmanned missions will be the next fifty years, and the era of cheap manned missions will start sometime late in the twenty-first century.


Any affordable program of manned exploration must be centered in biology, and its time frame tied to the time frame of biotechnology; a hundred years, roughly the time it will take us to learn to grow warm-blooded plants, is probably reasonable.[20]

Space exploration

A direct search for life in Europa's ocean would today be prohibitively expensive. Impacts on Europa give us an easier way to look for evidence of life there. Every time a major impact occurs on Europa, a vast quantity of water is splashed from the ocean into the space around Jupiter. Some of the water evaporates, and some condenses into snow. Creatures living in the water far enough from the impact have a chance of being splashed intact into space and quickly freeze-dried. Therefore, an easy way to look for evidence of life in Europa's ocean is to look for freeze-dried fish in the ring of space debris orbiting Jupiter.[20]

Dyson's transform

Dyson also has some credits in pure mathematics. His concept "Dyson's transform" led to one of the most important lemmas of Olivier Ramaré's theorem that every even integer can be written as a sum of no more than six primes.

Dyson series

The Dyson series, the formal solution of an explicitly time-dependent Schrödinger equation by iteration, and the corresponding Dyson time-ordering operator \mathcal T\,, an entity of basic importance in the mathematical formulation of quantum mechanics, are also called after him.

Views

Global warming

Dyson agrees that anthropogenic global warming exists, and has written

One of the main causes of warming is the increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere resulting from our burning of fossil fuels such as oil and coal and natural gas.[21]

However, he has argued that existing simulation models of climate fail to account for some important factors, and hence the results will contain too much error to reliably predict future trends.

The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics, and they do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields and farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world we live in...[21]

He is among signatories of a letter to the UN criticizing the IPCC [22][23][24] and has also argued against the ostracization of scientists whose views depart from the acknowledged mainstream of scientific opinion on climate change, stating that "heretics" have historically been an important force in driving scientific progress.

heretics who question the dogmas are needed... I am proud to be a heretic. The world always needs heretics to challenge the prevailing orthodoxies.[21]

More recently, he has endorsed the now common usage of "global warming" as synonymous with global anthropogenic climate change, referring to recent

measurements that transformed global warming from a vague theoretical speculation into a precise observational science.[25]

but has argued that political efforts to reduce the causes of climate change distract from other global problems that should take priority.

I'm not saying the warming doesn't cause problems, obviously it does. Obviously we should be trying to understand it. I'm saying that the problems are being grossly exaggerated. They take away money and attention from other problems that are much more urgent and important. Poverty, infectious diseases, public education and public health. Not to mention the preservation of living creatures on land and in the oceans.[26]

Dyson's views on global warming have been criticized as failing to understand the amount of carbon sequestration needed.[27] Dyson has proposed that whatever inflammations the climate was experiencing might be a good thing because carbon dioxide helps plants of all kinds grow. His caveat is that if CO2 levels soar too high, they could be soothed by the mass cultivation of specially bred “carbon-eating trees". He calculates that it would take a trillion trees to remove all carbon from the atmosphere, which he believes in principle is quite feasible.[28]

Dyson is well-aware that his "heresy" on global warming has been strongly criticized. In reply, he notes that:

My objections to the global warming propaganda are not so much over the technical facts, about which I do not know much, but it’s rather against the way those people behave and the kind of intolerance to criticism that a lot of them have.[13]

Warfare and weapons

On hearing the news of the bombing of Hiroshima:

I agreed emphatically with Henry Stimson. Once we had got ourselves into the business of bombing cities, we might as well do the job competently and get it over with. I felt better that morning than I had felt for years… Those fellows who had built the atomic bombs obviously knew their stuff… Later, much later, I would remember [the downside].[29]
I am convinced that to avoid nuclear war it is not sufficient to be afraid of it. It is necessary to be afraid, but it is equally necessary to understand. And the first step in understanding is to recognize that the problem of nuclear war is basically not technical but human and historical. If we are to avoid destruction we must first of all understand the human and historical context out of which destruction arises.[30]

At the British Bomber Command, Dyson and colleagues proposed ripping out two gun turrets from the RAF Lancaster bombers, to cut the catastrophic losses to German fighters in the Battle of Berlin. A Lancaster without turrets could fly 50 mph (80 km/h) faster and be much more maneuverable.

