Freeman Dyson
Physicist and Writer

Physics in the Days of Einstein and Feynman

Physics in the Days of Einstein and Feynman

Freeman Dyson never spoke to Einstein, but revered him from afar. He was a “totally exceptional person”—as was another colleague, Nobelist and “clown” Richard Feynman.

Freeman Dyson

Freeman J. Dyson is Professor Emeritus of Mathematical Physics and Astrophysics in the School of Natural Sciences at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He has taught as a professor at the Institute since 1953, prior to which he was a professor for two years at Cornell University. His work on quantum electrodynamics marked an epoch in physics, with the techniques he used in this domain forming the foundation for most modern theoretical work in elementary particle physics and the quantum many-body problem. He is also celebrated as an author on science and related topics; his books include "Disturbing the Universe" (1966), "Weapons and Hope" (1984), "The Scientist as Rebel" (2006), and "A Many-Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe" (2007).


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.

Recorded March 5th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

comments powered by Disqus