Freeman Dyson: So my first name is Freeman and my last name Dyson and my title, Mister. I’m a physicist, but also a writer.
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?
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.
Question: How did the physics community react after the dropping of the atomic bomb?
Freeman Dyson: Of course they talked about it incessantly. That was the main subject of conversation for many years and so people had very strong feelings about it on both sides and people who thought it was the greatest thing they'd ever done and people who thought it was just an unpleasant job and people who thought they should have never done it at all, so there were opinions of all kinds.
Question: How does the public, including public ignorance of science, affect scientists?
Freeman Dyson: Well it’s very hard to tell. I mean I grew up in England at a time when England was winning Nobel Prizes right and left. I mean it was amazing how many Nobel Prizes England was winning in chemistry and physics and biology and all the sciences and at that time the teaching of science in the schools was really lousy. I mean I experienced that myself. We learned almost nothing in school. Science was very unpopular. It was… I mean science was blamed for all the horrors of World War I, just as it’s blamed today for nuclear weapons and quite rightly. I mean World War I was a horrible war and it was mostly the fault of science, so that was in a way a very bad time for science, but on the other hand we were winning all these Nobel Prizes. Well since then of course the teaching of science in schools in England has improved tremendously and the number of Nobel Prizes has gone down and I think that that might even be connected. I don’t know, but I think it’s quite possible that the more science you teach kids in school the more it turns them off, so I don’t know. I mean you never can tell which way it will go.
Question: Are there any current technologies or areas of scientific inquiry that could have similarly terrible consequences?
Freeman Dyson: Indeed there are. Of course I mean it’s strange in a way that we had already we were scared of biological warfare in the ‘30s. I mean there was Aldous Huxley, wrote his novel Brave New World and started out with anthrax bombs, so we knew all about anthrax already in the ‘30s and in fact, we expected that. I mean when World War I… when World War II came along, which was when I was a teenager, we all expected we would have anthrax bombs and this kind of stuff. We thought it would be a biological war. Fortunately it wasn’t and, but it’s because the danger is still there and by some miracle we escaped all that, so you never can tell what it going to happen, but biology certainly could be even worse than physics and chemistry.
Question: What specific biotechnologies could pose a danger?
Freeman Dyson: Well germ warfare of course exists. There have been on a small scale… There have been, of course, a few people who got killed with anthrax right here in Princeton.
Question: Will humanity destroy itself, or will wisdom prevail?
Freeman Dyson: Well it’s always a mixture. We don’t know what’s… Some things go better than you expected, other things go worse, so I’m… I think the only sensible thing is just to wait and see and what I’m doing when I’m writing books - I’m not doing science so much anymore. Mostly I’m just writing books for the public, and so I try to describe for the public what the choices are, what they might have to expect in the future and so by warning people ahead of time maybe you have an effect. I think the fact that Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World and talked about anthrax bombs probably helped because at least we… people had the understanding before the war began that’s something we didn’t want to get into, so I think it’s much better to have your eyes open, but on the other hand, of course it can do harm if you tell people look, there's all these terrible things you can do and then some idiot may go ahead and do it.
Question: Have you ever been totally surprised by the outcome of your own research?
Freeman Dyson: I was amazed when I did this work, which was the first thing I did in physics, which was really what made me famous, this quantum electrodynamics. I mean what I was doing was calculating what an electron decides to do in a certain situation, in an experiment and I did a huge calculation which took pages and pages and pages of paper and in the end I got a number, so that is what the electron has to do, and well then somebody in New York does the experiment and the electron somehow knows that. The electron does exactly what I calculated. To me that was amazing. I mean why should the electron know? How does the electron know? Somehow it does. Anyway, to me that sounds like a miracle.
Question: What was your role in the development of quantum electrodyamics?
Freeman Dyson: That’s very hard. I really need equations and a blackboard to do that. I mean it’s very technical stuff. I mean essentially I was a mathematician and so my job was just cleaning up the mathematics. All the physics already had been done. That’s to say the ideas were already there and all I had to do was just organize calculations, so that’s about all I can say. I can’t tell you the details, but so I had a… I had arrived as a young student and all the work had really already been done to understand atoms and light and radio waves, and all the components were in a way understood, but nobody understood how to organize the calculations, so that was my job.
