Freeman Dyson

Freeman Dyson

Born Freeman John Dyson
(1923-12-15) 15 December 1923
Crowthorne, Berkshire, England
Nationality British-American
Fields Physics, Mathematics
Alma mater
Academic advisors Hans Bethe
Known for
Influences Richard Feynman,[2][3] Abram Samoilovitch Besicovitch[4]
Notable awards
Spouse Verena Huber-Dyson (19501958)
Children Esther Dyson, George Dyson, Dorothy Dyson, Mia Dyson, Rebecca Dyson, Emily Dyson
He is the son of George Dyson.

Freeman John Dyson FRS (born 15 December 1923) is an English-born American theoretical physicist and mathematician, known for his work in quantum electrodynamics, solid-state physics, astronomy and nuclear engineering.[6][7] He is professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, a Visitor of Ralston College,[8] and a member of the Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.[9]


Early life

Born on 15 December 1923, at Crowthorne in Berkshire, Dyson is the son of the English composer George Dyson, who was later knighted. His mother had a law degree, and after Dyson was born she worked as a social worker.[10] Although not known to be related to the early 20th-century astronomer Frank Watson Dyson, as a small boy Dyson was aware of him and has credited the popularity of an astronomer sharing his surname with helping to spark his own interest in science.[11] At the age of five he calculated the number of atoms in the sun.[12] As a child, he showed an interest in large numbers and in the solar system, and was strongly influenced by the book Men of Mathematics by Eric Temple Bell.[2] Politically, Dyson says he was "brought up as a socialist".[13]

From 1936 to 1941, Dyson was a Scholar at Winchester College, where his father was Director of Music. On 25 July 1943, he entered the Operational Research Section (ORS) of the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command,[14] where he developed analytical methods to help the Royal Air Force bomb German targets during the Second World War.[15] After the war, Dyson was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge,[16] where he obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics.[17] From 1946 to 1949, he was a Fellow of his college, occupying rooms just below those of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who resigned his professorship in 1947.[18] In 1947, he published two papers in number theory.[19][20]

Career in the United States

In 1947, Dyson moved to the United States as a Commonwealth Fellow to earn a physics doctorate with Hans Bethe at Cornell University (194748).[21] Within a week, however, he had made the acquaintance of Richard Feynman.[22] The budding English physicist recognized the brilliance of the flamboyant American, and attached himself as quickly as possible. He then moved to the Institute for Advanced Study (194849), before returning to England (1949–51), where he was a teaching fellow at the University of Birmingham.[23] Dyson never got his PhD.

In 1949, Dyson demonstrated the equivalence of two then-current formulations of quantum electrodynamics (QED): Richard Feynman's diagrams and the operator method developed by Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga.[24] He was the first person after their creator to appreciate the power of Feynman diagrams, and his paper written in 1948 and published in 1949 was the first to make use of them. He said in that paper that Feynman diagrams were not just a computational tool, but a physical theory, and developed rules for the diagrams that completely solved the renormalization problem. Dyson's paper and also his lectures presented Feynman's theories of QED in a form that other physicists could understand, facilitating the physics community's acceptance of Feynman's work. Robert Oppenheimer, in particular, was persuaded by Dyson that Feynman's new theory was as valid as Schwinger's and Tomonaga's. Oppenheimer rewarded Dyson with a lifetime appointment at the Institute for Advanced Study, "for proving me wrong", in Oppenheimer's words.[25]

Also in 1949, in related work, Dyson invented the Dyson series.[26] It was this paper that inspired John Ward to derive his celebrated Ward identity.[27]

In 1951, Dyson joined the faculty at Cornell as a physics professor, although still lacking a doctorate, and in 1953, he received a permanent post at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he has now lived for more than fifty years.[28] In 1957, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States and renounced his British nationality. One reason he gave decades later is that his children born in the US had not been recognized as British subjects.[6][7]

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 the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (which Dyson was involved in and supported) permitted only underground nuclear testing, so the project was 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 medical isotopes.

