Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Freeman Dyson in the Flesh

On the podcast this week, I interviewed author Phil Schewe about his new book, Maverick Genius about the life of Freeman Dyson, a living legend amongst physicists. He's helped solve seemingly impossible problems about the fundamental nature of quantum mechanics, design an atomic bomb powered rocket ship and spark the search for extra terrestrial life.

Schewe spent years researching the man, but Dyson is very judicious about his time, and Schewe was only able to interview him a little bit for the book. At 89 years old, Dyson is still as sharp as ever, and still lectures and writes prolifically. He is at least as famous for his writing, as he is for his science, so here he is in his own words...

His main outlet is the New York Times Review of Books, where he's one of its two physicist contributors. There, he expounds on the philosophy of science, technology, history, really anything that strikes him.

A good example is in his review of James Gleick's The Information, Dyson compares the progress of science with the writing of a Wikipedia page. Though science might at first seem like a monolithic set of unchanging rules one learns in school, Dyson writes that "[i]t is an unending argument between a great multitude of voices. It resembles Wikipedia much more than it resembles the Encyclopaedia Britannica."

His review of two recent books about Richard Feynman, Quantum Man by Lawrence Krauss, and the graphic novel Feynman By Jim Ottaviani and Leyland Myrick is a particularly interesting read. Feynman was one of the three physicist that won a Nobel Prize for work that Dyson himself had an important role in. Many consider Dyson was short-changed, and had the Nobel Prize committee allowed more than three people to share a single award, it likely would have also gone to Dyson. Reading his review of the Feynman biographies, you don't really sense any lingering resentment, writing that "A generous sharing of credit is the quickest way to build a healthy scientific community."

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