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Being supervised by Nicholas Kemmer


Decision to move from mathematics to physics
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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I decided, at the end of the year at Imperial College, there was one more problem that I tried to solve as a mathematician, which was the Siegel conjecture, and that was a very famous conjecture in the theory of numbers about approximability of irrationals. And it said if you have any algebraic number which is not rational, so simply a root of an algebraic equation with integer coefficients, a real algebraic number, and you have a rational p over q, then the theorem says that the difference between the irrational and the rational approximation can't be smaller than 1 over q 2, independent of the degree of the algebraic number. So that was the Siegel conjecture, and it was finally proved by Roth about 10 years later, for which Roth got a Fields Medal, I think. Anyway, it was a major accomplishment. So that was what I set myself up as a goal, to prove that conjecture, and I failed and I didn't find the way, and that was what persuaded me that I wasn't really a mathematician. I couldn't solve that problem which would have been really an important contribution to mathematics. It was clearly crying out for somebody to prove it, and in that year in London I didn't prove it. I managed to make only a slight improvement on what was already known. So I decided, well, I might as well do physics and which is at least as interesting and more important.

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: Imperial College, Siegel conjecture, Field Medal, Klaus Roth

Duration: 2 minutes, 1 second

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008