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Studying mathematics at Winchester


What did I win for coming top of the class?
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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The Winchester system was very good, especially for me, because every term - they had three terms in the year - each term you had exams at the end of the term, and the boy with the highest marks in the exams would get a prize, which meant I always got a prize, each time, so three times a year. And you were free to choose. The prize was fifteen shillings which was probably worth something like thirty dollars at present day prices, and it had to be spent on books, but otherwise you were free to choose. It meant you could buy a couple of very good books for fifteen shillings at that time. And so I bought these books which I still have on the shelves and they were a great collection. We had fortunately a bookshop just by the college which could get anything you asked for, and they supplied me with book catalogues. So I had all the catalogues from the various book publishers and I went through them very carefully picking out what looked good, and then the books would arrive. So from those I got Eddington...

[Q] Relativity?

General theory of Relativity, yes - that was later. I think the first thing I got from Eddington was The Nature of the Physical World, I mean the more popular things, and certainly the... I don't remember them all but in any case, the most important perhaps was Joos Theoretical Physics, and that was translated from German, an excellent text book of theoretical physics which I was very lucky to get hold of because it wasn't normally used - I mean it was a rather unusual book for that time - but it actually covered theoretical physics extremely well because it had actually been written around 1930 or so and it had a good deal of the more modern stuff in it. So that was where I learned theoretical physics, in fact it was mostly where I learned physics altogether. So it gave me, I think, a very good taste of what physics is about.

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: Winchester College, The Nature of the Physical World, Theoretical Physics, Arthur Eddington, Georg Joos, Ira Maximilian Freeman

Duration: 2 minutes, 24 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008