Freeman Dyson, FRS

Nobel Conference 50
Oct. 7 & 8, 2014

Theoretical physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson, FRS – Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, N.J.; president and later board member of the Space Studies Institute, Mojave, Calif.

Professor Freeman Dyson, FRS, mathematician, physicist, and popularizer of science, will speak at Nobel Conference 50 on the four major revolutions in science and technology that he has witnessed: the harnessing of nuclear power, the exploration of space, the astounding growth and availability of computer technology, and most recently, the understanding and utilization of genomes. He will reflect on reasons that the first two technologies have either stagnated or languished, while the latter two are still viewed with great hope and continue to develop.

Professor Dyson has spent essentially his entire scientific career at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, N.J., starting there in the early 1950s in the days of Einstein, Von Neumann, and Oppenheimer. The early contributions for which he is best-known were in unifying the quantum electrodynamic theories of Tomonaga, Schwinger, and Feynman.

In the 1950s Professor Dyson worked on the design of both the TRIGA nuclear reactor and the project Orion spacecraft. The General Atomics TRIGA Mark I reactor was designed to be extremely safe (even in the hands of undergraduates . . .), incapable of run-away, and suitable for use in hospitals and colleges. About seventy still exist worldwide. The Project Orion spacecraft designed in the 1950s was intended to use nuclear explosions for propulsion and held great promise, at least until the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 essentially brought the development efforts to a close.

Professor Dyson’s scientific interests throughout the 1950s and ’60s were in nuclear and particle physics, and the mathematics needed to develop theories. He studied and wrote on nuclear symmetry and the stability of matter. His efforts shifted more and more in the 1970s to communicating scientific issues to the public. He wrote many influential papers on issues of nuclear arms control and the avoidance of nuclear war, for many the most important international issue of the times. Many of his ideas in physics, such as the “Dyson Sphere,” which would trap the energy output of a star for an energy-starved civilization, are celebrated in science fiction literature.

Professor Dyson has written nine popular books, including the well known Infinite in All Directions, Weapons and Hope, and Origins of Life. His autobiographical Disturbing the Universe and his reputation as a popularizer of science led Gustavus Adolphus to invite him to speak at the 1980 Nobel Conference, “The Aesthetic Dimension of Science.”

Dyson's popular book, The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet, was used in manuscript form when Dyson served as Robert and Susan Rydell Professor at Gustavus Adolphus in the spring of 1999. He team-taught a senior-level seminar course on issues relating to ethical issues in energy, Internet, and genetic information. Many faculty and graduates remember Professor Dyson with great affection.