All our advice to the commander in chief [went] through the chief of our section, who was a career civil servant. His guiding principle was to tell the commander in chief things that the commander in chief liked to hear… To push the idea of ripping out gun turrets, against the official mythology of the gallant gunner defending his crew mates…was not the kind of suggestion the commander in chief liked to hear.[31]

Dyson opposes the Vietnam war, the Gulf War, and the invasion of Iraq. He supported Barack Obama during the election and The New York Times has described him as a political liberal.[3]

The role of failure

You can't possibly get a good technology going without an enormous number of failures. It's a universal rule. If you look at bicycles, there were thousands of weird models built and tried before they found the one that really worked. You could never design a bicycle theoretically. Even now, after we've been building them for 100 years, it's very difficult to understand just why a bicycle works - it's even difficult to formulate it as a mathematical problem. But just by trial and error, we found out how to do it, and the error was essential.[32]

On English academics

My view of the prevalence of doom-and-gloom in Cambridge is that it is a result of the English class system. In England there were always two sharply opposed middle classes, the academic middle class and the commercial middle class. In the nineteenth century, the academic middle class won the battle for power and status. As a child of the academic middle class, I learned to look on the commercial middle class with loathing and contempt. Then came the triumph of Margaret Thatcher, which was also the revenge of the commercial middle class. The academics lost their power and prestige and the business people took over. The academics never forgave Thatcher and have been gloomy ever since.[33]

Science and religion

Dyson strongly opposes reductionism. He is a non-denominational Christian and has attended various churches from Presbyterian to Roman Catholic. Regarding doctrinal or christological issues, he has said "I am neither a saint nor a theologian. To me, good works are more important than theology."[34]

Science and religion are two windows that people look through, trying to understand the big universe outside, trying to understand why we are here. The two windows give different views, but they look out at the same universe. Both views are one-sided, neither is complete. Both leave out essential features of the real world. And both are worthy of respect.

Trouble arises when either science or religion claims universal jurisdiction, when either religious or scientific dogma claims to be infallible. Religious creationists and scientific materialists are equally dogmatic and insensitive. By their arrogance they bring both science and religion into disrepute. The media exaggerate their numbers and importance. The media rarely mention the fact that the great majority of religious people belong to moderate denominations that treat science with respect, or the fact that the great majority of scientists treat religion with respect so long as religion does not claim jurisdiction over scientific questions.[34]

Dyson disagrees with the famous remark by his fellow-physicist Steven Weinberg that "Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things—that takes religion."[35]

Weinberg's statement is true as far as it goes, but it is not the whole truth. To make it the whole truth, we must add an additional clause: "And for bad people to do good things—that takes religion." The main point of Christianity is that it is a religion for sinners. Jesus made that very clear. When the Pharisees asked his disciples, "Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?" he said, "I come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance." Only a small fraction of sinners repent and do good things, but only a small fraction of good people are led by their religion to do bad things.[35]

See also

Bibliography

By Dyson

  • Symmetry Groups in Nuclear and Particle Physics, 1966 (Academic-oriented text)
  • Disturbing the Universe, 1979. Review
  • Weapons and Hope, 1984 (Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award).[3] Review
  • Origins of Life, 1986. Second edition, 1999. Review
  • Infinite in All Directions, 1988. Review
  • From Eros to Gaia, 1992
  • Selected Papers of Freeman Dyson, 1996
  • Imagined Worlds, Harvard University Press 1997, ISBN 978-0-674-53908-2. Review
  • The Sun, The Genome and The Internet, 1999. Review
  • L'mportanza di essere imprevedibile, Di Renzo Editore, 2003
  • The Scientist as Rebel, 2006. Review
  • Advanced Quantum Mechanics, World Scientific, 2007, ISBN 978-9812706614. Freely available at: arXiv:quant-ph/0608140. (Dyson's 1951 Cornell lecture notes transcribed by David Derbes)
  • A Many-Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe, University of Virginia Press, 2007. Review

About Dyson

  • Brower, Kenneth, 1978. The Starship and the Canoe, Holt Rinehart and Winston.
  • Schweber, Sylvan S., 1994. QED and the Men Who Made It: Dyson, Feynman, Schwinger, and Tomonaga. Princeton University Press: chpt. 9. ISBN 9780691033273.

