Remembering Freeman

photo of Freeman Dyson in his office, taken on 11 June 2019
Freeman Dyson in his office, 11 June 2019

In the past fifteen years, I had dozens of lunches with Freeman and I can remember every single one of them. They were so entertaining, and such an education, that I made notes about each of them. He was always quiet-spoken, direct and – unlike most scientific celebrities of his stature – as content to listen as to talk.

In each of our extended conversations, Dyson came out with at least one stunningly counter-orthodox opinion. As he knew, this strategy was guaranteed to stimulate a few minutes of lively conversational duelling, in which he could test my intellectual mettle. In August 2012, he asserted that ‘the best prime minister Britain had during the Second World War was not Churchill, it was Neville Chamberlain.’ After I sputtered my incredulous response, he shot back with a list of Chamberlain’s achievements, including his provision of a good supply of gas masks. Waving away Churchill’s leadership achievements in the early 1940s, Dyson told me that he when he listened to the ‘old bloviator’s’ wartime radio broadcasts, he found it hard to stop laughing.

Views like these often led him to be described as a contrarian, a characterisation he disliked – he preferred to be regarded as a rebel. After I quoted Malcolm Muggeridge’s line that ‘only dead fish swim with the sea’, Dyson painstakingly wrote it in a notebook, smiling broadly and muttering ‘I like it’. I once asked him what he thought of the observation about him often made in Princeton circles that ‘he would rather be interesting than right’, he reflected for a moment and replied, ‘Yes, there is some truth in that’.

I first met Dyson in the summer of 2004 in a long-arranged meeting to talk about his recollections of Paul Dirac, who had – uncharacteristically – been an energetic supporter of the twenty-eight-year-old Dyson’s nomination for a Fellowship of the Royal Society. I remember shaking with apprehension as I entered his surprisingly plush office in Bloomberg Hall at the Institute for Advanced Study. Having read so much of his authoritative prose, I somehow imagined that he would be an imposing figure, but he was in fact a slight, bird-like man, with staring eyes and a no-nonsense demeanour. ‘Professor Dyson?’ I said. ‘Call me Freeman’, he replied. To break the ice, I made some inane remark about his comfortable office. ‘Too comfortable in my view’, he said. ‘I did some of my best work in a Nissen hut in Birmingham’. He then spent a few minutes praising his mentor Rudolf Peierls, a theoretical physicist who had worked on a wide variety of problems in science and was a pioneer of nuclear-weapon design. ‘I regard myself as a protégé of Rudi’s’, Dyson said.

Alone among the hundreds of Dirac’s acquaintances and family members to whom I spoke, Dyson thought the great British quantum physicist was a pretty normal guy, his taciturnity over-stated. Towards the end of that conversation, Dyson urged me to contact Lily Harish-Chandra, who knew the Dirac family well and was, in Dyson’s view, ‘an exceptionally shrewd judge of character.’ This turned out to excellent advice: five days later, I had my first meeting with Lily. She became one of my dearest friends in Princeton and introduced me to several members of the mathematical community in the town, many of them former acquaintances of her late husband, the great mathematician Harish Chandra, whom Dyson held in awe.

Dyson had joined the faculty in 1953, having impressed the Institute’s director J Robert Oppenheimer, a ‘talented but undistinguished’ theoretical physicist in Dyson’s view. Only a few years before, Dyson had switched focus from pure mathematics to theoretical physics. Although GH Hardy and other stellar mathematicians at Cambridge University had rated the undergraduate Dyson as a prodigy, Dyson himself believed that was not sufficiently well-equipped to join the new wave of mathematics, pioneered mainly on the continent (notably through the Bourbaki movement, based in France). The theoretical physicists had no time for this new mathematics, which one of them described to Freeman as ‘a French disease’ (then a synonym for syphilis). Having sat through Dirac’s ‘dull’ lectures in Cambridge, Dyson became convinced that he could ‘clean up’ in theoretical physics, which in his view was in dire need of sorting out. Within a few years, he was feted as one of the giants of modern quantum electrodynamics – the theory that describes the interactions of electrically charged particles and photons – widely revered for his physical insight and his mathematical skill.