A seminal paper by Dyson came in 1966, when, together with Andrew 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.[29][30][31] Hence, it is not the electromagnetic repulsion between outer-shell orbital electrons which prevents two wood blocks that are left on top of each other from 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 analysed the phase transition of the Ising model in 1 dimension and spin waves.[32]

Dyson also did work in a variety of topics in mathematics, such as topology, analysis, number theory and random matrices.[32] There is an interesting story involving random matrices. In 1973, the number theorist Hugh Montgomery was visiting the Institute for Advanced Study and had just made his pair correlation conjecture concerning the distribution of the zeros of the Riemann zeta function. He showed his formula to the mathematician Atle Selberg who said it looked like something in mathematical physics and he should show it to Dyson, which he did. Dyson recognized the formula as the pair correlation function of the Gaussian unitary ensemble, which has been extensively studied by physicists. This suggested that there might be an unexpected connection between the distribution of primes 2,3,5,7,11, ... and the energy levels in the nuclei of heavy elements such as uranium.[33]

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. Also during the 1970s, he worked on climate studies conducted by the JASON defense advisory group.[28]

Dyson retired from the Institute for Advanced Study in 1994.[34] In 1998, Dyson joined the board of the Solar Electric Light Fund. As of 2003 he was president of the Space Studies Institute, the space research organization founded by Gerard K. O'Neill; As of 2013 he is on its Board of Trustees.[35] Dyson is a long-time member of the JASON group.

Dyson has won numerous scientific awards but never a Nobel Prize. Nobel physics laureate Steven Weinberg has said that the Nobel committee has "fleeced" Dyson, but Dyson himself remarked in 2009, "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 ten years. That wasn't my style."[28] Dyson is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books.

In 2012, he published (with William H. Press) a fundamental new result about the Prisoner's Dilemma in PNAS.[36]

Marriages and children

With his first wife, the Swiss mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson, Dyson had two children, Esther and George. In 1958, he married Imme Jung, a masters runner, and they eventually had four more children, Dorothy, Mia, Rebecca, and Emily Dyson.[28]

Dyson's eldest daughter, Esther, is a digital technology consultant and investor; she has been called "the most influential woman in all the computer world."[37] His son George is a historian of science,[38] one of whose books is Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957–1965.


Friends and colleagues describe Dyson 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", 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."[28] In The God Delusion (2006), biologist Richard Dawkins criticized Dyson for accepting the religious Templeton Prize in 2000; "It would be taken as an endorsement of religion by one of the world's most distinguished physicists."[39] However, Dyson declared in 2000 that he is a (non-denominational) Christian,[40] and he has disagreed with Dawkins on several occasions, as when he criticized Dawkins' understanding of evolution.[41]

Honors and awards

Dyson was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1952.[5]

Dyson was awarded the Lorentz Medal in 1966, Max Planck Medal in 1969, the J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Prize in 1970,[42][43] and the Harvey Prize in 1977.

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 1993, Dyson was given the Enrico Fermi Award.

In 1995, he gave the Jerusalem-Harvard Lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, sponsored jointly by the Hebrew University and Harvard University Press that grew into the book Imagined Worlds.[44]

In 2000, Dyson was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.[45]

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

In 2011, Dyson was received as one of twenty distinguished Old Wykehamists at the Ad Portas celebration, the highest honour that Winchester College bestows.


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 civilization.[46]

Dyson cheerfully admits his record as a prophet is mixed, but "it is better to be wrong than to be vague."[47]

"To answer the world's material needs, technology has to be not only beautiful but also cheap."[48]

The Origin of Life

Dyson favors the dual origin concept: Life first formed cells, then enzymes, and finally, much later, genes. This was first propounded by the Russian Alexander Oparin.[49] J. B. S. Haldane developed the same theory independently.[50] Dyson has simplified things by saying simply that life evolved in two stages, widely separated in time. He regards it as too unlikely that genes could have developed fully blown in one process, because of the biochemistry. He proposes that in a primitive early cell containing ATP and AMP, DNA was invented accidentally because of the similarity of the two. Current cells contain adenosine triphosphate or ATP and adenosine 5'-monophosphate or AMP, which greatly resemble each other but have completely different functions. ATP transports energy around the cell, and AMP is part of RNA and the genetic apparatus. Dyson proposes that in a primitive early cell containing ATP and AMP, RNA and replication were invented accidentally because of the similarity of the two. He suggests that AMP was produced when ATP molecules lost two of their phosphate radicals, and then one cell somewhere performed Eigen's experiment and produced RNA.