Question: What is the field basically attempting to study?
Freeman Dyson: Yes, well I can tell you roughly what happened. I mean that the atoms by and large were understood in the 1920s when quantum mechanics was invented and quantum mechanics is the part of science which tells how atoms actually behave, and so that was all more or less worked out in the 1920s, but there were some fine details left over, and particularly there was an experiment which was done in America at Columbia University in the 1946, just after the war, which disagreed with quantum mechanics and so it was clear we had a real discrepancy. Theory said one thing and the experiment said something different, so that was the stimulus that started me going, that there was something there to be explained, which wasn’t understood and to try to see why that experiment gave the answer it did, so it was a big opportunity for a young student starting to have actually an experiment which contradicted the theory, so that’s was my chance to understand that, and I found out that if you did the calculation in a different way that you got the right answer.
Question: What was Project Orion?
Freeman Dyson: This was in the year 1957 when the Russians sent up the first satellite, which they called Sputnik, which means companion. It was a companion for the earth. So this Sputnik was up there in space and it was making everybody nervous because if the Russians could send satellites into space they could also throw missiles at us and we at that time didn’t have any missiles which we could throw at them. So it was a scary moment and so it was a moment when you could get money very easily for crazy projects and so my friend, Ted Taylor, who was a young physicist, actually younger than me, he had this idea of building a spaceship with nuclear bombs, which sounds crazy and in a certain way it is crazy, but it could have actually… it could have worked and so I thought that would be exciting to do. I had never done anything like that. I had been always just a mathematician and working on paper, but so that gave me a chance to do something real, so I moved to San Diego in California and joined a company called General Atomic, which is still there and went to work on this spaceship and it looked as though we might even get the green light actually to go ahead and build it, but in the end of course we didn’t. The fatal flaw of that whole scheme is that it spreads radioactivity all around. You’re exploding bombs in big numbers, so you really do make a tremendous mess, and so in the end common sense prevailed and they decided to go ahead with ordinary rockets and not with nuclear bombs, but we had a great time. We studied the theory of this and the engineering. We had a lot of good engineers and we actually did little tests of chemical explosives building little model spacecraft, which would go pop, pop, pop, pop, just up in the sky and come down again and just to show that we knew how to do it, so we had every Saturday morning we didn’t get paid for that, but every Saturday morning we’d go and fly our little models. The rest of the week we’d do the serious stuff. So I spent a year and a half there and the project actually lasted for seven years, but by the end of the first year it was pretty clear that it wasn’t going to fly.
Question: What were the theoretical possibilities of the Orion mission?
Freeman Dyson: If it had been given the green light we could have gone to Mars in about five years. I mean the thing started in ’58 and we planned to have a Mars mission already within five years and we’d be scooting all around the solar system. I mean it was a very, very high performance ship, far better than anything we have today, and it would have easily gone to Mars and back and to Jupiter, the satellites of Saturn and all the interesting places in the solar system. We could have gone scooting around, and of course we intended to go ourselves. This was a big ship and it was with a crew. We imagined we would have a crew of about 40 people, so it was on the grand scale, and it would have been comparatively cheap because it was built like a submarine, not like an airplane. It was heavy engineering and so a lot cheaper than aerospace.
Question: Will we ever be able to accomplish those feats through some alternative technology?
Freeman Dyson: Well the joke is of course that we do such marvelous missions now with small payloads. I mean when we worked on Orion we were talking about 1,000 tons of payload just for one ship, and so we thought of ourselves as sort of like the Darwin on the Beagle going out for five years and with all our provisions and having to take along a squash court so that you could stay fit, and we could take along almost anything you wanted, and of course nowadays the whole way of operating in space is so totally different. Now you measure the payload in pounds, not in tons, and so we have a ship which is now orbiting around Saturn called Cassini, which of course doesn’t have people on board. It has wonderful instruments on board and the total payload of that thing is a few thousand pounds and it’s doing far more exploring than we could have done. So if we had a thousand tons of payload today we wouldn’t know what to do with it.