References

  1. ^ a b BBC News | SCI/TECH | Scientist wins $1m religion prize
  2. ^ a b Freeman Dyson: Disturbing the universe, pg 131, "I had finally become an American...The decision to abjure my allegiance to Queen Elizabeth might have been a difficult one, but the Queen's ministers made it easy for me."
  3. ^ a b c d e f Dawidoff, Nicholas. The Civil Heretic. The New York Times. March 25, 2009
  4. ^ Wild River Review Interview by Joy E. Stocke
  5. ^ See excerpt from Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite by John Brockman (HardWired Books, 1996)
  6. ^ "A Failure of Intelligence", Essay in Technology Review (November–December 2006)
  7. ^ Royal Society directory entry
  8. ^ F. J. Dyson, The radiation theories of Tomonaga, Schwinger, and Feynman, Phys. Rev. 75, 486-502 (1949).
  9. ^ F. J. Dyson, The S matrix in quantum electrodynamics, Phys. Rev. 75, 1736-1755 (1949)
  10. ^ J. C. Ward, An identity in quantum electrodynamics, Phys. Rev. 78, 182 (1950). [Note: this Ward letter opens with "It has been recently proven by Dyson..."]
  11. ^ a b See F. J. Dyson, E. H. Lieb, Selected papers by Freeman Dyson, AMS (1996).
  12. ^ F. J. Dyson, A. Lenard, J. Math. Phys. 8, 3, 423-434 (1967); F. J. Dyson, A. Lenard, J. Math. Phys., 9, 5, 698-711 (1968); E. H. Lieb, W. Thirring, Phys. Rev. Lett. 35, 687-689 (1975)
  13. ^ a b "Freeman Dyson Takes On The Climate Establishment", interview published June 2, 2009 by Yale University's Environment 360
  14. ^ Our Bio tech Future
  15. ^ Dyson, 1999, The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet
  16. ^ Dyson, FJ, "The Greening of the Galaxy" in Disturbing the Universe, 1979
  17. ^ a b c Interview by Monte Davis, October 1978
  18. ^ Dyson, Freeman J. (3 June 1960). "Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation". Science 131 (3414): 1667–1668. doi:10.1126/science.131.3414.1667. PMID 17780673.  
  19. ^ 20 minutes into a video
  20. ^ a b c Dyson, FJ, "Warm-blooded plants and freeze-dried fish: the future of space exploration." The Atlantic Monthly, November 1997 Subscribers only
  21. ^ a b c Freeman Dyson (8 August 2007). "heretical Thoughts about Science and Society". Edge. http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/dysonf07/dysonf07_index.html. Retrieved 2007-09-05.  
  22. ^ http://www.nationalpost.com/story.html?id=165020
  23. ^ Wiggles, Open Mind, 16 December 2007
  24. ^ GISS Surface Temperature Analysis, Global Temperature Trends: 2005 Summation, Goddard Institute for Space Studies
  25. ^ Dyson in The New York Review of Book, 12 June 2008
  26. ^ "University of Michigan 2005 Winter Commencement Address". University of Michigan. http://www.umich.edu/news/index.html?DysonWinCom05.  
  27. ^ David Archer (24 May 2008). "Freeman Dyson’s selective vision". RealClimate. http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2008/05/freeman-dysons-selective-vision/. Retrieved 2009-03-30.  
  28. ^ Dawidoff, Nicholas (2009-03-29). "The Civil Heretic". The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/29/magazine/29Dyson-t.html?pagewanted=7&ref=magazine.  
  29. ^ FJ Dyson, "The Blood of a Poet" in Disturbing the Universe, 1979
  30. ^ FJ Dyson, Weapons and Hope, 1984
  31. ^ FJ Dyson, "The Children's Crusade" in Disturbing the Universe, 1979
  32. ^ Interview by Stewart Brand, February 1998
  33. ^ Benny Peiser (14 March 2007). "The Scientist as a Rebel: An interview with Freeman Dyson". CCNet. http://www.staff.livjm.ac.uk/spsbpeis/Freeman-Dyson.htm. Retrieved 2007-09-05.  
  34. ^ a b Templeton Prize Lecture
  35. ^ a b NYRB June 22, 2006

External links

By Dyson

About Dyson

  • Interview, June 4, 2009, Dyson comments on the misleading overemphasis of his climate-change views in the NYT profile.

Quotes

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Both as a scientist and as a religious person, I am accustomed to living with uncertainty. Science is exciting because it is full of unsolved mysteries, and religion is exciting for the same reason. The greatest unsolved mysteries are the mysteries of our existence as conscious beings in a small corner of a vast universe.

Freeman John Dyson (born 15 December 1923) English-born American physicist, mathematician, and futurist, famous for his work in quantum mechanics, nuclear weapons design and policy, and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Winner of the Templeton Prize (2000).

Contents

Sourced

We stand, in a manner of speaking, midway between the unpredictability of atoms and the unpredictability of God.
  • I am acutely aware of the fact that the marriage between mathematics and physics, which was so enormously fruitful in past centuries, has recently ended in divorce.
    • Missed Opportunities (1972)
  • I have felt it myself. The glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist. To feel it's there in your hands, to release this energy that fuels the stars, to let it do your bidding. To perform these miracles, to lift a million tons of rock into the sky. It is something that gives people an illusion of illimitable power, and it is, in some ways, responsible for all our troubles - this, what you might call technical arrogance, that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.
  • The more I examine the universe and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming.
  • The bottom line for mathematicians is that the architecture has to be right. In all the mathematics that I did, the essential point was to find the right architecture. It's like building a bridge. Once the main lines of the structure are right, then the details miraculously fit. The problem is the overall design.
    • "Freeman Dyson: Mathematician, Physicist, and Writer". Interview with Donald J. Albers, The College Mathematics Journal, vol 25, no. 1, (January 1994)
  • There is no such thing as a unique scientific vision, any more than there is a unique poetic vision. Science is a mosaic of partial and conflicting visions. But there is one common element in these visions. The common element is rebellion against the restrictions imposed by the locally prevailing culture, Western or Eastern as the case may be. It is no more Western than it is Arab or Indian or Japanese or Chinese. Arabs and Indians and Japanese and Chinese had a big share in the development of modern science. And two thousand years earlier, the beginnings of science were as much Babylonian and Egyptian as Greek. One of the central facts about science is that it pays no attention to East and West and North and South and black and yellow and white. It belongs to everybody who is willing to make the effort to learn it.
    • "The Scientist as Rebel" in New York Review of Books (25 May 1995)
  • The progress of science requires the growth of understanding in both directions, downward from the whole to the parts and upward from the parts to the whole. A reductionist philosophy, arbitrarily proclaiming that the growth of understanding must go only in one direction, makes no scientific sense. Indeed, dogmatic philosophical beliefs of any kind have no place in science.
    • "The Scientist as Rebel" in New York Review of Books (25 May 1995)
  • The laws of nature are constructed in such a way as to make the universe as interesting as possible.
    • Imagined Worlds (1997)
  • In desperation I asked Fermi whether he was not impressed by the agreement between our calculated numbers and his measured numbers. He replied, "How many arbitrary parameters did you use for your calculations?" I thought for a moment about our cut-off procedures and said, "Four." He said, "I remember my friend Johnny von Neumann used to say, with four parameters I can fit an elephant, and with five I can make him wiggle his trunk." With that, the conversation was over.
  • The biggest breakthrough in the next 50 years will be the discovery of extraterrestrial life. We have been searching for it for 50 years and found nothing. That proves life is rarer than we hoped, but does not prove that the universe is lifeless. We are only now developing the tools to make our searches efficient and far-reaching, as optical and radio detection and data processing move forward.

Disturbing the Universe (1979)

There is a great satisfaction in building good tools for other people to use.
  • There is a great satisfaction in building good tools for other people to use.
  • If we had a reliable way to label our toys good and bad, it would be easy to regulate technology wisely. But we can rarely see far enough ahead to know which road leads to damnation. Whoever concerns himself with big technology, either to push it forward or to stop it, is gambling in human lives.
  • It is characteristic of all deep human problems that they are not to be approached without some humor and some bewilderment.
  • A good cause can become bad if we fight for it with means that are indiscriminately murderous. A bad cause can become good if enough people fight for it in a spirit of comradeship and self-sacrifice. In the end it is how you fight, as much as why you fight, that makes your cause good or bad.
  • A good scientist is a person with original ideas. A good engineer is a person who makes a design that works with as few original ideas as possible. There are no prima donnas in engineering.
  • The conservative has little to fear from the man whose reason is the servant of his passions, but let him beware of him in whom reason has become the greatest and most terrible of passions. These are the wreckers of outworn empires.