Unfortunately there is no direct evidence for the dual origin concept, because once genes developed, they took over, obliterating all traces of the earlier forms of life. In the first origin, the cells were probably just drops of water held together by surface tension, teeming with enzymes and chemical reactions, and a primitive kind of growth or replication. When the liquid drop became too big, it split into two drops. Many complex molecules formed in these "little city economies" and the probability that genes would eventually develop in them was much greater than in the prebiotic environment.[51]

Dyson sphere

Artist's concept of Dyson rings, forming a stable Dyson swarm, or "Dyson sphere"
Main article: 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.[52]

In 1960, Dyson wrote a short paper for the journal Science, entitled "Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation".[53] 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.[54] The general concept of such an energy-transferring shell had been advanced decades earlier by author Olaf Stapledon in his 1937 novel Star Maker, a source that Dyson has credited publicly.[55][56]

Dyson tree

Main article: 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.[57]

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, $143,254 in 2013 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.[52]

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.[52]

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.[57]

Dyson also proposed the use of bioengineered space colonies to colonize the Kuiper Belt on the outer edge of our Solar System. He proposed that habitats could be grown from space hardened spores. The colonies could then be warmed by large reflector plant leaves that could focus the dim, distant sunlight back on the growing colony. This was illustrated by Pat Rawlings on the cover of the National Space Society's Ad Astra magazine.

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.

Freeze-dried fish orbiting Jupiter is a fanciful notion, but nature in the biological realm has a tendency to be fanciful. Nature is usually more imaginative than we are. [...] To have the best chance of success, we should keep our eyes open for all possibilities.[57]

Dyson's transform

Main article: 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 an entity of basic importance in the mathematical formulation of quantum mechanics, are also named after Dyson.

Freeman Dyson in 2007 at the Institute for Advanced Study

Quantum physics and prime numbers

Dyson and Hugh Montgomery discovered together an intriguing connection between quantum physics and Montgomery's pair correlation conjecture about the zeros of the Zeta function. The primes 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19, ... are described by the Riemann Zeta function, and Dyson had previously developed a description of quantum physics based on m by m arrays of totally random numbers.[58] What Montgomery and Dyson discovered is that the eigenvalues of these matrices are spaced apart in exactly the same manner as Montgomery conjectured for the nontrivial zeros of the Zeta function. Andrew Odlyzko has verified the conjecture on a computer, using his Odlyzko–Schönhage algorithm to calculate many zeros. Dyson recognized this connection because of a number-theory question Montgomery asked him. Dyson had published results in number theory in 1947, while a Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge and so was able to understand Montgomery's question. If Montgomery had not been visiting the Institute for Advanced Study that week, this connection might not have been discovered. There are in nature one, two, and three dimensional quasicrystals. Mathematicians define a quasicrystal as a set of discrete points whose Fourier transform is also a set of discrete points. Andrew Odlyzko has done extensive computations of the Fourier transform of the nontrivial zeros of the Riemann Zeta function, and they seem to form a one dimensional quasicrystal. This would in fact follow from the Riemann hypothesis.[59]



Dyson has suggested a kind of cosmic metaphysics of mind. In his book Infinite in All Directions he writes about three levels of mind: "The universe shows evidence of the operations of mind on three levels. The first level is the level of elementary physical processes in quantum mechanics. Matter in quantum mechanics is [...] constantly making choices between alternative possibilities according to probabilistic laws. [...] The second level at which we detect the operations of mind is the level of direct human experience. [...] [I]t is reasonable to believe in the existence of a third level of mind, a mental component of the universe. If we believe in this mental component and call it God, then we can say that we are small pieces of God's mental apparatus" (p. 297).

Climate change

Dyson agrees that anthropogenic global warming exists, and has written that "[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."[60] However, he believes 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 ...[60]

and, in 2009:

What has happened in the past 10 years is that the discrepancies between what's observed and what's predicted have become much stronger. It's clear now the models are wrong, but it wasn't so clear 10 years ago.[61]

He is among signatories of a letter to the UN criticizing the IPCC[62][63] and has also argued against ostracizing 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. "[H]eretics who question the dogmas are needed ... I am proud to be a heretic. The world always needs heretics to challenge the prevailing orthodoxies."[60]

Dyson says his views on global warming have been strongly criticized. In reply, he notes that "[m]y 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."[64]