Question: Will humankind ever reach the stars?
Freeman Dyson: Yes, I think so, but of course my guess is no better than anybody else’s, but technically it could be done. Of course it’s much too expensive just for the next hundred years or maybe the next thousand years, but we have lots and lots of time, so I would imagine that we will be scooting around on a much grander scale, but it could… On the other hand, we could decide we’re not interested, so let’s not do it and that remains to be seen.
Question: How do you rate the chances of our discovering life on other planets?
Freeman Dyson: Well, of course, well, nobody knows. That’s why it’s interesting. I mean that it’s completely unknown whether these creatures exist or what they look or where they are, so we’re free to search in all sorts of ways and what is delightful about it is that our… It is very cheap. Actually the amounts of money that have to be spent are quite small and they don’t increase with time because our processing of data is all the time getting cheaper and cheaper. It’s essentially a matter of computers which are getting more powerful every year, but are not increasing in cost, so it means that we’re getting better and better at it, but with more or less constant expenditure and so it makes a lot of sense just to go on. There is always a chance next year we find something and we don’t have… It’s not… The public is not, is misled into thinking this is a grand and expensive project. Actually it’s not.
Question: How do physicists understand time in ways that laypeople don’t?
Freeman Dyson: I don’t think there is any difference. I mean the time that physicists deal with is essentially the same as ordinary time, except that physicists think of microseconds or picoseconds instead of just seconds. That means millionths of a second or trillionths of a second, so they can… physicists can think of very short intervals of time, but that doesn’t really make much difference to ordinary life. I think much… I mean much more big changes in our thinking are coming along with biology rather than with physics. When biology advances then we think differently about ourselves and that really does make a difference. For example, at the moment the most rapid movement in biology is neurology. We’re learning how to study our brains and to take moving pictures of brains with magnetic fields, so you can actually see things going on in our own head when we’re thinking and that’s going to change the way we think about ourselves I think in a much more fundamental way.
Question: Could quantum mechanics lend a scientific basis to the idea of free will?
Freeman Dyson: Well I can’t say I’ll talk about it in depth, but it’s true that quantum mechanics makes atoms unpredictable. I mean that was the big surprise, that when you understand atoms it turns out you absolutely cannot predict what they’re going to do. The laws are… just don’t allow exact predictions. It… there is a certain kind of freedom that atoms have to jump around, and they seem to choose entirely on their own without any input from the outside, so in a certain sense atoms have free will, so that’s, to my mind at least, it’s probably connected with the fact that we have free will. We have at least a strong feeling when we decide to move a hand up and down that we’re free to do it or not and so it could be that we are actually using the freedom that quantum mechanics allows, though the brain is a kind of an amplifier, which takes the freedom of movement of atoms and translates it into freedom of movement of our whole body. That’s at least my feeling about it, and we don’t understand it in detail, but it looks as though there is a connection.
Question: What would give the human mind this capacity?
Freeman Dyson: Well the human mind is just a sort of a clever device for using this freedom in order to achieve some kind of a purpose, and of course animals in general do that and humans have reached the point of being aware of what they’re doing.
Question: Do you have any personal recollections of Einstein?
Freeman Dyson: I mean I was here in Princeton when Einstein was still alive, but I never spoke a word to him and in fact, he moved in his own circle of friends. He didn’t have anything much to do with the young people here at the institute, so we never actually contacted… He never came to our talks or to our meetings, which was a shame, but that’s the truth.
Question: What misconceptions do people have about Einstein?
Freeman Dyson: Well I suppose what most of what people believe about him is true, I would say. I mean he was a totally exceptional person in all sorts of ways. His science was exceptional. His humor was exceptional, his ability to say… just to answer questions in a witty way so that he got in headlines in the newspapers. He had just this wonderful gift of talking to the public, and in addition of course he had a turbulent family life and he was a, in many ways a selfish and unpleasant character, but on the other hand he was wonderful with children and so on. I mean there were all sorts of… He had wonderful qualities and those things I think the public rightly appreciated.
Question: Of the scientists you worked with, who inspired or mentored you?
Freeman Dyson: Well of course the one I wrote about most, the one I enjoyed most, was Richard Feynman. He was… When I knew him best he was quite young, so he and I were about five years apart, so he was a young professor and I was a student, and he took me for a ride across the country from here to Albuquerque in a rickety old car and we had a great time. So I mean he was a wonderful person to be around. In addition he was a genius and so he was doing the physics that actually made me famous. He had the ideas and then I translated them into mathematics, so we worked together in that sense, so he had always… He did the real work and I tied it up afterwards, but anyway, it was a great thing to be with him and I enjoyed him enormously, and in addition because he was a great joker, he was a clown. He loved to play the fool and he was famous for picking locks. He could open a safe and he did that quite a lot just in order to shock people, and he told stories about himself, most of which were true.
Question: In the 25 years since your book “Weapons and Hope,” what’s changed?
Freeman Dyson: Well of course almost everything has changed. That book was written at an unfortunate time. It was just about two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, so the world changed totally, and I never ever thought that would happen. In fact, very few people I know ever did imagine the Soviet Union could just peacefully disappear the way it did ,and of course so the way the world has changed since then is, of course, that all the troubles are now on a small scale comparatively, but they’re totally different and so you have wars like the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan where small weapons of course are doing all the harm. These are lethal weapons, particularly landmines and explosive devices in the ground and the little handheld rockets and the machine guns and so it’s all smaller arms. It’s nobody is using nuclear weapons and so the whole problem of war and peace has changed totally and we’re not able to cope with it very well and unfortunately the sort of old way of thinking still prevails in large parts of the world. We haven’t adjusted to the changes. So it was an unfortunate time to write that book and if I wrote it now it would be very different. It’s I mean everything the book says about nuclear weapons I think is still true, but of course what it doesn’t do is to talk about all these small and much more important weapons that we have now and it’s amusing that the company I worked for when I worked on the Orion 50 years ago when I worked on the spaceship, the company is called General Atomic, and now they’re doing extremely well because what they’ve changed over now is to building Predators. The Predator is the unmanned airplane that is now being used all the time in Iraq and Afghanistan and in Pakistan partly just for spying on… for taking pictures of what is going on, on the ground, but in addition it’s also being used for killing people on the ground, so it’s become now a very important part of the war, and we never imagined that when we worked there.
Question: Can Obama honor his commitment to reduce nuclear stockpiles worldwide?
Freeman Dyson: Well he should be doing much more. I mean this is… I like Obama and I like what he is doing, but this is not at all impressive. George Bush, Sr., did far more. I mean George Bush, Sr., got rid more than half of our nuclear weapons just like that. He was the one who really got rid of nuclear weapons on a big scale, but George Bush, Sr., was careful because he was a Republican. He did it very quietly. He didn’t want to have his name associated with that, but he got it done. Of course with Obama it’s sort of the opposite that he would like to get the credit for it, but he is not really doing it, and so it’s, I think he should be doing far more and I hope he will, but he is in a much more difficult position. It helps to be a right-wing Republican if you want to disarm.
Question: How do you currently rate the likelihood of climate catastrophe?
