Dyson’s brilliance shone through in his formal work and his grand speculationsby Philip Ball / March 4, 2020 / Leave a comment
When the physicist Freeman Dyson died on 28th February, it suddenly seemed that everyone had a Dyson story to tell. That alone was a testament to both the extraordinary vigour he showed well into his ninth decade, and to his passion for intellectual engagement. My own Dyson story doesn’t reveal any great insight into his mind or character, but it certainly showcases those two attributes of vitality and curiosity. For he was in his 80s when I met him at a conference on synthetic biology (see my report in Prospect, August 2007) in a remote town in Greenland, and he was as keen as the rest of us to take a boat trip around the icebergs under the midnight sun.
These stories also testify to Dyson’s brilliance: if you met him, you didn’t forget it. He was one of the last remaining links to the truly legendary figures of 20th-century physics. He worked alongside Albert Einstein at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where its first director J Robert Oppenheimer appointed Dyson as a visiting member in 1948. Dyson collaborated with Richard Feynman, and the two were good friends. He knew all the giants from the Manhattan Project era, such as Hans Bethe and Edward Teller, although he was also a lifelong opponent of nuclear arms.
Dyson was born in Berkshire to a prosperous family, and was educated at Winchester College, where his father, a composer, was the music instructor. His precocious mathematical talent saw him working on calculations for the Royal Air Force Bomber Command during the war while reading mathematics at Cambridge. In 1947 he went to Cornell University as a graduate student in the physics department headed by Bethe, and he made his career in the United States ever after, becoming a US citizen in 1957.
Much has rightly been made, in the obituaries, of Dyson’s fertile imagination. He speculated about advanced alien civilisations that might construct gigantic structures around their sun to harness most of its energy. The discovery in 2015 of strange, irregular dimming of a star 1500 light years away, as if it was being partly occluded by some unknown obstacle, led to excited and inevitably inconclusive discussion about whether we had found such a “Dyson sphere” (or more properly, a cloud of solar collectors called a…