Infinite in All Directions (1988)

  • The technologies which have had the most profound effects on human life are usually simple. A good example of a simple technology with profound historical consequences is hay. Nobody knows who invented hay, the idea of cutting grass in the autumn and storing it in large enough quantities to keep horses and cows alive through the winter. All we know is that the technology of hay was unknown to the Roman Empire but was known to every village of medieval Europe. Like many other crucially important technologies, hay emerged anonymously during the so-called Dark Ages. According to the Hay Theory of History, the invention of hay was the decisive event which moved the center of gravity of urban civilization from the Mediterranean basin to Northern and Western Europe. The Roman Empire did not need hay because in a Mediterranean climate the grass grows well enough in winter for animals to graze. North of the Alps, great cities dependent on horses and oxen for motive power could not exist without hay. So it was hay that allowed populations to grow and civilizations to flourish among the forests of Northern Europe. Hay moved the greatness of Rome to Paris and London, and later to Berlin and Moscow and New York.
  • God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension.

Progress In Religion (2000)

I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension.

Progress In Religion : A Talk By Freeman Dyson ~ Acceptance speech for the Templeton Prize, Washington National Cathedral (9 May 2000)

  • I am neither a saint nor a theologian. To me, good works are more important than theology. We all know that religion has been historically, and still is today, a cause of great evil as well as great good in human affairs. We have seen terrible wars and terrible persecutions conducted in the name of religion. We have also seen large numbers of people inspired by religion to lives of heroic virtue, bringing education and medical care to the poor, helping to abolish slavery and spread peace among nations. Religion amplifies the good and evil tendencies of individual souls.
  • Religion will always remain a powerful force in the history of our species. To me, the meaning of progress in religion is simply this, that as we move from the past to the future the good works inspired by religion should more and more prevail over the evil.
  • One of the great but less famous heroes of World War Two was Andre Trocme, the Protestant pastor of the village of Le Chambon sur Lignon in France, which sheltered and saved the lives of five thousand Jews under the noses of the Gestapo. Forty years later Pierre Sauvage, one of the Jews who was saved, recorded the story of the village in a magnificent documentary film with the title, "Weapons of the Spirit". The villagers proved that civil disobedience and passive resistance could be effective weapons, even against Hitler. Their religion gave them the courage and the discipline to stand firm. Progress in religion means that, as time goes on, religion more and more takes the side of the victims against the oppressors.
  • Sharing the food is to me more important than arguing about beliefs. Jesus, according to the gospels, thought so too.
  • I am content to be one of the multitude of Christians who do not care much about the doctrine of the Trinity or the historical truth of the gospels. Both as a scientist and as a religious person, I am accustomed to living with uncertainty. Science is exciting because it is full of unsolved mysteries, and religion is exciting for the same reason. The greatest unsolved mysteries are the mysteries of our existence as conscious beings in a small corner of a vast universe.
  • My personal theology is described in the Gifford lectures that I gave at Aberdeen in Scotland in 1985, published under the title, Infinite In All Directions. Here is a brief summary of my thinking. The universe shows evidence of the operations of mind on three levels. The first level is elementary physical processes, as we see them when we study atoms in the laboratory. The second level is our direct human experience of our own consciousness. The third level is the universe as a whole. Atoms in the laboratory are weird stuff, behaving like active agents rather than inert substances. They make unpredictable choices between alternative possibilities according to the laws of quantum mechanics. It appears that mind, as manifested by the capacity to make choices, is to some extent inherent in every atom. The universe as a whole is also weird, with laws of nature that make it hospitable to the growth of mind. I do not make any clear distinction between mind and God. God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension. God may be either a world-soul or a collection of world-souls. So I am thinking that atoms and humans and God may have minds that differ in degree but not in kind. We stand, in a manner of speaking, midway between the unpredictability of atoms and the unpredictability of God. Atoms are small pieces of our mental apparatus, and we are small pieces of God's mental apparatus. Our minds may receive inputs equally from atoms and from God. This view of our place in the cosmos may not be true, but it is compatible with the active nature of atoms as revealed in the experiments of modern physics. I don't say that this personal theology is supported or proved by scientific evidence. I only say that it is consistent with scientific evidence.
  • I do not claim any ability to read God's mind. I am sure of only one thing. When we look at the glory of stars and galaxies in the sky and the glory of forests and flowers in the living world around us, it is evident that God loves diversity. Perhaps the universe is constructed according to a principle of maximum diversity.
  • The principle of maximum diversity says that the laws of nature, and the initial conditions at the beginning of time, are such as to make the universe as interesting as possible. As a result, life is possible but not too easy. Maximum diversity often leads to maximum stress. In the end we survive, but only by the skin of our teeth. This is the confession of faith of a scientific heretic. Perhaps I may claim as evidence for progress in religion the fact that we no longer burn heretics.
  • All through our history, we have been changing the world with our technology. Our technology has been of two kinds, green and grey. Green technology is seeds and plants, gardens and vineyards and orchards, domesticated horses and cows and pigs, milk and cheese, leather and wool. Grey technology is bronze and steel, spears and guns, coal and oil and electricity, automobiles and airplanes and rockets, telephones and computers. Civilization began with green technology, with agriculture and animal-breeding, ten thousand years ago. Then, beginning about three thousand years ago, grey technology became dominant, with mining and metallurgy and machinery. For the last five hundred years, grey technology has been racing ahead and has given birth to the modern world of cities and factories and supermarkets.
    The dominance of grey technology is now coming to an end.
