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Moving from Cornell to the Institute for Advanced Study


Working practice
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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I find I think with my fingers more than with my brain, I suppose; so, for example, I mean in the case of the Lamb shift, what I would do is to sit down and do some calculations and just use whatever tools I had available and see whether they worked or not. So I would flounder around for a long time, sort of taking bits out of Heitler's book and trying to figure out why they didn't work.

[Q] On paper?

Yes. So it was all being done in writing, so that I would gradually work out how to do it by doing it. I'd never be able to plan ahead, and I think that's true of everything I do in maths or physics or writing prose. Essentially I can only make the plan as I go along, and so the difficult part is always this floundering at the beginning.

[Q] But once you are finished floundering you more or less know how long it will take you to actually get through the problem?

Well, usually I rather tend to overestimate the time. I mean, what I tend to think is, that'll take a month and it actually takes a couple of weeks or something...

[Q] But you know more or less what is involved?

Know more or less, yes. I mean, I think once I get going I am sort of one-tenth as good as Bethe, which means pretty good.

[Q] And you just can, so to say, plough ahead then?

Yes. I had this ability to go through a calculation and really get it done, which of course is the superlative quality of Bethe.

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: Lamb shift, Walter Heitler, Hans Bethe

Duration: 1 minute, 51 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008