“A Frog with Wings” – Freeman Dyson

Freeman Dyson in 2007 at the Institute for Advanced study, Princeton University

Science is specialized, indeed too specialized for most scientists to have the time for thoughtful excursions into other vistas of the broader intellectual landscape. The eminent theoretical physicist, Freeman Dyson (b. 1923) is a stunning exception to this narrowness of the mind. Here is a man who is equally at ease with tensor calculus as with discourses on politics, climate change, literature and religion. What motivates Dyson to explore such wide-ranging subjects? How does the man compare himself with other scientists? Here’s a glimpse into the mind of this ‘Renaissance man’ by long-time friend, Elliott H. Lieb from Princeton University’s Department of Physics and Mathematics. The title of Lieb’s talk – part of the scientific community’s celebration of Dyson’s 90th birthday in 2013, is simply titled, ‘Freeman Dyson’. I’ve taken the liberty to make minor edits of his speech.

The title of my talk as it appears in the program, ‘Freeman Dyson’ is enigmatic because it was hard to decide which of the many facets of Freeman to address … It is fair to say that he is a great literary stylist, whether writing about quantum fields or religion, and he is arguably the most elegant writer in today’s mathematics and physics communities. His articles and book reviews in the New York Review of Books are carefully read by thousands and are often topic of lunchtime and dinnertime conversations, at least at my house.

On the science side of the last decade we see that Freeman continues to be productive. A recent paper will Bill Press on the ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences astounded many for its discovery that there are strategies for repeated playing of this two-person game that can, for example, permit one player to control the score of the other player. It is amazing what linear algebra can accomplish! In this paper, one can clearly discern the mark of Freeman’s straight to the jugular thinking coupled with his economy of presentation.

But this paper is not the whole story about the last decade. With Larry Glasser and Norm Frankel his love of classical mathematics resurfaced with a paper on a power series of Lehmer and its relation to \pi .

Freeman has an amazing ability to acquire and organize facts. Another paper within the last decade is one with Thibault Damour on the stability of the Fine Structure constant – a subject that engaged his attention since at least 1972. How many among us here would know enough nuclear and other physics to be able to analyze critically the data relevant to the observation that one can discern the CO_2 production rate of swamp plants? This kind of information came from participation in an Oak Ridge study group, but few people other than Freeman would be able to use this knowledge to suggest a solution to the CO_2 problem.

Further, how many of us would be able to use the solar energy production, the mass of the earth, and other parameters, regarded as typical for planetary systems, to calculate the possible radioactive output of advanced civilizations, and therefrom, our chances of receiving greetings from outer space? In short, arguing with Freeman is like arguing with your smartphone or with the Oxford English dictionary. You can’t win and you can only accept graceful defeat. But even if you don’t agree with him on global warming research, or the role of theology in public life, the main thing is that Freeman, like Nelson Mandela, has an exemplary ability to enter sensitive areas without igniting conflagrations around him.

There is more to be said but I should stop now. In my remarks ten years ago, I compared Freeman to one of the giant trees in the rain forest on which the lives of many flora and fauna depend, but since then he has changed species. He famously wrote:

“Some mathematicians are birds, others are frogs. Birds fly high in the air and survey broad vistas of mathematics out to the far horizon. They delight in concepts that unify our thinking and bring together diverse problems from different parts of the landscape. Frogs live in the mud below and see only the flowers that grow nearby. They delight in the details of the particular objects, and they solve problems one at a time. I happened to be a frog.”

If this is so, he is a frog with wings.

Listen to the man himself
In this video interview, Dyson talks about the wonders and limits of science. Most memorable sentence : “We understand the physical world extremely well. We understand the ‘mental world’ hardly at all.” Here, Dyson uses the phrase ‘mental world’ to include subjects like the nature of consciousness and the existence of God.


[1] Excerpts from The Atlantic (December 2010 issue): “Freeman Dyson is one of those force-of-nature intellects whose brilliance can be fully grasped by only a tiny subset of humanity, that handful of thinkers capable of following his equations. His principal contribution has been to the theory of quantum electrodynamics, but he has done stellar work, too, in pure mathematics, particle physics, statistical mechanics, and matter in the solid state. He writes with a grace and clarity that is rare, even freakish, in a scientist, and his books, including Disturbing the UniverseWeapons and HopeInfinite in All Directions, and The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet, have made a mark. Dyson has won the Lorentz Medal (the Netherlands) and the Max Planck Medal (Germany) for his work in theoretical physics. In 1996, he was awarded the Lewis Thomas Prize, which honors the scientist as poet. In 2000, he scored the Templeton Prize for exceptional contribution to the affirmation of life’s spiritual dimension—worth more, in a monetary way, than the Nobel.”

[2] Here’s an informal peep of a genius at work. Maria Popova’s engaging article: “A Flash of Illumination on the Greyhound Bus: Physicist Freeman Dyson on Creative Breakthrough and the Unconscious Mind.”, from Brain Pickings. Link: https://www.brainpickings.org/2018/06/28/freeman-dyson-maker-of-patterns-creativity/

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