  • Our grey technology of machines and computers will not disappear, but green technology will be moving ahead even faster. Green technology can be cleaner, more flexible and less wasteful, than our existing chemical industries. A great variety of manufactured objects could be grown instead of made. Green technology could supply human needs with far less damage to the natural environment. And green technology could be a great equalizer, bringing wealth to the tropical areas of the world which have most of the sunshine, most of the human population, and most of the poverty. I am saying that green technology could do all these good things, bringing wealth to the tropics, bringing economic opportunity to the villages, narrowing the gap between rich and poor. I am not saying that green technology will do all these good things. "Could" is not the same as "will". To make these good things happen, we need not only the new technology but the political and economic conditions that will give people all over the world a chance to use it. To make these things happen, we need a powerful push from ethics. We need a consensus of public opinion around the world that the existing gross inequalities in the distribution of wealth are intolerable. In reaching such a consensus, religions must play an essential role. Neither technology alone nor religion alone is powerful enough to bring social justice to human societies, but technology and religion working together might do the job.
  • The gospel of St. Matthew told of the angry Jesus driving the merchants and money-changers out of the temple, knocking over the tables of the money-changers and spilling their coins on the floor. Jesus was not opposed to capitalism and the profit motive, so long as economic activities were carried on outside the temple. In the parable of the talents, he praises the servant who used his master's money to make a profitable investment, and condemns the servant who was too timid to invest. But he draws a clear line at the temple door. Inside the temple, the ground belongs to God and profit-making must stop.
  • In the time of Jesus and for many centuries afterwards, there was a free market in human bodies. The institution of slavery was based on the legal right of slave-owners to buy and sell their property in a free market. Only in the nineteenth century did the abolitionist movement, with Quakers and other religious believers in the lead, succeed in establishing the principle that the free market does not extend to human bodies. The human body is God's temple and not a commercial commodity. And now in the twenty-first century, for the sake of equity and human brotherhood, we must maintain the principle that the free market does not extend to human genes. Let us hope that we can reach a consensus on this question without fighting another civil war.
  • Like all the new technologies that have arisen from scientific knowledge, biotechnology is a tool that can be used either for good or for evil purposes. The role of ethics is to strengthen the good and avoid the evil.
  • Unfortunately a large number of people in many countries are strongly opposed to green technology, for reasons having little to do with the real dangers. It is important to treat the opponents with respect, to pay attention to their fears, to go gently into the new world of green technology so that neither human dignity nor religious conviction is violated. If we can go gently, we have a good chance of achieving within a hundred years the goals of ecological sustainability and social justice that green technology brings within our reach.
  • I have five minutes left to give you a message to take home. The message is simple. "God forbid that we should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world". This was said by Francis Bacon, one of the founding fathers of modern science, almost four hundred years ago. Bacon was the smartest man of his time, with the possible exception of William Shakespeare.
  • I am saying to modern scientists and theologians: don't imagine that our latest ideas about the Big Bang or the human genome have solved the mysteries of the universe or the mysteries of life. Here are Bacon's words again: "The subtlety of nature is greater many times over than the subtlety of the senses and understanding". In the last four hundred years, science has fulfilled many of Bacon's dreams, but it still does not come close to capturing the full subtlety of nature.
  • To talk about the end of science is just as foolish as to talk about the end of religion. Science and religion are both still close to their beginnings, with no ends in sight. Science and religion are both destined to grow and change in the millennia that lie ahead of us, perhaps solving some old mysteries, certainly discovering new mysteries of which we yet have no inkling.
  • After sketching his program for the scientific revolution that he foresaw, Bacon ends his account with a prayer: "Humbly we pray that this mind may be steadfast in us, and that through these our hands, and the hands of others to whom thou shalt give the same spirit, thou wilt vouchsafe to endow the human family with new mercies". That is still a good prayer for all of us as we begin the twenty-first century.
  • Science and religion are two windows that people look through, trying to understand the big universe outside, trying to understand why we are here. The two windows give different views, but they look out at the same universe. Both views are one-sided, neither is complete. Both leave out essential features of the real world. And both are worthy of respect.
  • Trouble arises when either science or religion claims universal jurisdiction, when either religious dogma or scientific dogma claims to be infallible. Religious creationists and scientific materialists are equally dogmatic and insensitive. By their arrogance they bring both science and religion into disrepute. The media exaggerate their numbers and importance. The media rarely mention the fact that the great majority of religious people belong to moderate denominations that treat science with respect, or the fact that the great majority of scientists treat religion with respect so long as religion does not claim jurisdiction over scientific questions.
  • In the little town of Princeton where I live, we have more than twenty churches and at least one synagogue, providing different forms of worship and belief for different kinds of people. They do more than any other organizations in the town to hold the community together. Within this community of people, held together by religious traditions of human brotherhood and sharing of burdens, a smaller community of professional scientists also flourishes.
  • The great question for our time is, how to make sure that the continuing scientific revolution brings benefits to everybody rather than widening the gap between rich and poor. To lift up poor countries, and poor people in rich countries, from poverty, to give them a chance of a decent life, technology is not enough. Technology must be guided and driven by ethics if it is to do more than provide new toys for the rich.
  • Scientists and business leaders who care about social justice should join forces with environmental and religious organizations to give political clout to ethics. Science and religion should work together to abolish the gross inequalities that prevail in the modern world. That is my vision, and it is the same vision that inspired Francis Bacon four hundred years ago, when he prayed that through science God would "endow the human family with new mercies".

Global warming

  • My first heresy says that all the fuss about global warming is grossly exaggerated. Here I am opposing the holy brotherhood of climate model experts and the crowd of deluded citizens who believe the numbers predicted by the computer models. Of course, they say, I have no degree in meteorology and I am therefore not qualified to speak. But I have studied the climate models and I know what they can do. The models solve the equations of fluid dynamics, and they do a very good job of describing the fluid motions of the atmosphere and the oceans. They do a very poor job of describing the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields and farms and forests. They do not begin to describe the real world that we live in. The real world is muddy and messy and full of things that we do not yet understand. It is much easier for a scientist to sit in an air-conditioned building and run computer models, than to put on winter clothes and measure what is really happening outside in the swamps and the clouds. That is why the climate model experts end up believing their own models.
  • I believe global warming is grossly exaggerated as a problem. It's a real problem, but it's nothing like as serious as people are led to believe. The idea that global warming is the most important problem facing the world is total nonsense and is doing a lot of harm. It distracts people's attention from much more serious problems.
    • Salon Magazine interview, September 29, 2007.
  • All the books that I have seen about the science and the economics of global warming, including the two books under review, miss the main point. The main point is religious rather than scientific. There is a worldwide secular religion which we may call environmentalism, holding that we are stewards of the earth, that despoiling the planet with waste products of our luxurious living is a sin, and that the path of righteousness is to live as frugally as possible. [...] Environmentalism has replaced socialism as the leading secular religion.
    • NY Review of Books, June 12, 2008

Quotes of others about Dyson

  • You'll have received an application from Mr Freeman Dyson to come to work with you as a graduate student. I hope that you will accept him. Although he is only 23 he is in my view the best mathematician in England.
  • Mr Dyson is absolutely unusual in his ability and accomplishments. I can say without reservation that he is the best I have ever had or observed.

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