In 2008, he endorsed the now common usage of "global warming" as synonymous with global anthropogenic climate change, referring to "measurements that transformed global warming from a vague theoretical speculation into a precise observational science."[65]

He has, however, 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.[66]

In an opinion piece in the Boston Globe of 3 Dec 2015 he writes,"The good news is that the main effect of carbon dioxide on the ecology of the planet has nothing to do with climate. The main effect of carbon dioxide is to make the planet greener, feeding the growth of green plants of all kinds, increasing the fertility of farms and fields and forests."[67]

Since originally taking interest in climate studies in the 1970s, Dyson has suggested that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere could be controlled by planting fast-growing trees. He calculates that it would take a trillion trees to remove all carbon from the atmosphere.[68][69]

In a 2014 interview, he said that "What I'm convinced of is that we don't understand climate ... It will take a lot of very hard work before that question is settled."[2]

Nuclear winter

From his 1988 book Infinite in All Directions, he offered some criticism of then current models predicting a devastating nuclear winter in the event of a large-scale nuclear war:

As a scientist I want to rip the theory of nuclear winter apart, but as a human being I want to believe it. This is one of the rare instances of a genuine conflict between the demands of science and the demands of humanity. As a scientist, I judge the nuclear winter theory to be a sloppy piece of work, full of gaps and unjustified assumptions. As a human being, I hope fervently that it is right. Here is a real and uncomfortable dilemma. What does a scientist do when science and humanity pull in opposite directions?[70]

Warfare and weapons

At the British Bomber Command, Dyson and colleagues proposed ripping out two gun turrets from the RAF Lancaster bombers, to cut the catastrophic losses due 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.[71]

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].[72]
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.[73]

In 1967, in his capacity as a military adviser Dyson wrote an influential paper on the issue of possible US use of tactical nuclear weapons in the Vietnam War. When a general said in a meeting, "I think it might be a good idea to throw in a nuke now and then, just to keep the other side guessing..."[74] Dyson became alarmed and obtained permission to write an objective report discussing the pros and cons of using such weapons from a purely military point of view. (This report, Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia, published by the Institute for Defense Analyses, was obtained, with some redactions, by the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainability under the Freedom of Information act in 2002.)[75] It was sufficiently objective that both sides in the debate based their arguments on it. Dyson says that the report showed that, even from a narrow military point of view, the US was better off not using nuclear weapons. Dyson stated on the Dick Cavett show that the use of nuclear weaponry was a bad idea for the US at the time because "our targets were large and theirs were small." (His unstated assumption was that the Soviets would respond by supplying tactical nukes to the other side.)

Dyson opposed the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq. He supported Barack Obama in the 2008 US presidential election and The New York Times has described him as a political liberal.[28] He was one of 29 leading US scientists who wrote a strongly supportive letter to Obama regarding his administration's 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.[76]

Civil Defense

While teaching for a few weeks in Zurich, Dyson was visited by two officials from the Swiss civil defense authority. Their experts were telling them that fairly simple shelters on a large scale would enable them to survive a nuclear attack, and they wanted confirmation. They knew that Dyson had a security clearance. Dyson reassured them that their shelters would do the job. The US does not build such shelters because it would be contrary to the doctrine of mutual assured destruction, since the US would be able to launch a first strike but survive retaliation.[77]

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.[78]

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.[79]

Science and religion

He is a nondenominational 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."[80]

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.[80]

Dyson partially disagrees with the famous remark by his fellow physicist Steven Weinberg that "With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion."[81]

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 [also] 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.[81]

While Dyson has labeled himself a Christian, he identifies himself as agnostic about some of the specifics of his faith.[82][83] For example, here is a passage from Dyson's review of The God of Hope and the End of the World from John Polkinghorne:

I am myself a Christian, a member of a community that preserves an ancient heritage of great literature and great music, provides help and counsel to young and old when they are in trouble, educates children in moral responsibility, and worships God in its own fashion. But I find Polkinghorne’s theology altogether too narrow for my taste. I have no use for a theology that claims to know the answers to deep questions but bases its arguments on the beliefs of a single tribe. I am a practicing Christian but not a believing Christian. To me, to worship God means to recognize that mind and intelligence are woven into the fabric of our universe in a way that altogether surpasses our comprehension.[84]


External video
Freeman Dyson: Let's look for life in the outer solar system, TED Talks, February 2003
Freeman Dyson 1 - My middle class upbringing, Web of Stories (1st of a series)
Big Ideas: Freeman Dyson on Living Through Four Revolutions, TVO, 1 June 2011 at Perimeter Institute, Waterloo, Canada

In popular culture

The fictional character Gordon Freeman from the Half-Life video game series is named after Freeman Dyson.

