Friday, February 28, 2020


FREEMAN DYSON (12/15/1923 - 02/28/2020)

Freeman Dyson (1970) 
Photo by Eric Roffman

Freeman Dyson, a brilliant scientist, mathematician, and all-around brilliant person and family man, died today at the age of 96.

Freeman Dyson was most renowned for uniting the work of Feynman, Schwinger and Tomonaga on quantum electrodynamics (QED), creating a useful theory that would pave the way for quantum chromodynamics and the "standard model" of modern physics.

In addition to the fundamental importance of Dyson's work on quantum electrodynamics, his brilliant work in many disparate areas results in his name routinely coming up in discussions of progress in an amazingly diverse number of fields.

He worked on nuclear power generation, space travel, invented the "Dyson Sphere" (hypothesizing that an advanced civilization could build a sphere around its star(s) to trap the energy), studied basic questions of stability, was interested in life (real and artificial), investigated number theory, and many other things as well.

In assessing new ideas, he was always hopeful but never reckless.

Freeman Dyson contributed to the defense of Britain in WWII; and later, in the US, to the defense of the world -- seeking a rational analysis of disarmament and defense issues.

In addition to being one of the great scientists and mathematicians, Freeman Dyson was also a terrific writer. His last book, Maker of Patterns, a collection of letters he sent to his parents as a young man, is personal and fascinating.

Here are some of his books:

Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters (2018)
Dreams of Earth and Sky (2015)
Advanced Quantum Mechanics (2011)
The Scientist as Rebel (2006)
Infinite in All Directions (2004)
The Sun, The Genome, and The Internet (1999)
Origins of Life (1999)
Selected Papers of Freeman Dyson with Commentary (Collected Works) (1996)
Weapons and Hope (1984)
Disturbing the Universe (1981)

It is a great loss for the world.

No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.

Personal note: Freeman Dyson invited me to the Institute for Advanced Study after I finished my PhD. It was a fabulous place to develop as a scientist. (I also made my first movie there.) I sat by the pond and watched the birds and the insects fly around and finally wrote a paper on the stability and localization of solutions of nonlinear equations. Freeman's father was a noted composer and director of a musical institute in London, and he was a lover of music. My wife was (and is) a violinist and teacher, and she began teaching the children of Freeman and Imme, and we spent much time with them. He has a wonderful family. After I left the Institute, as our children grew, we spent many wonderful Easter Sundays with Imme and Freeman and our children at their house on Easter Egg Hunts, and Imme and Freeman came to NY for a Seder. In the early 90's Freeman's daughter Esther Dyson held the world's most important technical conferences every year, and I went to several of them. They were terrific events. We maintained a connection with the Dysons over the years, attended several of their celebrations, and not that long ago Freeman and Imme came to a theater project I did staging a dramatic adaptation of Shakespeare's sonnets and songs; and to a celebratory concert where my daughter, who has known the Dysons since she was born, played the Bach Double with Joshua Bell, at the music school where my wife is the founding director.

I had hoped to see Freeman again soon, to discuss work I've been doing recently, related to the work I started at the Institute.

Freeman has always been an inspiration to me.

Here is a link to a photo from the 1992 PC Forum

At The 1992 PC Forum
Freeman Dyson (left), from the Institute for Advanced Study, shares a laugh with Eric Roffman, from Personal Media International/inteem!, at Esther Dyson's annual PC Forum, Tucson, Arizona, February 23-26, 1992. (Photo by Ann E. Yow-Dyson/Getty Images)


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