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Freeman Dyson began his career as a mathematician, but then turned to the exciting new developments in physics in the 1940s, particularly the theory of quantized fields. He wrote two papers on the foundations of quantum electrodynamics that have had a lasting influence on many branches of modern physics. He went on to work in condensed-matter physics, statistical mechanics, nuclear engineering, climate studies, astrophysics, and biology. Dyson was born in 1923 in Crawthorne, England. He received a bachelor's degree from the University of Cambridge in 1945 and came to the United States in 1947 as a Commonwealth Fellow at Cornell University. He settled in the United States permanently in 1951, became a professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in 1953, and retired as professor emeritus in 1994. Beyond his professional work in physics, Dyson has a keen awareness of the human side of science and the human consequences of technology. His books for the general public include Disturbing the Universe, Weapons and Hope, Infinite in All Directions, Origins of Life and The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet.
Listen to the Interview (Requires free RealPlayer software):
Freeman Dyson, a skilled mathematician, describes the impact of World War II on his career path and his eventual concentration on physics. His interest in engineering led him to develop a new theory called adaptive optics to allow ground-based telescopes to detect fainter objects more clearly. He also explains that he designed the first nuclear power reactor, and discusses aspects of nuclear power today. (8 minutes)
A celebrated author known for conveying science to the general public, Dyson talks about his book The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet, which explains the philosophical and theoretical issues involved in scientific endeavors. He suggests that scientific revolutions are driven either by new concepts or tools, and emphasizes using technology to narrow the gap between the rich and poor rather than widen it further. (10 minutes)
The negative effects of globalization and megacities can be countered by a return to village culture, using technology to make rural areas more self-sufficient and productive, he says. Dyson also discusses the second edition of his landmark book Origins of Life, a study of one of the major unsolved questions of science. (8 minutes)
Dyson notes there is much to learn from rocks that originated on Mars and were found in Antarctica. He speculates about different forms of life in the universe and explores the question of whether life can endure forever. (10 minutes)
Dyson credits his European education in quantum field theory for his ability to unify the three versions of quantum electrodynamics invented by Feynman, Schwinger and Tomonaga. His work marked a new epoch in physics. Advances in science, he says, are often the result of finding a common language among different theories. (7 minutes)
String theory is a remarkable development that may one day become a more practical tool for advancing the field of physics, Dyson says. He discusses his current intellectual pursuits: following developments in biotechnology, writing books and finding ways to overcome barriers to space exploration. (8 minutes)
Last Updated: 07-23-2004
The audio files linked above are part of the National Academy of Sciences InterViews series. Opinions and statements included in these audio files are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Academy of Sciences.