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Pure and Applied (Freeman Dyson)

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Freeman Dyson

It’s hard to imagine an academic institution that is more committed to undirected, unfettered scholarship – knowledge for knowledge’s sake – than the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In an age when many are bemoaning the so-called corporatization of academe, the IAS stands proudly in the footsteps of its founding Director Abraham Flexner, who diligently leveraged the fortune of Louis Bamberger and his sister Catherine Bamberger Fuld to create the first private, independent, American center for pure research and scholarship in 1930.

The IAS is not a university. Its faculty face no teaching requirements and shoulder very limited administration so as to ensure that they are best able to dedicate themselves to following their intellectual inclinations wherever they might lead. Its postdoctoral fellows (“members”) are given complete freedom to interact with whomever they so choose during their extended stay of typically three years. And its students – well, the IAS formally has no students, either undergraduate or graduate. If you want students, go to nearby Princeton University. There are lots of them there.


Institute for Advanced Study, image by Hanno Rein

It’s not a place that works for everyone, of course. Inevitably some think it too stuffy and out of touch. The celebrated theoretical physicist Richard Feynman once turned down a faculty appointment there, citing the pressure of being in an environment where there was “nothing to do other than think all day long.” But you can’t argue with success: the IAS has been home to one of the most enviable collections of the world’s finest minds: logician Kurt Gödel, cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz, statesman George Kennan, art historian Erwin Panofsky, mathematical fireball John von Neumann, physicist and Manhattan Project leader Robert Oppenheimer; and, of course, Albert Einstein.

For me, however, nothing quite sums up the IAS like Freeman Dyson. He first came to the Institute for a two-year stint in 1948, and was eventually awarded a faculty position there in 1953 by then-Director Oppenheimer, after finally convincing him that Feynman’s approach to the new theory of quantum electrodynamics was fundamentally equivalent to that of two other physicists, Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga. For their work, Feynman, Schwinger and Tomonaga got the 1965 Nobel Prize. Many thought Dyson should have as well.


Project Orion

But he didn’t seem to be terribly bothered by it. After all, by 1965 he had already moved on to doing seminal work on the theory of spinwaves before veering off in an entirely different direction: spending 4 years on Project Orion, investigating how to design spaceships propelled by nuclear weapons. In the meantime, he led the design team for a safer, more efficient nuclear reactor that would be used worldwide for the production of medical isotopes. Somewhere in there he also wrote an article in Science proposing what later came to be called a Dyson sphere, a structure that an advanced extraterrestrial civilization would likely create to harness the full power of its sun.

Of course, he kept right on going. He rigorously proved the role of Wolfgang Pauli’s famous exclusion principle in the stability of matter. A few years later, working with the mathematician Hugh Montgomery, he found a tantalizing link between the statistics of random matrices used for nuclear physics calculations and that of Montgomery’s work in the pure mathematical arena of number theory.

The list goes on and on. He worked with the Institute for Energy Analysis on climate studies. He has been deeply involved in arms control. He is a long-standing member of JASON, an independent group of scientists which advises the U.S. government on science and technology. He has passionate, thoughtful interests in biology, specifically (but hardly exclusively) genetics, and the origin of life.

Dyson is now past 90. In the last few years he has authored or co-authored characteristically insightful papers on game theory (the prisoner’s dilemma) and particle physics (the detection of gravitons).

Meanwhile, decades ago he began what he calls his “second career”: that of a writer. He has penned countless best-selling books, on everything from alternative energy to extraterrestrials, and is a regular reviewer for the New York Review of Books.

If there is anybody on planet earth who better represents the life of an engaged, passionate, incisive and tireless mind, I would very much like to meet her. Meeting Dyson, as it happened, wasn’t so easy in itself.

As if I wasn’t already feeling sufficiently overwhelmed, I made the mistake of meeting with one of his Institute colleagues shortly beforehand, asking him if there was anything particular that he thought I should quiz Freeman about. He thought patiently for a while before responding, dreamily, “Ask him how he does it.”

And this from a fellow faculty member at one of the world’s most prestigious academic institutions. Oh, dear.

But Freeman, characteristically self-effacing, was having none of it.

“I think what is different about me is that I’ve led two quite separate lives. One is my life as a scientist, which has been very conventional. All I do as a scientist is old-fashioned mathematics. It’s applied to different problems in different areas, but they are essentially the same tools. I’m a good old-fashioned 19th-century applied mathematician; and that’s what I do professionally.

“On the other side, I’m a writer. And as a writer I have a totally different point of view. I’m interested in all kinds of different things. I don’t try to be deep; I try to be broad. So that’s why you see both sides and it looks unusual.”

That’s nonsense, of course. But it didn’t matter one whit. This was not an argument that I was going to win: you can’t convince a self-effacing phenomenon that he is, indeed, a phenomenon. No matter how right you might be.

So we talked. We talked about mathematics and neuroscience, physics and philosophy, biology and space travel, public policy and religion.

But at the end, I still had to ask, “Just a good-old fashioned applied mathematician?” (19th-century or otherwise). This was, after all, a man who began his academic career by studying pure mathematics with the immortal G.H. Hardy at Cambridge (and physics with Dirac), writing several papers in pure mathematics as an undergraduate (Dyson never actually received a PhD).

Here was someone who had spent over 60 years of his life at the one place on earth more dedicated to esoteric, unapplied thought than anywhere else. What about pure mathematics?

“Yes, I still do it, in fact, as a hobby. But what I do is very old-fashioned. Real mathematicians talk a language I don’t speak. When I listen to their conversations I have no idea what they’re talking about.”

I don’t believe it for a second. And neither should you.


For a complete list of Ideas Roadshow videos featuring Freeman Dyson, click here. The eBook called Pushing the Boundaries containing the unabridged Ideas Roadshow conversation with Freeman Dyson and a range of additional resources is available on Amazon while the podcast of the one-hour conversation will be available on iTunes later this week.

University staff and students may already have full access to all Ideas Roadshow resources on our Academic Portal through an institutional subscription, while select high school teachers and members of the general public have access to our School and Public Library Portals. For more information please contact



1 Comment

  1. […] Vimeo On Demand, see here. This series also features in-depth conversations with Paul Steinhardt, Freeman Dyson, Artur Ekert, and Tony […]


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