A Memorable Interaction with Dr. Freeman Dyson

We are proud of Noam McWilliams, one of our Physics 12 students. During the course of one of his course assignments, he demonstrated courage and confidence in reaching out to several famous scientists as part of one of his school projects. After making contact he messaged me, his teacher, that he had received a response from someone significant.  His hint?  Astrochickens.

Dr. Freeman Dyson, critical in developing our modern understanding of quantum physics, was a theoretical physicist known for some unique ideas over the span of his 60 years in the fields of physics. Dyson not only agreed to be interviewed by Noam, but gave deeply honest and genuine answers to Noam’s questions.

It was while providing feedback for Noam’s project that I read that Freeman Dyson had passed away only a few days prior.  Dyson had continued his work up until the week of his passing, when he was hospitalized, but he had still made time to respond to Noam’s questions. This speaks to Dr. Dyson’s commitment to the endeavour of learning and is a credit to the manner in which Noam reached out to him.

We are so proud of you Noam!  Read more for the Q&A between Noam and Dr. Dyson.  It is worth the read!

What would a typical day in the life look like for you as a physicist? What was the most enjoyable part of your job?I enjoyed jumping around from one activity to another, so there was no typical day. I had the freedom to do that. The best times were talking with friends and students about work we did together. Science is a social activity, with a diversity of people doing a diversity of things.

What concepts of physics did you use most in your job, and how often did you use them? I am basically a mathematician rather than a physicist. My skill was calculating and I enjoyed applying it to problems in pure mathematics as well as in physics and engineering. Do you think your job changed (or would have changed now) due to scientific advancements? Remarkably little changed in my long life as a result of scientific progress. Science has been amazingly successful in exploring the universe, but most of the universe is still unexplored, and the basic tools have not changed. With your career, how do you feel you contributed to society? I did mathematics as an artist exercising my skill as a calculator, like a musician exercising her skill on the violin, because I had the skill and I had an audience. I was not interested in contributing to society except as an entertainer.

Do you think you could have done something to care more about the environment with your job? My job had nothing to do with the environment. I am concerned with the environment as a citizen, not as a mathematician. Are there any social, ethical, or environmental risks associated with physicists working in this field? My work ran into ethical problems when I worked on nuclear problems, designing a nuclear reactor and a nuclear spaceship. I did not design nuclear bombs myself, but I worked happily with people who did design bombs. I dealt with the ethical problems by working as a citizen for arms control and disarmament. I served for a year as chairman of the Federation of American Scientists, a group of scientists working for peace, and I testified for the Federation to the US senate in favor of ratification of the Test Ban Treaty. That treaty put an end to nuclear bomb tests in the atmosphere.

Are there any social, ethical, or environmental benefits associated with physicists working in this field? I never claimed that my work as a scientist had social or ethical or environmental benefits for humanity. As it happened, the nuclear reactors that I designed were used mainly for medical purposes and have been running for fifty years without any accidents. What was your career journey like to get to this point, and was is hard work? I was lucky to have a permanent academic job with complete freedom to do whatever I liked from age 29 to 96. I worked hard because I enjoyed it, and because I belonged to a community that respects hard work. How do you feel that you are one of the most famous physicists alive today? I worked for the first half of my life mainly as a mathematician and for the second half mainly as a writer of books, As a writer of books I covered a much wider range of subjects and widened my circle of friends. To the general public I am much better known as a writer than as a physicist. If I had only been a physicist, I would not be famous.

Were you proud of your work and your awards? I am proud of my life as a whole, not particularly proud of my work. I most proud of raising six children who all have interesting and successful lives, second I am proud of my books, only third I am proud of my work as a scientist. I was happy to have awards given for a wide range of activities, but I am well aware that I do not have a Nobel Prize. I agree with the Nobel Prize committee that I do not deserve a Nobel Prize, because I never solved a major scientific problem. For me, work was always an entertainment, not an obsession.