Dyson often talked about his fellow pioneers of quantum electrodynamics. He was generous about the contribution of Sin Itiro Tomonaga, cool about Julian Schwinger, but reserved his most lavish praise for the character of American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman. Dyson regarded him as a good friend, terrific company and phenomenally bright if a little immature, once memorably describing him as ‘half genius, half buffoon’. Over lunch in 2010, Dyson shocked me by declaring that Feynman was ‘not a great physicist’, but was a ‘great calculator’, second only in his experience to Hans Bethe, and ‘an amazing intuitionist’. When I began to take out my notebook, Dyson swiftly backed away. He was less reserved six years later, when I recorded an interview with him for my podcast The Universe Speaks in Numbers. There, he went on the record with his view that Feynman was by no means the most impressive physicist he had met – he gave that honour to the protean Italian Enrico Fermi.

It seemed to me that Dyson was to some extent obsessed by Oppenheimer, to judge by the number of times he introduced him into our conversation and his eagerness to read every new account of his life. Dyson told me that he had his bags packed when Oppenheimer’s security clearance was under review in a high-profile trial in Washington DC. If Oppenheimer had lost his job at the Institute as a result of the trial, then Dyson planned to quit his post immediately – ‘I owed my place here to him, and he had my loyalty, no matter what.’ After Oppenheimer’s humiliation by the court, he became a better director of the Institute, in Dyson’s controversial view, but remained a difficult colleague. When Dyson advised the gifted theoretician Chen-Ning Yang that he should not bother to seek tenure at the Institute because there were no available posts, Oppenheimer was apoplectic and gave what Dyson regarded as ‘the nastiest dressing-down of my life’. Swearing and shouting, Oppenheimer told Dyson to mind his own business. Oppenheimer was desperate to recruit Yang and did so soon afterwards. Dyson often told me how much he admired Yang, whom Dyson regarded as one of the few peers of Einstein and Dirac, much superior as a theoretical physicist to Feynman.

Oppenheimer was profoundly disappointed when Dyson stepped away from fundamental physics and turned his intellect to a much wider canvass, including space travel, nuclear weapons and a host of other subjects. ‘He thought I was wasting my time, I thought he was a narrow-minded snob, and I told him so.’

In 1966, when Oppenheimer was dying of cancer, his wife Kitty approached Dyson and asked him if would do her a favour and collaborate with Oppenheimer on one last research paper. Dyson tried, he told me, but the cause was hopeless: Oppenheimer’s heart wasn’t in it and he could not concentrate for long enough to do a substantial piece of research.’ At that time, Dyson was contemplating a return to particle physics but found that he ‘no longer had the legs for it.’ He much admired the contributions of Murray Gell-Mann, who had made numerous insights into the sub-atomic world by focussing on the symmetries describing it, using the branch of mathematics known as group theory. ‘I knew more group theory than Murray did’, Dyson told me peremptorily – he knew his worth – ‘but he was just too quick for me.’ Having been top dog in theoretical physics, Dyson apparently did not relish being overtaken by the Young Turks who were making the headlines in the physics community.

By 1970, well before he was fifty years old, Dyson had turned his attention away from research into writing. He has often said: ‘I have only two talents: doing calculations and writing essays.’ When I objected, he would not back down: ‘It happens to be true.’ This was another inspired career move, as he was a singularly fine writer – silkily fluent, entertaining and full of provocative opinions, beautifully expressed. I can still remember buying my copy of his terrific memoir Disturbing the Universe and my excitement when I opened the pages of an edition of New York Review of Books and saw a new essay from Dyson. Although many of these pieces often told us more about him than the book under review, they made for lively reading. I also took pleasure from his more technically demanding essays, which gave us an even better sense of the sheer breadth and depth of his erudition. His article Missed Opportunities about how physicists and mathematicians have often failed to learn from each other’s advances inspired me and, I’m sure, many others. Only later did I learn that it was the text he had given at a swish hotel in Las Vegas.

Dyson’s literary adventures led him to acquire a new audience among the many non-specialists who wanted to hear the voice of an authentically first-rate scientific intellectual who was unafraid to question every shibboleth and consensus he came across. He was unmoved by even the most well-argued of the trenchant criticisms of his views but did however seem to be upset by the denunciations of the climate-change scientists whose mathematical models he thought were too primitive to be taken too seriously. But Dyson did not back down and seemed unconcerned that many climate-change deniers gleefully cited his views on this subject as evidence that the consensus was not as solid as the authorities claimed. Some of his friends feared that this will harm his legacy.

