I spent the last two days at an extraordinary conference, “Dreams of Earth and Sky”, celebrating the life and career of an extraordinary man, one of the many fascinating scientists whom I have had the good fortune to meet. I am referring to Freeman Dyson, professor at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), whose career has spanned so many subfields of science and beyond that the two-day conference simply wasn’t able to represent them all.
The event, held on the campus of the IAS, marked Dyson’s 90th year on the planet and his 60th year as a professor. (In fact his first stay at the IAS was a few years even earlier than that.) The IAS was then still a young institution; Albert Einstein, John Von Neumann, Kurt Gödel and J. Robert Oppenheimer were among the faculty. Dyson’s most famous work in my own field was on the foundations of the quantum field theory of the electromagnetic force, “quantum electrodynamics”, or “QED”. His work helped explain its mathematical underpinnings and clarify how it worked, and so impressed Oppenheimer that he got Dyson a faculty position at the IAS. This work was done at a very young age. By the time I arrived to work at the IAS in 1996, Dyson had officially retired, but was often in his office and involved in lunchtime conversations, mostly with the astronomers and astrophysicists, which is where a lot of his late career work has been centered.
Retirement certainly hasn’t stopped Dyson’s activity. His mind seems to be ageless; he is spry, attentive, sharp, and still doing science and writing about it and other topics. When I went up to congratulate him, I was surprised that he not only remembered who I was, he remembered what I had been working on in 1992, when, as an unknown graduate student on the other coast, I had sent him a paper I had written.
By the way, it’s somewhat bizarre that Dyson never won a Nobel Prize. Arguably it is part of the nature of the awarding process, which typically rewards a specific, deep line of research, and not a polymath whose contributions are spread widely. Just goes to show that you have to look at the content of a person’s life and work, not the prizes that someone thought fit to award to him or her. Still, he has his share: Dannie Heineman Prize for Mathematical Physics 1965; German Physical Society, Max Planck Medal 1969; Harvey Prize 1977; Wolf Foundation Prize in Physics 1981; American Association of Physics Teachers, Oersted Medal 1991; Enrico Fermi Award 1995; Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion 2000; Henri Poincaré Prize 2012.
The thirteen talks and several brief comments given at the conference, all of which in one way or another related to Dyson’s work, were organized into sessions on mathematics, on physics and chemistry, on astronomy and astrobiology, and on public affairs. All of the speakers were eminent in their fields, and I encourage you to explore their websites and writings, some of which were controversial, all of which were interesting. For non-scientists, I especially recommend Stanford Professor Emeritus Sid Drell’s extremely interesting talk about nuclear disarmament (which he’s been working towards for decades), and a thought-provoking if disconcertingly slick presentation by Dr. Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute on what he sees as a completely realistic effort, already underway, to wean the United States of its addiction to oil — with no net cost. Those with a small to moderate amount of scientific background may especially enjoy MIT Professor Sara Seager’s work on efforts to discover and study planets beyond our own solar system, Texas Professor Bill Press’s proposal for how to rethink the process of drug trials and approvals in the age of electronic patient records, Sir Martin Rees’s views on the state of our understanding of the universe, and Caltech’s Joseph Kirschvink’s contention that scientific evidence tends to favor the notion that life on this planet most likely started on Mars.
Many happy returns, Professor Dyson; you have been an inspiration and a role model for several generations of young scientists, and may you have many more happy and healthy years to come!