More on Freeman Dyson

If you saw either of the videos on yesterday’s posts, I’m sure you’ll agree that Freeman Dyson is special. He talks the way Bertrand Russell wrote–clear, to the point, logical and… well… kind. (I hope someone can help me explain what I mean by that–but compassion comes through in the communications of both Dyson and Russell.)


It’s not often that one of the great minds of the century can communicate in clear, plain English. You don’t need to be a climate scientist to understand what this climate scientist (for 15 years) thinks. You don’t need to understand biotechnology to understand his vision of a future that is propelled by that science.

I would argue that the principal failing of the consensus of climate scientists has been their inability to produce someone of Dyson’s gravitas who can communicate clearly what the position is. Michael Mann just doesn’t cut it. James Hansen was closer, prior to his retirement, but his tendency to exaggerate and excoriate lessened his effectiveness.

As for the Klimate Konsensus, those NGOs, lobbyists and self-styled ‘climate communicators’, if I could I’d strap them in and make them watch Dyson over and over. Instead, they created a page for him in their Denier Database and looked for every opportunity to denigrate him or to complain, as Michael Tobis did, that he’s ‘getting too much press.’

Gee. I wonder why he gets so much press?

In 1951 he joined the faculty at Cornell as a physics professor, although still lacking a doctorate, and in 1953 he received a permanent post at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey—where he has now lived for more than fifty years.[18] In 1957 he became a naturalized citizen of the United States and renounced his British nationality. One reason he gave decades later is that his children born in the US had not been recognized as British subjects.[5][6]

Dyson is best known for demonstrating in 1949 the equivalence of two then-current formulations of quantum electrodynamics—Richard Feynman’s diagrams and the operator method developed by Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga.[19] He was the first person (besides Feynman) to appreciate the power of Feynman diagrams, and his paper written in 1948 and published in 1949 was the first to make use of them. He said in that paper that Feynman diagrams were not just a computational tool, but a physical theory, and developed rules for the diagrams that completely solved the renormalization problem. Dyson’s paper and also his lectures presented Feynman’s theories of QED (quantum electrodynamics) in a form that other physicists could understand, facilitating the physics community’s acceptance of Feynman’s work. Robert Oppenheimer, in particular, was persuaded by Dyson that Feynman’s new theory was as valid as Schwinger’s and Tomonaga’s. Oppenheimer rewarded Dyson with a lifetime appointment at the Institute for Advanced Study, “for proving me wrong”, in Oppenheimer’s words.[20]

Also in 1949, in a related work, Dyson invented the Dyson series.[21] It was this paper that inspired John Ward to derive his celebrated Ward identity.[22]

Dyson also did work in a variety of topics in mathematics, such as topology, analysis, number theory and random matrices.[23] There is an interesting story involving random matrices. In 1973 the number theorist Hugh Montgomery was visiting the Institute for Advanced Study and had just made his pair correlation conjecture concerning the distribution of the zeros of the Riemann zeta function. He showed his formula to the mathematician Atle Selberg who said it looked like something in mathematical physics and he should show it to Dyson, which he did. Dyson recognized the formula as the pair correlation function of the Gaussian unitary ensemble, which has been extensively studied by physicists. This suggested that there might be an unexpected connection between the distribution of primes 2,3,5,7,11, … and the energy levels in the nuclei of heavy elements such as uranium.[24]

From 1957 to 1961 he worked on the Orion Project, which proposed the possibility of space-flight using nuclear pulse propulsion. A prototype was demonstrated using conventional explosives, but the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (which Dyson was involved in and supported) permitted only underground nuclear testing, so the project was abandoned.

In 1958 he led the design team for the TRIGA, a small, inherently safe nuclear reactor used throughout the world in hospitals and universities for the production of medical isotopes.

A seminal work by Dyson came in 1966 when, together with Andrew Lenard and independently of Elliott H. Lieb and Walter Thirring, he proved rigorously that the exclusion principle plays the main role in the stability of bulk matter.[25][26][27] Hence, it is not the electromagnetic repulsion between outer-shell orbital electrons which prevents two wood blocks that are left on top of each other from coalescing into a single piece, but rather it is the exclusion principle applied to electrons and protons that generates the classical macroscopic normal force. In condensed matter physics, Dyson also did studies in the phase transition of the Ising model in 1 dimension and spin waves.[23]

Around 1979, Dyson worked with the Institute for Energy Analysis on climate studies. This group, under the direction of Alvin Weinberg, pioneered multidisciplinary climate studies, including a strong biology group. Also during the 1970s, he worked on climate studies conducted by the JASON defense advisory group.[18]

Dyson retired from the Institute for Advanced Study in 1994.[28] In 1998, Dyson joined the board of the Solar Electric Light Fund. As of 2003 he was president of the Space Studies Institute, the space research organization founded by Gerard K. O’Neill; As of 2013 he is on its Board of Trustees.[29] Dyson is a long-time member of the JASON group.

Dyson is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books.

Dyson has won numerous scientific awards but never a Nobel Prize. Nobel physics laureate Steven Weinberg has said that the Nobel committee has “fleeced” Dyson, but Dyson himself remarked in 2009, “I think it’s almost true without exception if you want to win a Nobel Prize, you should have a long attention span, get hold of some deep and important problem and stay with it for ten years. That wasn’t my style.”[18]

In 2012, he published (with William H. Press) a fundamental new result about the Prisoner’s Dilemma in PNAS.[30]

3 responses to “More on Freeman Dyson

  1. The climate obsessed cannot address his arguments, so they must attack the man.
    Thank you for keeping this update from one of the great minds of the last 100 years current.

  2. Here’s an interview podcast of Dyson by Russ Roberts:

    About 15 minutes in he says he gets more hate mail from owners of Dyson vacuum cleaners than over climate saying the damn thing doesn’t work.

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