THE 60-YEAR JOB: FREEMAN DYSON

Freeman Dyson.jpg

The distinguished quantum physicist, who worked with Einstein at Princeton, tells Charles Nevin three things he's learnt ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2012

Freeman Dyson, 88, is a pioneer quantum physicist, pure mathematician, metaphysicist, beady examiner of such givens as global warming and tireless explorer of our future as bio-engineering space colonisers. A Fellow of the Royal Society for 60 years, he left Britain at the age of 23 because he believed “Americans held the future in their hands and that the smart thing for me to do would be to join them.” When he took up his post at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, Einstein was still working there. Startling propositions and inconvenient arguments are the signature of this human neutrino, widely regarded as one of the Nobel Committee’s glaring omissions.

His father, Sir George Dyson, was a composer and director of the Royal College of Music. Freeman has six children, including George, a historian of science, who is about to publish a history of the digital age, and Esther, an internet analyst and entrepreneur dubbed “the first lady of cyberspace”.

I e-mailed to ask him: (1) why he remained hard at work; (2) what were his strengths and weaknesses now compared with earlier in his career; and (3) what advice would he give to those who have been working for (a) one year, and (b) 30 years? This was his reply, received the next day:

Thank you very much for your friendly invitation. I am delighted to share with Her Majesty the distinction of hanging on longer than expected. Here are brief answers to your questions.

1. I continue working because I agree with Sigmund Freud’s definition of mental health. To be healthy means to love and to work. Both activities are good for the soul, and one of them also helps to pay for the groceries.

2. In my younger days my work as a scientist was deep and narrow. Now, as I grow old, my work grows broader and shallower. As a young man, I solved technical problems of interest only to a few specialists. As an old man, I write books about human affairs of interest to a broad public. In both halves of my life, I tried to make the best use of my limited abilities.

3. (a). Advice to people at the beginning of their careers: do not imagine that you have to know everything before you can do anything. My own best work was done when I was most ignorant. Grab every opportunity to take responsibility and do things for which you are unqualified.

(b). Advice to people at the middle of their careers: do not be afraid to switch careers and try something new. As my friend the physicist Leo Szilard said (number nine in his list of ten commandments): “Do your work for six years; but in the seventh, go into solitude or among strangers, so that the memory of your friends does not hinder you from being what you have become.”

Now I look forward to reading what other survivors have to say. Thank you again for including me.  
Yours sincerely
Freeman Dyson

Charles Nevin is a freelance writer who spent 25 years on Fleet Street. He is the author of "The Book of Jacks"

Picture credit: Eyevine