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On becoming a writer


'God appears to be a mathematician'
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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I find it a miracle. I mean, I don't pretend to understand it and I think it is absolutely marvellous that nature somehow thinks like a mathematician, that was what James Jeans said that... that God appears to be a mathematician. And it is astonishing that somehow all these weird mathematical ideas which we have invented for purely aesthetic reasons, essentially just as works of art, as intellectual constructions, turn up then unexpectedly to be used in nature. There're so many examples of this, of course. Of course the classic case was differential geometry which was invented by Gauss for very practical purposes, just for projecting maps from the spherical earth onto a plane, onto a piece of paper, so he invented this differential geometry as a way of representing curved surfaces on a flat plane. And then 50 years later Riemann applied that to a description of space and conjectured that space itself might actually be curved, but it was still sort of purely an intellectual hypothesis without any kind of physical basis. And then another 50 years later it turned out to be the essential tool for Einstein to understand gravitation. It is in fact what Einstein used for general relativity. So it's built... it's built deep into the structure of space-time. It's a miracle how that happened. So Gauss had developed this tool for totally other reasons. And that's happened again and again. Of course Lee invented Lee groups to understand classical dynamics, and it turned out to be, 100 years later, exactly what you need to describe particles, and I don't know why, but... so the world has deeply built into it these mathematical structures and there seems to be a kind of rule that anything mathematicians can invent, God somehow can use. So we hope that's also true of the Riemann hypothesis. We haven't yet found the Riemann hypothesis verified in nature, but maybe we will one day.

Freeman Dyson (1923-2020), who was born in England, 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 published several books and, among other honours, was 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: Lie Groups, Riemann hypothesis, Sophus Lie, Carl Friedrich Gauss, Bernhard Riemann, Albert Einstein

Duration: 2 minutes, 36 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008