A Dyson sphere was a significant plot device in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Relics".

A "Freeman Dyson Planetary Spin Motor" was used in The Long Utopia, the fourth book in the Long Earth series, to destroy a planet.

Larry Niven's classic 1970 sci-fi novel "Ringworld" was inspired by Freeman Dyson and his theory of Dyson spheres (see chapter 8, "Ringworld"). In it, Dyson is described as "one of the ancient natural philosophers".

See also

Further reading

Notable articles by Dyson

Books about Dyson



  1. Dyson, Freeman. "Alma Mater". Web of Stories.
  2. 1 2 3 Lin, Thomas (2014-03-31). "At 90, Freeman Dyson Ponders His Next Challenge". Wired. Retrieved 2014-04-02.
  3. FREEMAN DYSON | School of Natural Sciences
  4. Dyson, Freeman. "Influences".
  5. 1 2 "Professor Freeman Dyson FRS". London: Royal Society. Archived from the original on 2015-11-16.
  6. 1 2 "Scientist wins $1m religion prize". BBC News. 9 May 2000. Retrieved 2010-05-02.
  7. 1 2 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."
  8. "Ralston College". Retrieved January 30, 2016.
  9. Board of Sponsors | Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists Archived 20 April 2009 at the Wayback Machine.. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Retrieved 7 January 2013.
  10. "The Scientist as Rebel". Archived from the original on 27 September 2007. Retrieved 2007-11-17.. Wild River Review Interview by Joy E. Stocke
  11. Freeman Dyson. From Eros to Gaia 1992 p.vii
  12. "Greatest Mysteries of the Cold War: America's Interplanetary Spaceship (Project Orion)". BBC Four.
  13. Ghodsee, Kristen (2015). The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. p. 5. ISBN 978-0-822-35823-7.
  14. Dyson, Freeman (1 November 2006). "A Failure of Intelligence". MIT Technology Review Magazine. MIT Technology Review. Retrieved 20 October 2013. Prominent physicist Freeman Dyson recalls the time he spent developing analytical methods to help the British Royal Air Force bomb German targets during World War II.
  15. "A Failure of Intelligence", Essay in Technology Review (November–December 2006)
  16. Fractals in Physics: Essays in Honour of Benoit B. Mandelbrot : Proceedings of the International Conference Honouring Benoit B. Mandelbrot on His 65th Birthday, Vence, France, 1–4 October 1989, p. 66
  17. "Freeman Dyson". Institute for Advanced Study, School of Natural Sciences. Princeton University. Retrieved 15 April 2014.
  18. Dyson, F., "What Can You Really Know", New York Review of Books (10 Nov 2011)
  19. "The Approximation to Algebraic Numbers by Rationals," Acta Mathematica (Uppsala), 89, 1947, pp. 225–240.
  20. "On Simultaneous Diophantine Approximations," Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society, Series 2, 49, 1947, pp. 409–420.
  21. Schweber, Silvan S. (1994). QED and the Men Who Made It. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. pp. 392ff.
  22. "Freeman Dyson: A 'Rebel' Without a Ph.D.". Quanta Magazine. 11 June 2015. Event at 1:17. Retrieved 20 January 2016.
  23. "Freeman Dyson". The American Institute of Physics. Retrieved 23 August 2013.
  24. F. J. Dyson (1949). "The radiation theories of Tomonaga, Schwinger, and Feynman". Phys. Rev. 75 (3): 486–502. Bibcode:1949PhRv...75..486D. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.75.486.
  25. Freeman J. Dyson, Disturbing the Universe, 1979
  26. F. J. Dyson (1949). "The S matrix in quantum electrodynamics". Phys. Rev. 75 (11): 1736–1755. Bibcode:1949PhRv...75.1736D. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.75.1736.
  27. J. C. Ward (1950). "An Identity in Quantum Electrodynamics". Phys. Rev. 78 (2): 182. Bibcode:1950PhRv...78..182W. doi:10.1103/PhysRev.78.182.. [Note: this Ward letter opens with "It has been recently proven by Dyson ..."]
