Thursday, April 20, 2017

Freeman Dyson

Today, I heard an interview on the radio with Freeman Dyson.  He's quite a remarkable man.

Freeman Dyson has worked in the field of physics since 1943.  He was a professor of physics for the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton from 1953 to 1994.  He is still associated with the institute where he is a professor emeritus.  Along the way, he has known all the giants.  He has worked with Hans Bethe and Richard Feynman, and he knew Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer and Niels Bohr.

According to Dyson, Hans Bethe was "an extraordinarily good [mentor]. He was amazing with students. He had a lot of students and he always found the right problem for each student, just difficult enough but not too difficult. He was an ideal person to have as a mentor."

Of Oppenheimer Dyson said, "I had very mixed feelings. He was my boss. He was a very temperamental, unpredictable kind of character. He would suddenly blow hot or cold and you never knew which one you had to deal with."

Feynman was a "genius."  "He never wrote down equations. Most people in physics write down an equation and then find the solutions, but that wasn’t the way Feynman did it. Feynman would just write down the solutions without ever writing the equations. It seemed like a sort of magic because he thought in terms of pictures instead of equations. He had these little pictures in his head...."

Einstein "didn’t encourage young people to get to know him."  "He didn’t enjoy teaching. There were two important things for him. There was his own work, which he always continued, and there was his public activity as a politician, which he did extremely well."

As for Bohr:  "Bohr was about the same age as Einstein, but much more in touch. He talked to everybody. He was interested in everything and was well-informed and he gave us good advice. He was definitely part of the community. He came to seminars. He also came to lunch. We had a lot of interaction with him."

He also said some interesting things about science.  The divide between classical physics and quantum physics doesn't bother him:  "For me, it’s something to rejoice in. I like it better to have two universes rather than one. I think the classical world is real and the quantum world is real, too. The beautiful thing is how well they fit together even though they are so totally different. I like the difference. I always hope they won’t be unified, but of course nature will decide in the end."

And what leads to scientific breakthroughs?  "First of all, it helps to be ignorant. The time when I did my best work was when I was most ignorant. Knowing too much is a great handicap. Especially if you’ve been teaching for some years, things get so fixed in your mind and it’s impossible to think outside the box. I was in the lucky position of jumping into physics without ever having taken any courses in physics. I’d only been a pure mathematician up to that point."

Even great people have faults.  Heidegger was an anti-semite.  Dyson is a climate change skeptic.  See The Danger of Cosmic Genius.

Anyway, here is the entire interview, if you have about 35 minutes.

An edited transcript can be found here:  My Life with the Physics Dream Team.

1 comment:

James R said...

A nice, worthwhile interview, although it would have been even better if the interviewer had thought and probed a little deeper as would have been appropriate for his subject. I guess I could read Dyson's books.