No one could deny that Dyson’s writings radiated his love of humanity and his confidence that it could solve even its most serious problems – notably nuclear proliferation, which he passionately campaigned against. He brought this faith and generosity of spirit to his interactions with the many strangers who contacting him via the internet. During a cab ride to Lily Harish-Chandra’s home one afternoon, he told me that he had just wasted that entire morning at his computer, writing to people he did not know. ‘I have to face the fact that I am addicted to e-mail’, he told me, adding that he was determined not to get sucked into the moronic inferno of social media. He received dozens of e-mails most days, he told me, and he aimed to reply courteously to each one with a short message that subtly made it clear that he was not relishing any future contact. Quite a few persistent correspondents were rewarded with an invitation to lunch at the Institute. Some of his visitors appeared a tad eccentric – I saw one, dressed in what appeared to be an Einstein costume, laying out across Dyson’s desk a hare-brained plan for colonising the solar system. I never heard Dyson complain that any of these meetings were a waste of his time.

In the summer of 2018, Dyson was in especially good form. He was delighted by the warm public reception of his new book Maker of Patterns, an autobiography framed around letters to his family from 1941 to the late 1970s. He had already shared some of these letters with me but kept most of them close to his chest. The letters revealed that Dyson had been a lucid, perceptive writer since he was a teenager – in almost four decades, his literary style had not changed by one iota. The book featured the best account we have of the experience of working with Oppenheimer and gave vivid descriptions of his many friends and acquaintances, including Einstein’s executor Helen Dukas (Dyson’s children’s ‘favourite babysitter’) and Stephen Hawking (‘he must be some kind of saint’). It was my favourite book of the year, and I’m confident it will be remembered as a classic.

That summer, Dyson spent several hours reading and commenting in detail on chapters in the book I was then writing, ‘The Universe Speaks in Numbers’. His perspective, along with that of the great mathematician Sir Michael Atiyah, had done much to inform its chapter ‘The Long Divorce’, about the estrangement of front-line researchers in pure mathematics and their counterparts in theoretical physics. A year later, Dyson agreed to speak at an afternoon of talks at the Institute for Advanced Study, celebrating the launch of the book. Along with the distinguished mathematician Karen Uhlenbeck, he talked about the ‘long divorce’ in a discussion chaired by the science writer Natalie Wolchover. It was one of the highlights of the afternoon. The most vivid memory I have of that day occurred at a dinner in a local restaurant when one of the guests, an amateur magician, entertained us with some breath-taking card tricks. It was a pure joy to behold Dyson’s child-like delight at being comprehensively deceived in ways he and everyone around him could not fathom.

A few weeks later, I had what turned out to be my final lunch with him, in Simons Hall, at the Institute. As usual, he was in sparkling form, and even more outspoken than usual. For the first time, he told me not only that he had ‘hated’ Robert Oppenheimer and could never forgive his humiliations of academics less intellectually able than himself. I was stunned – I did not think Dyson was capable of such feelings. I was no less taken aback when he remarked the Oppenheimer deserved to have his clearence withdrawn. A week or so later, I made my final visit to his office, which was almost bare, as if he were about to move out of it. His papers and books had been taken away for cataloguing, he said – ‘I have no more need of them’. I plucked up the courage to ask him whether he really did hate Oppenheimer, whom Dyson had earlier often described as a friend – ‘You’re not a hater’, I said, rather too forwardly. ‘Yes, I did hate him’ he said with his usual firmness, adding gnomically ‘I have spent my life befriending my enemies.’

Freeman Dyson and Graham in his Princeton Office August 2017
Freeman Dyson and Graham, August 2017

I had a lump in my throat when it was time say goodbye. He looked so frail and tired that I could not quite bring myself to say my usual ‘au revoir’. Instead, I said ‘Freeman, I wish you all the best’. Shaking my hand, he replied: ‘Thank you. But I don’t think I’ll be around much longer.’

Alas, he was right. I have lost a friend and, much more important, the world of science has lost a unique talent and a unique, fearless spirit.

Freeman’s Maker of Patterns book review

Freeman’s The Universe Speaks in Numbers podcast

Freeman talking at IAS ‘Universe Speaks’ event last May