  28. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Dawidoff, Nicholas. The Civil Heretic. The New York Times. 25 March 2009
  29. F. J. Dyson, A. Lenard (1967). "Stability of Matter. I". J. Math. Phys. 8 (3): 423–434. Bibcode:1967JMP.....8..423D. doi:10.1063/1.1705209.
  30. F. J. Dyson, A. Lenard (1968). "Stability of Matter. II". J. Math. Phys. 9 (5): 698–711. Bibcode:1968JMP.....9..698L. doi:10.1063/1.1664631.
  31. E. H. Lieb, W. Thirring (1975). "Bound for the Kinetic Energy of Fermions Which Proves the Stability of Matter". Phys. Rev. Lett. 35 (11): 687–689. Bibcode:1975PhRvL..35..687L. doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.35.687.
  32. 1 2 F. J. Dyson, E. H. Lieb, Selected papers by Freeman Dyson, AMS (1996).
  33. John Derbyshire, Prime Obsession, 2004, ISBN 0309085497.
  34. "InterViews Freeman Dyson". National Academy of Sciences. 2004-07-23. Retrieved 2011-12-19.
  35. "Officers and Board". Space Studies Institute. Retrieved 6 January 2013.
  36. "Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma contains strategies that dominate any evolutionary opponent". William H. Press and Freeman Dyson. PNAS vol. 109 no. 26 pp 0409–10413
  38. See excerpt from Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite by John Brockman (HardWired Books, 1996)
  39. Dawkins, Richard (2006). The God Delusion. Bantam Press. p. 152. ISBN 0618680004.
  40. Progress In Religion, (2000-05-16). Retrieved on 2014-11-18.
  41. "Richard Dawkins—Freeman Dyson: an exchange". 2007. Retrieved 21 October 2015.
  42. Walter, Claire (1982). Winners, the blue ribbon encyclopedia of awards. Facts on File Inc. p. 438. ISBN 9780871963864.
  43. "Theoreticians Name Dyson As Winner of Oppenheimer Prize". Physics Today. American Institute of Physics. 23: 97. March 1970. Bibcode:1970PhT....23c..97.. doi:10.1063/1.3022048. Retrieved 1 March 2015.
  44. Dyson, Freeman (September 1998). Imagined Worlds. The Jerusalem-Harvard Lectures. HUP. p. 224. ISBN 9780674539099.
  45. "£600,000 prize for physicist who urges ethics in science". The Independent. August 16, 2013. Retrieved October 15, 2015.
  46. Our Bio tech Future. Retrieved on 2011-10-07.
  47. Dyson, 1999, The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet
  48. Dyson, FJ, "The Greening of the Galaxy" in Disturbing the Universe, 1979
  49. Oparin, A. I. The Origin of Life, Moscow Worker publisher, 1924 (Russian)
  50. The Origin of Life, J.B.S.Haldane, The Rationalist Annual, 1929
  51. Freeman Dyson, Origins of Life,,. Second Edition, Cambridge University Press, 1999
  52. 1 2 3 "Interview by Monte Davis, October 1978". Archived from the original on 7 December 1998. Retrieved 2006-12-17.. Retrieved on 2011-10-07.
  53. Dyson, Freeman J. (3 June 1960). "Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation". Science. 131 (3414): 1667–1668. Bibcode:1960Sci...131.1667D. doi:10.1126/science.131.3414.1667. PMID 17780673.
  54. 20 minutes into a video
  55. Dyson, Freeman (2011-06-01). Living Through Four Revolutions (Speech). Perimeter Institute Public Lecture Series. Waterloo, Ontario Canada.
  56. Dyson, Freeman (1979). Disturbing the Universe. Basic Books. p. 211. ISBN 0-465-01677-4. Some science fiction writers have wrongly given me the credit of inventing the artificial biosphere. In fact, I took the idea from Olaf Stapledon, one of their own colleagues
  57. 1 2 3 Dyson, FJ, "Warm-blooded plants and freeze-dried fish: the future of space exploration. Played" The Atlantic Monthly, November 1997 Subscribers only
  58. Dyson, Freeman J. (1962). "A Brownian?Motion Model for the Eigenvalues of a Random Matrix". J. Math. Phys. 3: 1191. Bibcode:1962JMP.....3.1191D. doi:10.1063/1.1703862.
  59. Freeman Dyson, Selected papers, 1990-2014, pp. 41–42, World Scientific, 2015
