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'God appears to be a mathematician'


Early work on Ramanujan and the continued relevance of mathematics
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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My first piece of real research was in number theory, directly inspired by Ramanujan, who was this Indian genius who lived in the early 20th century and died in 1921. And, so he had left open a lot of conjectures and I found some fresh conjectures very much in the Ramanujan style and I published those in the student magazine at Cambridge called Eureka. And so that was the earliest work I ever did, and the beautiful thing was that one of these conjectures called the crank conjecture was actually proved 45 years later and that's... so I was very delighted I lived long enough to see this conjecture proved; it was done by... by Frank Garvan who is a young Australian. And so that subject is still very alive, and in fact the whole subject of what I call 'Ramanujanology', which is the sort of number theory in the style of Ramanujan, is now rejuvenated, mostly the result of two people, George Andrews and Bearnt... Bruce Bearnt, two mathematicians who have taken up the systematic exploration of everything Ramanujan conjectured. They've gone through all the notebooks of Ramanujan, proving all the statements that he conjectured, of which there are thousands, so it's been a life work for Andrews and Bruce Bearnt, and so in... and they've attracted a very large number of graduate students over the years so there's now an army of young people involved in this kind of number theory, which is great fun, and of course Frank Garvan is one of them. So the ranks and cranks that I worked on as a student in Cambridge are still very much alive. So that's... that's a big joy for me; it's the beauty of mathematics, as opposed to physics, that it's forever. I published my selected papers recently in one volume, and I found out that when you publish your selected papers most of the physics is ephemeral, that you don't want to publish stuff that was written 10 or 20 years earlier, but the mathematics is permanent. So essentially everything I've ever published in mathematics is there, whereas only about a quarter of what I published on physics was worth preserving.

Born in England in 1923, Freeman Dyson moved to Cornell University after graduating from Cambridge University with a BA in Mathematics. He subsequently became a professor and worked on nuclear reactors, solid state physics, ferromagnetism, astrophysics and biology. He has published several books and, among other honours, has been awarded the Heineman Prize and the Royal Society's Hughes Medal.

Listeners: Sam Schweber

Silvan Sam Schweber is the Koret Professor of the History of Ideas and Professor of Physics at Brandeis University, and a Faculty Associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is the author of a history of the development of quantum electro mechanics, "QED and the men who made it", and has recently completed a biography of Hans Bethe and the history of nuclear weapons development, "In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist" (Princeton University Press, 2000).

Tags: 1921, Eureka, Cambridge University, Frank Garvan, Srinivasa Ramanujan, Bruce C Berndt, George E Andrews

Duration: 2 minutes, 32 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008