Dyson, Freeman J. 1923- (Freeman Dyson, Freeman John Dyson)

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Dyson, Freeman J. 1923- (Freeman Dyson, Freeman John Dyson)


Born December 15, 1923, in Crowthorne, Berkshire, England; came to the United States, 1947; naturalized U.S. citizen, 1957; son of George (a music composer, conductor, and teacher) and Mildred (a lawyer) Dyson; married Verena Esther Haefeli-Huber, August 11, 1950 (divorced, 1958); married Imme Jung, November 21, 1958; children: (first marriage) Esther, George; (second marriage) Dorothy, Emily, Miriam, Rebecca. Education: Cambridge University, B.A., 1945; graduate study at Cornell University, 1947-49, and the Institute for Advanced Study, 1948-49.


Office—Princeton, NJ. E-mail—[email protected].


Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, professor of physics, 1951-53; Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ, professor of physics, 1953-94, professor emeritus, 1994—. Research fellow, Trinity College, Cambridge, 1946-49; Warren research fellow, University of Birmingham, 1949-51. Visiting professor, Yeshiva University, 1967-68, and Max Planck Institute for Physics and Astrophysics, 1974-75; Rydell Professor, Gustavus Adolphus College, 1999. Member of nuclear reactor design team, General Atomics Division, General Dynamics Corp., beginning 1956, retired; chief theoretician for propulsion system, Orion Project, La Jolla, CA, 1958-59. Consultant, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, 1962, 1963. Member, National Research Council Commission on Life Sciences, 1989-91; member of advisory council, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2001-03; member of committee on biowarfare threats, National Academy of Sciences, 2004-05. Military service: Royal Air Force, Bomber Command, civilian statistician in operational research section, 1943-45.


National Academy of Sciences, Federation of American Scientists (member of council, 1960; chair, 1962-63), American Physical Society, American Philosophical Society, Royal Society (fellow), Bavarian Academy of Sciences (corresponding member), Academy of Sciences (Paris, France; foreign associate member), London Mathematical Society (honorary).


Trinity College fellow, 1946-49; Commonwealth fellow, Cornell University, 1947-49; Heineman Prize, American Institute of Physics, 1965; Lorentz Medal, Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences, 1966; Hughes Medal, Royal Society, 1968; Max Planck Medal, German Physical Society, 1969; J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Prize, Center for Theoretical Studies, 1970; Harvey Prize, Israel Institute of Technology, 1977, for the application of mathematical analysis to theoretical physics; Wolf Prize, Wolf Foundation, 1981; American Book Award nomination, 1982, for Disturbing the Universe; Los Angeles Times Book Prize nomination, 1984, for Weapons and Hope; National Book Critics Circle award for general nonfiction, 1984, for Weapons and Hope; Gemant Award, American Institute of Physics, 1988, for creative work in the arts and humanities that derived from a deep knowledge of and love for physics; Phi Beta Kappa Award in Science, 1988, for Infinite in All Directions; honorary fellow, Trinity College, 1989; Britannica Award, 1990, for dissemination of knowledge; Matteucci Medal, Accademia Nazionale delle Scienze dei Quaranta, 1990; Oersted Medal, American Association of Physics Teachers, 1991; Wright Prize, Harvey Mudd College, 1994; Montgomery fellow, Dartmouth College, 1994; Enrico Fermi Award, U.S. Department of Energy, 1995; Lewis Thomas Prize, Rockefeller University, 1996; Antonio Feltrinelli International Prize, Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 1996; Joseph P. Burton Award, American Physical Society, 1999; Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, 2000. Honorary degrees from Yeshiva University, 1966, Princeton University, 1974, University of Glasgow, 1974, University of York, 1980, City University of London, 1981, New School, 1982, Rensselaer Polytechnic, 1983, Susquehanna University, 1984, Depauw University, 1987, Rider College, 1989, Bates College, 1991, Haverford College, 1991, Dartmouth College, 1995, Federal Institute of Technology (Switzerland), 1995, Scuola Normale Superiore, 1996, University of Puget Sound, 1997, Oxford University, 1997, Clarkson University, 1998, Rockefeller University, 2001, St. Peter's College, 2004, and Georgetown University, 2005.


Symmetry Groups in Nuclear and Particle Physics, W.A. Benjamin (Reading, MA), 1966.

Neutron Stars and Pulsars, Academia Nazionale dei Lincei, 1971.

Disturbing the Universe, Harper (New York, NY), 1979.

Values at War, University of Utah Press (Salt Lake City, UT), 1983.

Weapons and Hope, Harper (New York, NY), 1984.

Origins of Life, Cambridge University Press (New York, NY), 1985, revised edition, 1999.

(And editor) Infinite in All Directions: Gifford Lectures Given at Aberdeen, Scotland, April-November 1985, Harper & Row (New York, NY), 1988.

From Eros to Gaia, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 1992.

Selected Papers of Freeman Dyson with Commentary, American Mathematical Society (Providence, RI), 1996.

Imagined Worlds, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1997.

The Sun, the Genome & the Internet: Tools of Scientific Revolutions, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1999.

The Scientist as Rebel (essays), New York Review Books (New York, NY), 2006.

A Many-colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe, University of Virginia Press (Charlottesville, VA), 2007.


A scientist whose professional interests include mathematics, nuclear physics, rocket technology, and astrophysics, and whose personal interests range from social and political issues to music and literature, Freeman J. Dyson has been well-suited to take on the problems that arise when technology and public policy collide. As a problem solver, Dyson relies on the diversity of his interests to inform him and lend him an appreciation of the various approaches to an issue. He recognizes the interests of the parties involved in debates of technology and public policy, and his solutions offer a means of reconciling differences. In fact, observed Jeffrey Marsh in Commentary, "the urge to reconciliation seems … to be the driving force of his personality."

Dyson first captured the attention of the scientific community, especially those in the field of theoretical physics, when at the age of twenty-four he reconciled two different approaches to explaining the interaction of electromagnetic radiation with matter. Combining the diagrammatic method of mathematics championed by Richard Feynman with more classical mathematics, Dyson was able to give birth to the new discipline of quantum electrodynamics. His synthesis of the two approaches was not immediately accepted by J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was then director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and Dyson's mentor during his fellowship there. In a series of seminars, the two men debated the new approach until Dyson finally convinced Oppenheimer of the validity of his synthesis. Oppenheimer rewarded his pupil by making him a long-term member of the institute.

The position at the Institute for Advanced Study would have allowed the young scientist to develop his ideas in the field of theoretical physics. Yet, unlike conventional theoretical physicists who "sit for years with [their] whole mind concentrated upon one deep question," as Dyson wrote in his Disturbing the Universe, "I followed my destiny into pure mathematics, into nuclear engineering, into space technology and astronomy, solving problems that [Oppenheimer] rightly considered remote from the mainstream of physics." In 1956, he joined Edward Teller at the General Atomic Division of the General Dynamics Corporation on a project to design a commercial nuclear reactor that would meet rigorous safety standards. The design team built TRIGA (Training Reactor, Isotopes General Atomic), a small reactor for medical use so safe that it would shut itself down during crises. Dyson also worked on the design of the safe and efficient High Temperature Graphite Reactor (HTGR) for commercial power production. With Theodore Taylor, he was a member of the Project Orion team. Orion's scientists hoped to use controlled nuclear explosions to propel a rocket to Saturn. Policy decisions and the 1963 ban on nuclear tests in space eventually undermined the project.

While gaining experience as a practical scientist, Dyson was also developing an understanding of the relation- ship between science and society. Driven by this passion, the scientist has diverted an increasing amount of his energy toward influencing public opinion and public policy. As an insider, Dyson has seen both the good and the bad of science, and his knowledge has made him both an educated critic and an enthusiastic supporter of its goals. He first encountered the collision of technology and policy when, as an undergraduate at Cambridge, he was recruited to serve as a civilian statistician for the Royal Air Force Bomber Command. The experience caused him to realize that bureaucracies and technology do not mix well, leading to lapses in judgment and misuse of science. As Stephen Jay Gould explained in the New York Review of Books, Dyson "not only believes in smallness and diversity for its own sake, but he has defined his scientific ethic by it in fighting bureaucracy and institutionalized ‘big’ science as the agents of stultified mediocrity."

Dyson has long argued against science's tendency toward reductionism. Unlike many physicists trying to create a "theory of everything" that can describe all the laws of the universe accurately in one set of elegant equations, Dyson has no problem with the idea that the universe is diverse, complex, and resistant to such pursuits. Dyson has also brought his expertise to bear on the United States space program's plans to study our solar system. An outspoken critic of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), he maintains that "space-science projects have become large and inflexible," wrote a contributor to Scientific American. "Dyson would rather see space science move in small steps, allowing each simple, specialized mission to determine the questions the next project should answer."

