Maverick Genius: The Pioneering Odyssey of Freeman Dyson
Phillip F. Schewe
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Scientist. Innovator. Rebel.
For decades, Freeman Dyson has been regarded as one of the world's most important thinkers. The Atlantic wrote, "In the range of his genius, Freeman Dyson is heir to Einstein – a visionary who has reshaped thinking in fields from math to astrophysics to medicine, and who has conceived nuclear-propelled spaceships designed to transport human colonists to distance planets." Salon.com says that, "what sets Dyson apart among an elite group of scientists is the conscience and compassion he brings to his work." Now, in this first complete biography of Dyson, author Phillip F. Schewe examines the life of a man whose accomplishments have shaped our world in many ways.
From quantum physics to national defense, from space to biotechnology, Dyson's work has cemented his position as a man whose influence goes far beyond the field of theoretical physics. It even won him the million dollar Templeton prize for his writing about science and religion. Recently, Dyson has made headlines for his controversial views on global warming, and he continues to make waves in the science community to this day.
A colleague of Albert Einstein at Princeton and friends with leading thinkers including Robert Oppenheimer, George F. Kennan, and Richard Feynman, Freeman Dyson is a larger-than-life figure. Many of his colleagues, including Nobelists Steven Weinberg and Frank Wilczek, as well as his wives and his children, Esther and George Dyson, have been interviewed for this book. Maverick Genius, Schewe's definitive biography, paints a compelling and vibrant portrait of a man who has been both praised for his genius and criticized for his unorthodox views.
are evident. The semiconducting world of electronics and its offspring, the Internet and email, are all around us. Physics-based science and gray-based technology are still powerful. But biology had become larger than physics in terms of its impact on the economy, larger in its immediate contribution to human welfare, and potentially more portentous in its implications for ethics.20 Dyson looks at the growth of the immense computer game industry, enabled by the advent of the personal computer,
work. CHASING INFINITY The quantum equations, which looked so clever in the 1920s, now were in danger of being spoiled by nonsensical results. An explanation was needed. Surely, electrons cannot be shrouded in an infinite fog of energy. They are not miniature suns. Infinity, if it is there staring at us from within an atom, from within every atom, must somehow be disguised or modified in some way. The quantum catechism needed reforming. In the late 1930s quantum progress was stymied by this
particularly bothered by the idea of possible infinities. Now that they knew how infinity arose they could neutralize it by redefining the mass and charge of the electron. For Dyson this wasn’t enough. As you reassembled more and more parts of the interaction he wanted the sum to converge to a finite number, not diverge to infinity. Dyson was pretty sure that the sum converged, but he had to prove it. We might call this hunch “Dyson’s conjecture,” perhaps the most important of many mathematical
not otherwise have a solid body. The Earthlings had bodies but had to resort to spoken words or machines to transmit messages among themselves. Insubstantial as they were, the Martians had a sophisticated culture. They had come to Earth looking for resources, especially diamonds. They found diamonds but looked right past the human inhabitants of the planet. This story about first contact comes from Last and First Men, the 1931 novel by Olaf Stapledon.1 If we encountered an intelligent alien
good idea to throw in a nuke now and then just to keep the other side guessing.” Freeman Dyson, who was insider enough to have been invited to the reception, had seen and heard many notable things in his professional life, but at this instant he was too startled by the general’s remark to say anything back or to be certain he’d even heard the words correctly. So he consulted with his three scientist colleagues who had been within earshot to confirm that the quip had not been made in jest. They