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My middle class upbringing


Why I am an optimist
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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I've always felt that the reason I'm a confirmed optimist is I survived the 1930s. I think, and... that must be true of you too, that in the 1930s when I was a teenager things were so black that it really looked as though we didn't have a chance. I looked on the future then that I was one of the doomed generation that was going to be chewed up in World War II, just like the... my uncle was chewed up in World War I. I mean we were the young kids who were going to be slaughtered in the trenches or whatever it was going to be in World War II. World War II was clearly coming, and in addition to that of course there was the economic slump, there was terrible social disarray in England, the poor people were hungry and there was huge unemployment. It was a bad time in almost every respect and we didn't see much hope of surviving it, let alone improving it. Well, we survived all that, and nowadays we have problems, but they're nothing like as bad as they were in the '30s. Why should people be so pessimistic - if we could survive that, we shall survive whatever we have now, and so that's basically the reason. But of course, in addition, the fact that I have six happy children also helps. And I shouldn't leave out my wife. I mean of course... it's unfair to mention the children without the wife. I have a wife who is also a wonderfully outgoing and happy personality and who is... happens to be a very successful marathon runner and that's again a different world into which I'm free to move because of her. She has a lot of these crazy friends who are marathon runners. This is a special breed of people all over the world who run marathons, and they're a very diverse group, they just have this one passion in common, and so it's a great society to belong to. And through her I've made a lot of friends who otherwise I would never had met, and they even extend all over the world. I mean she's been running marathons in Moscow and other such places, so we have a lot of Russian running friends as well as Americans and Germans. So that's also a big part of my life, and so she has been an enormous help and inspiration in everything I do. She is also my constant critic, which is also very helpful too.

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: Uk, Great Depression, 1930s, Moscow, Russia, USA, Germany, WWII, WWI

Duration: 2 minutes, 37 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008