One project that he strongly supports is the colonization of space. In 1960, Dyson proposed a scheme for colonizing the solar system that would maximize both the space available and the use of the sun's energy. Using matter from Jupiter, space engineers would construct a huge spherical shell at a suitable distance from the sun. Colonists would then settle on the spacious inner surface of the shell. More recently, Dyson has become interested in asteroids as prospective new homes for space colonists. Because the transport of future colonists to space colonies will require a safe and economical means of transportation, Dyson has long been a promoter of new propulsion systems. In addition to his work on Project Orion, he has envisioned a launching system that would use a laser to place small space vessels into earth orbit; once there, the vessels would derive the power necessary to drive their jet engines from the sun's energy, collected by solar sails.

Dyson discusses science, society, and his hopes for both in his book Disturbing the Universe. The book has been called an intellectual autobiography, and as Marsh noted, its author "certainly succeeds in presenting a fascinating account of the mind, work and undeniable humanity of one scientist." Written in language understandable to laymen, Disturbing the Universe contains Dyson's views on several scientific issues, including nuclear proliferation and biogenetic engineering. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt commented in the New York Times: "What is easy to miss in the book because of the author's unassuming manner is the extent to which art, and in particular poetry, infuse Mr. Dyson's text." This characteristic blend of science, art, and autobiography offers, in the view of Times Literary Supplement reviewer Christopher Longuet-Higgins, "a series of glimpses into the life of a highly gifted and sensitive person, struggling to reconcile his other-worldly concerns with his obligations to a confused and pathetic humanity."

In recent years, Dyson has stepped forward as an outspoken critic of nuclear arms proliferation. His book Weapons and Hope is an examination of the arms race and the battle it has generated on the home front between nuclear strategists and the various arms control movements. His knowledge of both the technical and the political aspects of this issue—he has worked as both a weapons designer and a consultant to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency—has allowed him to see the complexity of the nuclear weapons issue. His insights and suggested solutions are based upon this experience. Weapons and Hope, commented Brad Knickerbocker in the Christian Science Monitor, "is intended to bridge the great and potentially dangerous gap between those who must plan for nuclear war and an increasingly disturbed public."

Dyson feels that the programs advanced by both sides to assure peace are flawed; he rejects complete disarmament and he rejects the policy of deterrence through mutual assured destruction (MAD). "What he settles on is a middle way that includes a mutually agreeable reduction in nuclear weapons and a shift toward defensive systems, although not of the ‘star wars’ variety," noted Knickerbocker. Dyson observes in Weapons and Hope that those who accept MAD "identify nuclear destructive power with national security and so become trapped in the cult of destruction." This is, he adds, a case in which public opinion and even government policy have lagged behind weapons technology. As Michael Howard wrote in the New York Times Book Review, Dyson points out that "the whole trend of weapons development in the past twenty-five years has been away from weapons of mass destruction toward those of greater accuracy, maneuverability and precision." Dyson would employ this technology to build numerous small, precise, non-nuclear defensive missiles to replace the nuclear arsenals held by the superpowers. Dyson also argues against the use of smaller nuclear weapons in a limited war. "He makes an eloquent and, to me, persuasive case that the United States should abandon its long-held threat to use nuclear weapons first in Western Europe, if the Soviets are winning the conventional war," reported James Fallows in the Washington Post Book World. Dyson reasons that because the Soviets fear another devastation of their homeland, they will launch preemptive strikes, nullifying U.S. plans to save Europe through a limited nuclear war. His ability to see both the military and personal consequences of nuclear strategies "gives his political and spiritual arguments a depth that few other accounts can match," concluded Fallows.

In his From Eros to Gaia Dyson takes some shots at the problems with big science—that is, huge projects such as the space program and the problems of politics interfering with research. Using the Apollo space program as one example, Dyson maintains that the Moon missions were wasteful of resources while they also failed to take advantage of the opportunity to conduct a great deal of valuable research because the voyages were seen as a race against the competing Soviets rather than an intellectual pursuit. On the other hand, he takes delight in "the discoveries made by unprepossessing astronomers and other scientists," according to a reviewer in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Dyson explains that what really matters in science is creativity and imagination, not necessarily big budgets supervised by large committees. The author continues his warnings about the dangers of politics in Imagined Worlds. Political and economic struggles will create ecological disasters, diminished resources, and a large disparity between rich and poor. Again, Dyson touts the virtues of small—what he calls "Tolstoyan"—science versus big, or "Napoleonic" science. An example of the latter is the Superconducting Collider project that cost billions of dollars before it was finally cancelled because of the tremendous expense.