  60. 1 2 3 Freeman Dyson (8 August 2007). "Heretical Thoughts about Science and Society". Edge. Retrieved 2007-09-05.dl
  61. "Top boffin Freeman Dyson on climate change, interstellar travel, fusion, and more", interview published 2 June 2009 by The Register
  62. "Don't fight, adapt". Retrieved 19 August 2016.. Open Letter to the Secretary-General of the United Nations. National Post. 13 December 2007
  63. Wiggles, Open Mind, 16 December 2007 Archived 17 December 2009 at the Wayback Machine.
  64. "Freeman Dyson Takes On The Climate Establishment", interview published 2 June 2009 by Yale University's Environment 360
  65. Dyson in The New York Review of Book, 12 June 2008. (2008-06-12). Retrieved on 2011-10-07.
  66. "University of Michigan 2005 Winter Commencement Address". University of Michigan. Archived from the original on 31 August 2006.
  67. Dyson, Freeman (3 Dec 2015). "Misunderstandings, questionable beliefs mar Paris climate talks". Boston Globe. Boston Globe. Retrieved 7 December 2015.
  68. Freeman J. Dyson, "Can we control the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?", Energy, Volume 2, Issue 3, September 1977, Pages 287–291. doi:10.1016/0360-5442(77)90033-0
  69. Dawidoff, Nicholas (2009-03-29). "The Civil Heretic". The New York Times.
  70. Freeman J. Dyson (22 July 2004). Infinite in All Directions: Gifford Lectures Given at Aberdeen, Scotland April—November 1985. HarperCollins. pp. 259–. ISBN 978-0-06-072889-2. Retrieved 8 October 2011.
  71. F.J. Dyson, "The Children's Crusade" in Disturbing the Universe, 1979
  72. F.J. Dyson, "The Blood of a Poet" in Disturbing the Universe, 1979
  73. F.J. Dyson, Weapons and Hope, 1984
  74. Dyson, Freeman, Disturbing the Universe, Chapter 13, The Ethics of Defense, p.149, Basic Books, 1979,
  75. Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia, published March 1967 (declassified December 2002)
  76. Broad, William J. (8 August 2015). "29 U.S. Scientists Praise Iran Nuclear Deal in Letter to Obama". Retrieved 9 August 2015.
  77. Weapons and Hope, Chapter 8, Shelters, Freeman Dyson, Harper Collins, (Reprinted 1985)
  78. Interview by Stewart Brand, February 1998. (2009-01-04). Retrieved on January 07, 2013.
  79. Benny Peiser (14 March 2007). "The Scientist as a Rebel: An interview with Freeman Dyson". CCNet. Retrieved 2007-07-03.
  80. 1 2 Templeton Prize Lecture. (2000-05-16). Retrieved on 2011-10-07.
  81. 1 2 NYRB 22 June 2006. Retrieved on 2011-10-07.
  82. Moses Gbenu. Back to Hell. Xulon Press. p. 110. ISBN 9781591608158. Retrieved 15 February 2014. The cash part of this award is over $1 million. Three facts are significant about this award. First, the same award was given to an agnostic Mathematician Freeman Dyson, the Buddhist Dalai Lama, Mother Theresa, and Charles R. Filmore, son of the founder of the mind-science cult, Unity.
  83. Karl Giberson, Donald A. Yerxa (2002). Species of Origins: America's Search for a Creation Story. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 141. ISBN 9780742507654. Retrieved 15 February 2014. Dyson is not a hard-nosed materialist and, in fact, criticizes his colleagues who champion that viewpoint. Officially, he calls himself an agnostic, but his writings make it clear that his agnosticism is tinged with something akin to deism.
  84. Freeman Dyson. "Science & Religion: No Ends in Sight". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 30 July 2012.
  85. Freeman Dyson, "By the Book", New York Times Sunday Book Review, April 16, 2015.
  86. Dyson, Freeman (February 2009). "Birds and Frogs" (PDF). Notices of the American Mathematical Society. Providence, RI, US: American Mathematical Society. 56 (2): 212–223. ISSN 1088-9477. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2011-03-04. Retrieved 2015-04-23.

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