Freeman Dyson: Well that’s a big subject, of course, and I mean I don’t like the word catastrophe. I don’t think there is any catastrophe there, but certainly the climate is changing and that’s important. It’s always been changing. There has never been a time when the climate stayed put for any length of time, and so I would say all the evidence we have is that we’re having some effect on the climate. It’s not clear whether it’s good or bad. It’s not clear whether it’s going to become a catastrophe or not and as far as I’m concerned it’s very foolish to do anything spectacular to… What we should be doing is dealing with the problems in detail. I mean the first thing is we should build dikes around New Orleans, and I mean there are simple practical things we can do which really would help, like building dikes around cities which are exposed to hurricanes or tsunamis and so these kind of practical measures could be enormously helpful. I mean we’ve seen just in the last few months, we’ve seen two big earthquakes, one in Haiti and one in Chile, and what we’ve seen is that the earthquake in Chile was much larger, but the damage actually was smaller, the reason being that Chileans had taken more trouble to build buildings that would resist earthquakes and so you can… it actually helps enormously to strengthen your buildings. Of course I mean Chile has the advantage of being a richer country to start with, but it’s a dramatic proof of what you can do. You can actually take a natural catastrophe and reduce the damage by a factor of 100 or so just by quite simple measures; just by having good building codes and the same is true of climate. There are all sorts of things we can do in a practical way. It’s not -- we don’t only have to worry about warming. We also have to worry about cooling, and it could very well be the climate gets colder. Nobody knows, and there are many things we should be doing to prepare for that and they’re not all that expensive, but what I think is absurd, what I disagree with very strongly, is the idea that climate is predictable, that we can sort of do things 100 years in advance knowing what is going to happen. That is just not… That is just not the way it is.
Question: What has been your reaction to the controversy over your opinions on global warming?
Freeman Dyson: It doesn’t disturb me at all. I always believe in talking to my opponents and staying friends. I mean you know it’s with the people I disagree with the most strongly I’m actually quite friendly with and there is no… It doesn’t make… It doesn’t disturb me if they disagree with me.
Question: Is a moderate position on climate change now considered radical?
Freeman Dyson: Well, I don’t know. It changes from week to week. What I’ve noticed is there has been a strong increase in skepticism and just in the last couple of weeks, and I suppose it has something to do with all these snowstorms we’ve been having. I don’t know, but certainly I’ve seen the politicians becoming much more skeptical just recently. That of course I welcome. I think that actually means they’re recognizing the way things are.
Question: If climate change does cause problems, how might we realistically be able to engineer solutions?
Freeman Dyson: Well there are all sorts of ways. There was a couple of farmers in Minnesota I was just reading about who decided to change from feedlots to grass. They are raising beef. These are farmers who are just raising cows for beef and a certain amount of milk as well, and they decided to switch from feedlots, which is of course the fashionable way of raising cows. You keep them on a very crowded feedlot and feed them on corn, so you’re growing corn to feed to the animals. Instead of that you put them out to grass, but you manage the grass in a clever way with moving fences around, so they actually eat the grass much more evenly. It turns out this pays and it’s, they’re doing extremely well just going back from feedlots to grass and it has a big effect on the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in proportion to the area that they’re using, so it means that if the whole of the Middle West would do this it would make a very substantial difference to the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and so that kind of… that’s the sort of practical thing you can do, just sort of managing the land more intelligently, and it’s rather like building dikes around New Orleans. I mean it’s not all that spectacular, but it actually works. So changing from feedlots to grass I think it’s sort of… It’s not… It doesn’t solve the whole problem, but it solves a certain chunk of the problem and there are other things you can do. Doing less ploughing makes a huge difference. Ploughing is one of the main causes of carbon going into the atmosphere because you expose the soil to the atmosphere. It means the carbon gets oxidized and becomes carbon dioxide and floats off into the atmosphere, so if you can farm without ploughing it actually helps, and it doesn’t matter how much coal and oil you’re burning. It still helps.
Question: Are you upset at never having won a Nobel Prize?
Freeman Dyson: Well I remember Joyce… Jocelyn Bell, the lady who discovered pulsars never got the Nobel Prize and she was here talking to the students just a couple of years ago. She is now a very distinguished scientist and she discovered pulsars about 40 years ago and anyway, students were asking her, “Are you sorry you didn’t get the Nobel Prize?” And she said, “Oh no, I’ve been, all my life I’ve just been famous for not having the Nobel Prize.” And that was actually much better and so I think she is right. I mean you know it’s much… If people ask why didn’t you get the prize it’s much better than if they’re asking why did you get it.
Question: Of which honor or achievement are you proudest?
Freeman Dyson: Well, I would say bringing up six kids who are all productive citizens.
Recorded March 5th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen