Maverick Genius: The Pioneering Odyssey of Freeman Dyson

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9780312642358: Maverick Genius: The Pioneering Odyssey of Freeman Dyson

Scientist. Innovator. Rebel.

For decades, Freeman Dyson has been regarded as one of the world's most important thinkers. The Atlantic wrote, "In the range of his genius, Freeman Dyson is heir to Einstein – a visionary who has reshaped thinking in fields from math to astrophysics to medicine, and who has conceived nuclear-propelled spaceships designed to transport human colonists to distance planets." Salon.com says that, "what sets Dyson apart among an elite group of scientists is the conscience and compassion he brings to his work." Now, in this first complete biography of Dyson, author Phillip F. Schewe examines the life of a man whose accomplishments have shaped our world in many ways.

From quantum physics to national defense, from space to biotechnology, Dyson's work has cemented his position as a man whose influence goes far beyond the field of theoretical physics. It even won him the million dollar Templeton prize for his writing about science and religion. Recently, Dyson has made headlines for his controversial views on global warming, and he continues to make waves in the science community to this day.

A colleague of Albert Einstein at Princeton and friends with leading thinkers including Robert Oppenheimer, George F. Kennan, and Richard Feynman, Freeman Dyson is a larger-than-life figure. Many of his colleagues, including Nobelists Steven Weinberg and Frank Wilczek, as well as his wives and his children, Esther and George Dyson, have been interviewed for this book. Maverick Genius, Schewe's definitive biography, paints a compelling and vibrant portrait of a man who has been both praised for his genius and criticized for his unorthodox views.

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About the Author:

PHILLIP F. SCHEWE works at the Joint Quantum Institute at the University of Maryland, where he is director of communication. He has a PhD in physics but has spent most of his career as a writer, chiefly as an explainer and popularizer of science. In addition, he has written numerous plays, which have been performed in New York, Washington, DC, and elsewhere. His previous book, The Grid, a history of the impact of electricity on society, was called by NPR one of the top science books of the year for 2007. He lives in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1. Killing Time
 

Dyson Bombs Berlin
(1923–1945)

Increasingly his thoughts turned to death. Freeman Dyson was sure he would die young. The violence had been breaking out in stages—Spain, Czechoslovakia, and China. Now in 1939 Hitler’s invasion of Poland made it official. Britain was at war.
Every day on the way to class he passed the monument to the young men of his school who had died in the Great War of 1914–1918. Presently it was his turn, and this time it would be worse. Technology had improved, had become more deadly. The aerial bombardment, experts said, would play a larger role.1 His Uncle Oliver, a doctor in charge of the ambulance brigade for London, expected 100,000 fatalities.2
As they approached manhood in the late 1930s, Dyson and his friends needed to rally around a principle. It was fashionable to proclaim Communist sympathies. But Dyson never liked being with the majority. He became a pacifist and despised the warmonger Winston Churchill the way many American teenagers would later despise Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.3 Dyson refused to participate in the standby-officers training program. Training for what? Useless killing. Mahatma Gandhi was his hero. Only peaceful methods could save the world. But time was running out.
LOWER SAXONY
Till then Dyson was having a pretty good life. He had grown up in Winchester, an hour’s train ride southwest of London. Filled with Roman walls, medieval churches, and blocks of Tudor dwellings, the town was a museum. History dwelt down most streets. When the Danes pressed in upon the Saxons in the ninth century, the capital of England transferred temporarily to Winchester. The Gothic cathedral there, the longest in Britain, contains the bones of several kings and of Jane Austen.
The Dyson household was upper-middle-class. His father, George Dyson, was a composer and conductor. His mother, Mildred Dyson, was a lawyer and ran a birth-control clinic. He ran music schools; she helped run a birth control clinic. They had two children, Alice and Freeman. Four servants smoothed difficulties: a cook, housekeeper, gardener, and nursemaid. A cottage on the southern coast near the Isle of Wight provided relief in warm weather. They made trips to Wales and France. The extended family was perfectly suited for a BBC or PBS docudrama: Aunt Dulcibella was one of the first women to pilot an aeroplane. Aunt Margaret was a nurse. Aunt Ruth won an Olympic silver medal in figure skating.4
Freeman’s mother was forty-three at the time of his birth in 1923 and he came to view her more as a grandmother; his sister, Alice, seemed to be the mother. Mildred looked formidable but actually was kind. His father, though friendly, was a bit distant. For George Dyson, little Freeman was something to boast about: reading by the age of four and already doing mathematical puzzles. When the father was at a podium conducting an orchestra, the son could follow along in a musical score.
With piercing eyes and aquiline nose, Freeman looked like a little wizard, and so he was, always doing or saying something clever. At the age of seven he was observed reading one of his father’s books, Arthur Eddington’s Space, Time and Gravitation. The son, who himself would later have professional things to say on these subjects, was drawn to a diagram depicting space along the horizontal axis and time along the vertical. Two additional crossed diagonal lines depicted the trajectory of light shooting forward and backward. These lines served to divide the universe into four quadrants: the “absolute future,” the “absolute past,” and two other parts called merely “elsewhere.” One day, as he was absorbing Eddington, the boy’s nanny asked the youngster the whereabouts of his sister. “Somewhere in the absolute elsewhere,” was his reply. Overhearing this, George sent a description of the encounter to Punch, the humor magazine, which later illustrated the affair in the form of a cartoon.5 The lad was already famous. When shown the cartoon, he didn’t think it was funny.
At the age of eight Freeman was sent a few miles south to board at a school called Twyford. It was a common practice for children of his class to be farmed out like this, but he bitterly resented it. These were the worst years of his life, he later said.6 The headmaster was brutal, and the older boys loved to torture the younger ones. To make matters worse, because of academic overachievement Freeman had been advanced into classes with boys who were much older and bigger. His classmates were severe. The punishment for being smart was sandpaper scraped across skin. His refuge was the school library, where he encountered the adventure stories of Jules Verne and the novels of H. G. Wells.7 Besides serving as a retreat from the unpleasantness outside, these tales helped Freeman visualize the regions of outer space hinted at in Eddington’s diagrams. He began reading the encyclopedia, so his mental inventory extended to the mundane parts of the cosmos also.
Then came Winchester College, one of England’s oldest boarding schools, what in the United States are called prep schools. Winchester School is sometimes deemed to be the best academic school in Britain (at least by those at Winchester itself). And since in the year of his entrance Freeman’s test scores had been at the top of the list, you might argue that he was something like the best schoolboy in Britain. Twyford School, proud of its star student, declared a holiday.8 The distinction and burden of being the smartest guy in the room began here.
He spent the years from 1936 to 1941 at Winchester College. Since his father was head of the music staff, Freeman had really grown up there. He knew the hallways and grassy fields beyond. The central quadrangle and many of the buildings date to the fourteenth century when the institution was founded, and so it looks a lot like Harry Potter’s fictional Hogwarts School. Freeman had earned a “Scholar” designation, which allowed him to eat in a special dining hall where cutlery was laid out—Hogwarts style—on plain wooden tables dating from the 1600s.
Freeman was helped along by an older boy, Frank Thompson. Frank relished poetry as much as he did. Frank loved medieval history, so Freeman did too. Frank studied Russian, so Freeman studied Russian.9 He also studied Latin, which was mandatory, and Greek. He dabbled in biology and considered a possible medical career. Because there was no course in physics, Freeman taught himself this subject using a textbook by Georg Joos. As a protest against compulsory Latin and soccer, he helped organize a science club.10
Where did Freeman obtain his lifelong love of literature? In his chemistry class. Like the Robin Williams character in the movie Dead Poets Society, Freeman’s teacher, Eric James, oddly preferred to recite and passionately discuss poetry with the boys rather than stick to the accepted chemical curriculum.11 Thus, to Freeman’s everlasting delight, Wells’s and Verne’s adventurism was supplemented with the works of William Blake and T. S. Eliot.
Winchester was particularly strong in mathematics under the direction of Clement Durell, and by the end of his stay Freeman was the regular prize winner. Best of the best. He spent his available prize money on math books, occupied his vacations solving math problems, and worshipped math heroes.
Over one Christmas break, at the age of fifteen, he contented himself each day from morning to night with forging through the difficult textbook on differential calculus by Henry Piaggio, solving all 700 problems supplied by the author. Another book catching his fancy happened to be in Russian, so he (by then taking private tutoring in that language) made his own translation. Instead of going outside and playing like other boys, he practiced Russian verbs in order to learn equations, and to make a little money doing translations.12 He piled on additional mathematical tutoring from Daniel Pedoe, a teacher at Southampton University who weekly came up to Winchester.13
For those that have it, an addiction to mathematics can be as difficult to overcome as an addiction to tobacco or alcohol. The logic of mathematics is different from most habits of mind. Few things in life are as pure and self-consistent. To many teenagers life appears messy and hopeless even without the onset of world war around the corner. The chesslike rigor of mathematics kept chaos at bay, at least temporarily.
Freeman’s parents were worried. Mathematics was fine but there are other things in life. The world is a big place. His mother stressed the importance of friendship. Nothing in life is more important, she said, than sympathy for other people. He should keep that in mind.14 She much admired Goethe and commended Goethe’s large outlook on life—he was artist, scientist, diplomat.15 She told him Goethe’s story of Faust, the man who always had his nose in a book. Faust not only became bored with life but was cut off from all human companionship.
She needn’t have worried. Freeman was shy but not a loner. Most boys liked him. His best friend was James Lighthill, who later became prominent in mathematics and aeronautics. They shared a love of advanced mathematics and together worked through the pages of a famous textbook, Cours d’Analyse, by Camille Jordan. They were less enthusiastic about a rival comprehensive classic, the Principia Mathematica, by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, which they felt to be pedantic.16 Freeman went so far as to write notes into the margin commenting upon or even “correcting” the text here and there. These juvenile scratchings were still there when, seventy years later, Dyson was handed the book off the shelf during a tour of Winchester College.17
A tradition at Winchester was the keeping of a logbook, “Chamber Annals,” in which boys could write comments about ...

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