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Decision to move from mathematics to physics


Coming to Cambridge as a fellow - Wittgenstein
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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So I did the case n=4 which was a great triumph, and since then about 20 years went by, and then somebody in Russia solved the case n=5 - and the proof was so long I never really got through it, I'm sorry to say. And since then I think nothing has happened, I don't think anybody's gone beyond 5. So there it stays. It's not a problem that mathematicians are particularly excited about, but it got me the Fellowship at Trinity, which was my objective. So I went on from London to Cambridge in the fall of '46, and arrived then at Trinity College as a Fellow, which was a very happy situation. It meant I could do whatever I liked, and I got a reasonable stipend, I could live in Cambridge quite comfortably with a Fellowship.

[Q] And eat at High Table?

Even if I wanted to, I didn't eat much at High Table because it wasn't my kind of food. It was too elegant for me. I needed calories and at that time food was pretty scarce in England, it was still rationed, and I found I could do better with the food ration, cooking it myself, than they did at the High Table. So that's what I did, and next door to me there was Wittgenstein, who lived on the same staircase, and he always cooked for himself too, and so I used to cook my supper with the smell of fish from Wittgenstein's room next door.

[Q] And you got to get to know him?

A little bit. Of course, Wittgenstein was a man who loved to torture people and so he invited me into his rooms one day - this was the closest contact I ever had with him, in fact. I mean, we passed each other very often on the stairs without speaking, but once he suddenly invited me into his rooms and said, 'Would you like to come and have a cup of coffee?' So I was thrilled, I said, 'Yes, I'll certainly come.' So I came in there and there was one chair, and he invited me to sit down in it, and it was a canvas deck chair which meant I was practically lying horizontally on this canvas chair, and he was standing uncomfortably waiting for me to say something, and so I found it acutely embarrassing, but in any case, I'd come in and so I thought I might as well try, and so eventually I decided I would start a conversation. So I said to him, 'Well, you know, I read the Tractatus and I'd be interested to know whether you still believe the things you said in the Tractatus or have you changed you mind?' And so Wittgenstein looked at me in a very, very hostile fashion and he said, 'Tell me please, which newspaper do you represent?' That was the end of the conversation. So there was another long silence, and then I drank the coffee and left. So I didn't get much out of Wittgenstein. I had the impression he was simply a charlatan. He loved to torture people and he was of course always extremely insulting to women. He couldn't tolerate women coming to his lectures, and he would just simply be so rude that they had to leave. So a thoroughly disagreeable character, and apart from the Tractatus I never read any of his stuff, so I shouldn't judge him but - I think I consider him anyway overrated as a philosopher.

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: Minkowski Conjecture, Trinity College, London, Cambridge, 1946, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, Ludwig Wittgenstein

Duration: 4 minutes, 19 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008