Dyson optimistically predicts in Imagined Worlds that the answers lie in colonizing space and that, in a hundred thousand years or so, humanity will have spread across the galaxy. He also feels that there will be major advances in other areas of science, such as genetics, that will lead to an evolution of human consciousness. This last point is important because, as Steven J. Dick reported in his review for Natural History, "Dyson's message … is that progress in science unaccompanied by progress in ethics spells disaster." "Dyson is not afraid now and then to sound like a crackpot," observed Fred Guterl in Discover, adding that "it's not a bad idea to seek the perspective of such a gifted and well-informed crackpot." A Publishers Weekly contributor added: "If the tone can be rather gee-whiz, Dyson's use of science fiction to illustrate and evaluate scientific fact is a refreshing and illuminating tool."

More predictions about the future are offered in Dyson's The Sun, the Genome & the Internet: Tools of Scientific Revolutions. Among other promising technologies, he expresses a faith in the importance of solar power to improve the lives of those in remote parts of the world, including access to the Internet, and, thus, long-distance education and jobs; genetically modified plants, he contends, will one day provide alternative fuels for the space program. Critics found Dyson's utopian view of the future intriguing, but the thin book, which is based on a series of New York Public Library lectures, does not go into great detail. Thus, a Publishers Weekly contributor wrote that "Dyson offers an appetizing perspective, but many readers will find themselves eager for more than is given in this all too brief … book." Library Journal critic Wade Lee, however, appreciated how the physicist "delivers ideas both philosophical and technological in terms any lay reader can understand."

The Scientist as Rebel is a collection of over thirty essays by Dyson that have been reprinted from other sources. Here, the physicist covers a wide variety of topics, ranging from politics and the history of science to philosophy and, again, the possibilities of the future. As with his earlier works, Dyson emphasizes that the success of scientific advancement and the future of mankind depends on our ability to maintain and foster our humanity. "Though somewhat patchwork, this collection does represent Dyson's evolving thoughts," remarked Gregg Sapp in Library Journal, who also felt that the essays in the collection reflect their author's "brilliance, iconoclasm, and expansiveness of mind."



Brower, Kenneth, The Starship and the Canoe, Holt (New York, NY), 1978.

Dyson, Freeman J., Disturbing the Universe, Harper (New York, NY), 1979.


American Scholar, January, 2004, Sherwin B. Nuland, "The Man of the Moment?," p. 129.

America's Intelligence Wire, April 5, 2007, "Fighting Climate ‘Fluff’; Physicist Freeman Dyson Knows from Long Experience that Models Containing Numerous Fudge Factors Are Worthless."

Antioch Review, fall, 1992, Albert B. Stewart, review of From Eros to Gaia.

Astronomy, August, 1989, Jonathan H. Worstell, Infinite in All Directions: Gifford Lectures Given at Aberdeen, Scotland, April-November 1985, p. 101; August, 1997, review of Imagined Worlds, p. 90.

Audubon, September, 1992, Edwin Dobb, review of From Eros to Gaia, p. 116.

Booklist, June 15, 1992, Donna Seaman, review of From Eros to Gaia, p. 1793; March 15, 1997, Bryce Christensen, review of Imagined Worlds, p. 1212; December 1, 2006, Steve Weinberg, review of The Scientist as Rebel, p. 14.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, October 1, 1989, Joseph J. Romm, review of Infinite in All Directions, p. 35; June 1, 1993, review of From Eros to Gaia, p. 54.

Choice, December, 1992, E.R. Webster, review of From Eros to Gaia, p. 638.

Christian Science Monitor, October 9, 1984, Brad Knickerbocker, review of Weapons of Hope.

Commentary, January, 1980, Jeffrey Marsh, review of Disturbing the Universe, p. 90.

Discover, July 1, 1997, Fred Guterl, review of Imagined Worlds, p. 121.

Esquire, October, 2003, Freeman Dyson, "Five Things I Wish I Was Going to Be around to See: In Which the Eminent Physicist Dreams of What Has Not Yet Been But Will Be," p. 179.

Futurist, November-December, 1997, Lane Jennings, review of Imagined Worlds, p. 58.

Isis, June, 1987, William J. Hagan, review of Origins of Life, p. 309; December, 2001, Robert P. Crease, review of Imagined Worlds, p. 755.

Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 2006, review of The Scientist as Rebel, p. 998.

Library Journal, March 1, 1989, Ellis Mount, review of Infinite in All Directions, p. 44; July 1, 1992, Laurie Tynan, review of From Eros to Gaia, p. 114; April 15, 1997, Gregg Sapp, review of Imagined Worlds, p. 112; February 15, 1999, Wade Lee, review of The Sun, the Genome & the Internet: Tools of Scientific Revolutions, p. 179; October 15, 2006, Gregg Sapp, review of The Scientist as Rebel, p. 85.

Natural History, June, 1988, Gerald Feinberg, review of Infinite in All Directions, p. 30; April 1, 1997, Steven J. Dick, review of Imagined Worlds, p. 6.

Nature, November 26, 1992, Timothy Ferris, review of From Eros to Gaia, p. 389; May 22, 1997, Oliver Morton, review of Imagined Worlds, p. 361; December 3, 1998, review of Imagined Worlds, p. 428; April 29, 1999, Walter Gratzer, review of The Sun, the Genome & the Internet, p. 770.

New Scientist, August 26, 1989, Roy Herbert, review of Infinite in All Directions, p. 60; July 26, 1997, Gregory Benford, review of Imagined Worlds, p. 54; November 22, 1997, review of Infinite in All Directions, p. 50; June 26, 1999, Marcus Chown, review of The Sun, the Genome & the Internet, p. 54.

New Statesman, May 16, 1997, Colin Tudge, review of Imagined Worlds, p. 46.

New Yorker, June 2, 1986, review of Origins of Life, p. 107; October 20, 1997, review of Imagined Worlds, p. 268.

New York Review of Books, October 11, 1979, Stephen J. Gould, review of Disturbing the Universe, p. 3; March 4, 1993, Roger Penrose, review of From Eros to Gaia, p. 5; September 25, 1997, Timothy Ferris, review of Imagined Worlds, p. 19.

New York Times, August 21, 1979, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, review of Disturbing the Universe; January 1, 2001, Dennis Overbye, "The End of Everything," p. 1.

New York Times Book Review, April 8, 1984, Michael Howard, review of Weapons of Hope; January 7, 2007, George Johnson, "Dancing with the Stars," review of The Scientist as Rebel, p. 9.

ORBIS, fall, 1988, Adam M. Garfinkle, review of Infinite in All Directions.

Publishers Weekly, May 25, 1992, review of From Eros to Gaia, p. 43; February 24, 1997, review of Imagined Worlds, p. 73; March 29, 1999, review of The Sun, the Genome & the Internet, p. 81; September 25, 2006, review of The Scientist as Rebel, p. 55.

Reason, January 1, 1993, Jonathan Rauch, review of From Eros to Gaia, p. 54.

Science, April 25, 1997, review of Imagined Worlds, p. 542.

Science Books & Films, December 1, 1997, review of Imagined Worlds, p. 267; March 1, 2000, review of Origins of Life, p. 62.

Science Fiction Studies, November 1, 1997, Gregory Benford, review of Imagined Worlds, p. 506.

Science News, December 16, 2006, review of The Scientist as Rebel, p. 399.

Scientific American, October, 1979, review of Disturbing the Universe, p. 28; January, 2000, review of Origins of Life, p. 102.

Space World, June, 1988, Jack Kirwan, review of Infinite in All Directions, p. 24.

Times Educational Supplement, October 13, 1989, review of Infinite in All Directions, p. 26.

Times Higher Education Supplement, March 14, 1997, Arthur C. Clarke, review of Imagined Worlds, p. 22.

Times Literary Supplement, February 29, 1980, Christopher Longuet-Higgins, review of Disturbing the Universe; December 16, 1988, John D. Barrow, review of Infinite in All Directions, p. 1392.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), August 26, 2001, review of Disturbing the Universe, p. 6.

Utopian Studies, January 1, 1999, Arthur O. Lewis, review of Imagined Worlds, p. 189; spring, 1999, Guillaume de Syon, review of Imagined Worlds.

Washington Post Book World, April 22, 1984, James Fallows, review of Weapons of Hope.


CCNet,http://www.staff.livjm.ac.uk/spsbpeis/Freeman-Dyson.htm/ (June 6, 2007), Benny Peiser, "The Scientist as Rebel: An Interview with Freeman Dyson."

School of Natural Sciences,http://www.sns.ias.edu/ (June 6, 2007), profile of Freeman J. Dyson.