An Education in Science and Suffering

Freeman Dyson fell in love with math, science, and nature as a child. Later, as a statistician in World War II, he had a “front-row seat view” of mass tragedy.
  • Transcript


Question: How did you first become interested in science?

Freeman Dyson:  Yeah, it’s hard to tell of course, but I’ve been interested in science certainly from a child.  I was mostly interested in numbers.  I was calculating things at a very young age.  I just fell in love with numbers and then it spread from there to the rest of nature and I became…  I remember the total eclipse of the sun, which happened when I was three, and I was furious with my father because he wouldn’t take us to see it.  It would have meant about a whole day’s driving and anyways, so he said no, you can’t see the partial eclipse and that’s it, and I thought that was terribly unfair.

Question: What was your science education like?

Freeman Dyson:  So, well I never learned much science in school.  That was I think an advantage in the old days.  I grew up in England and we spent most of the time on Latin and Greek and very little on science, and I think that was good because it meant we didn’t get turned off.  It was… Science was something we did for fun and not because we had to.

Question: What was your experience of World War II like?

Freeman Dyson:  Yes, well I was 15 when the war started, so for a long time I just stayed in school, but then so I was lucky.  I had only two years of the war and so I went to work for the Royal Air Force when I was 19, which was already just two years before it ended, so I went to the **** headquarters and that was July ’43, and so I had just two years of it, the last two years and I was working as a statistician mostly just collecting all the information about the Air Force operations, particularly the bombing of Germany, so I had a sort of front-row seat view of that.  Of course it was a total shambles, the whole campaign.  It was a great tragedy for both sides and, well, there was nothing I could do about it.

Recorded March 5th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen