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Rocky relationships with institutions and people


Reflections on my career
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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I think you really can't tell until you're a hundred years dead what you did that was important, and so... I mean, as my son said, it might be the Origin of Life that actually is the most important scientific contribution. I never tried to create a school and I never had graduate students of the conventional sort who sort of carried on my work. Everything I've done has been scattered to the winds and you don't know whether it will sprout. So I think one just has to wait and see and I don't have any strong opinions. I think...

[Q] Can I phrase it slightly differently? What gave you the most satisfaction?

That's very different.

[Q] Yes, yes.

That's a question that's easy to answer because, I mean, the most satisfaction certainly came out of the mathematical beauty of the things that were successful, just on a technical level. The number theory was in a way the most satisfying of all because it was just a work of art and it was something that was perfect in itself.

[Q] And lasting.

And it lasts so that's something that – as Hardy said, it's a work of art that's built with ideas and therefore lasts for ever. That was true, to some extent, of the... the work on random matrices and to lesser extent quantum electrodynamics. That's probably going to be superseded in some respects, but still it had that same quality. So I think that... from a point of view of satisfaction it was just the technical perfection of the mathematics that satisfied me the most. And... to some degree that carries over into the writing. In the things that I've found most satisfying in my writing are particular chapters in the books which became somehow works of art, like the... the chapter about Teller in Disturbing the Universe called The Prelude in E Flat Minor which somehow gave me enormous satisfaction. I mean it was... it was a problem: How do you describe Teller in a way that the public can respond to because... he's known to be an evil character and yet I want to present him sympathetically, how do you do that? And so, I... I mean the way I found to do it was the piano. The piano was the sort of the metaphor which would make Teller into a human being and... and I think it worked. So I started out with the Prelude in E flat Minor, and that's how I introduced him, so that was very satisfying to me. And there... that's the book that gave me the most satisfaction because I took longer to write it, it was written with greater care than the later ones, and... and of course the ending where I have a dream of the baby on the throne is a similar thing. I mean it may be too sentimental, but still I liked it.

[Q] If I were to pursue that particular metaphor would I be interpreting it right as it conveying a... almost a William James, a Jamesian kind of conception of the deity as one that evolves with the universe?

Yes, absolutely. I mean this... it's... of course, it wasn't a conscious invention, I actually did dream this, and so it came to me unconsciously, but I think it somehow... speaks to that question: What is God? And the answer is He's a baby, that He's growing, He doesn't yet know what He is. And so that was, I think, a poetic way of saying that.

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: Origin of Life, Disturbing the Universe, The Prelude in E Flat Minor, Edward Teller, William James

Duration: 4 minutes, 24 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008