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Shift in priorities from career to global problems


On becoming a writer
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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I was sort of guided by Hardy, my mathematician mentor whom I spoke about earlier. Hardy wrote wonderful textbooks, including this number theory textbook, Introduction to Theory of Numbers and he wrote a wonderful little book called Pure Mathematics which is a sort of compendium of analysis for beginners, so he devoted the latter part of his life to writing these beautiful books. And I once asked him, I was then this young student, and I said, 'Don't you think it's a waste of your time writing these books instead of proving theorems?' And Hardy said simply, 'Young men should prove theorems; old men should write books.' And I think that was good advice. I mean there comes a time in your life when you're not so good any more at proving theorems and you can still write books, so he decided when he was 50 years old, roughly, that he would devote most of his time to writing books, and I have more or less followed his example. It happened accidentally that when I was 50 years old or thereabouts, I was invited by the Sloan Foundation to write an autobiography. It was in a series of autobiographies of scientists that they were bringing out, so they actually funded this, paid me in advance for the book, which became Disturbing the Universe. So I had the incentive to write it and it came at a convenient time of my life, and once I had written that book, of course, I tended to get invited to give lectures and it started a new chapter in my life simply because I was better known and I was known to a much wider public. So I began to have lots of friends in the literary world and to be invited to give talks at universities on more general subjects, and this was something that fitted naturally into my growing old, and not being able to compete with all the bright young people in this building. It was... it's clear today, when I talk with these young kids in the building, they are all in their 20s and they are writing papers faster than I can read them, so it would be stupid for me to try to compete. So I don't, and instead I do the less fashionable things, and in particular then, I do a lot of lecturing and writing. And I find it's my solution of the problem which many other scientists face. You... you solved the problem by changing from being a physicist to becoming a historian; I solved it by changing from being a mathematician to becoming a writer: it's a similar decision and history is something you can very well do as an old man.

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: Disturbing the Universe, Introduction to Theory of Numbers, Pure Mathematics, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, GH Hardy

Duration: 2 minutes, 52 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008