Freeman Dyson insists that he is “good at only two things – doing calculations and writing essays”. This may be true, but the phrase underestimates the extent of his talent. Apart from Paul Dirac, he is probably the most accomplished mathematical physicist Britain has produced in the past century, and is perhaps the finest living scientific essayist. This volume features all the qualities that characterise his writing, including eloquence, ingenuity, insightfulness and occasional perversity.
Now a US citizen, Dyson has been based for the past 62 years at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, where I have got to know him over the past decade. In his career, he has mostly ploughed his own furrow and pursued a wide range of research – not all of it in mathematics or in physics – and won an international reputation as a scientific savant. His views are reliably original and often counter-orthodox, and he states them with an arresting trenchancy. I have often heard it said of him that “he would rather be interesting than right”.
This collection is named after the essay in which Dyson argues that in mathematics, practitioners are either birds (flying high, surveying broad vistas out to the horizon) or frogs (feet on the ground, solving one problem at a time). In his introduction, he goes further and asserts that the same categories apply to literature and politics, and other human enterprises. He is rather too fond of placing complex things in conveniently small numbers of categories (“physics is a drama in six acts”; “trouble comes to science on three levels, personal, local and global”). The technique furnishes an effective tool for structuring an essay, if not for rigorous analysis.
Several of the essays here concern the lives of scientists, including one on the 18th-century astronomer James Bradley, whom Dyson dubs “the inventor of modern science” purely on the grounds that he pioneered high-precision measurements. The finest memoirs here, however, are about theoreticians who were (or are) his friends, including the “conservative revolutionary” physicist Frank Yang, and John Wheeler, who “oscillated between two styles of writing and thinking, prosaic and poetic”, as Dyson perceptively notes. He even supplies a sympathetic obituary of the widely disliked physicist Edward Teller, whose views on the acquisition of nuclear weapons were in stark contrast to the author’s.
For Dyson, the abolition of nuclear weapons, together with the development of genetic engineering, are the two most pressing practical matters for humanity. Regrettably, there is nothing in the book about global warming, a subject on which he has unconventional views that are often depicted as giving balm to climate-change deniers. It would have been good to see his views set out here in detail for scrutiny by his peers.
Some of the most attractive pieces here are personal. We learn why Dyson unapologetically goes to church, we delight in the pleasures and consolations he finds in children and grandchildren, and are charmed by his family anecdotes. In one, he recalls the composer Zoltán Kodály lying sick on the sofa in the Dyson family home before he rose the next day to conduct the premiere of his Dances of Galánta. And who can resist Dyson’s account of his wartime service in RAF Bomber Command, after being inducted by C. P. Snow?
While some of these essays can be found online, it is surely worth owning a collection of this quality as a book, which has the advantage that it comes with an adequate index. I doubt whether more nourishing and entertaining reflections on science and scientists will be published this year.
Graham Farmelo is a by-fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge, and author of Churchill’s Bomb: A Hidden History of Science, War and Politics (2013).
Birds and Frogs: Selected Papers, 1990-2014
By Freeman J. Dyson
World Scientific 376pp, £38.00 and £18.00
ISBN 9789814602853 and 2860
Published 18 May 2015
Review originally published as: Theories on everything (11 June 2015)
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