The Scientist as Rebel
FREEMAN DYSON TALKS ABOUT NUCLEAR WEAPONS, SPACE TRAVEL, AND THE FUTURE
At eighty-two, Freeman Dyson, the physicist for whom the sundial was created, knows a thing or two about time and how it is measured. Trained as a mathematician, but in his words, “working more as a physicist who dabbles in biology, theology, and various other things,” Dyson’s quiet demeanor and courtly manner instantly charm his visitors.
This month, Dyson, retired professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, winner of the Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion, will publish his latest book, The Scientist as Rebel (New York Review Books). In his new book, Dyson explores the lives of scientists and their work, including Isaac Newton’s fascination with physics, alchemy, theology, and politics, and his own relationship with the physicists Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Feynman.
One doesn’t have to spend much time with Dyson to see that his interests range far beyond science.
WRR: You are as much a Renaissance man as you are a scientist.
Well, I’m really a generalist. Since I retired, I’ve spent most of my life here at the Institute for Advanced Study doing all kinds of things. I have the privilege of jumping around from one subject to another, and at this point in my life, I write books. I did mostly science until the age of fifty, then after that I’ve been mainly writing books for the general public, doing science on the side. Now I’ve reached the age of eighty-twostill going strong, and waiting to see what I’ll do next.
WRR: For your folly at Quark Park, you’ve paired with physicist and congressman Rush Holt who monitored nuclear programs in Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and the former Soviet Union.
I admire and love Rush Holt. I can’t imagine how he has time for this since he’s busy getting re-elected. But I’m very grateful to him for giving us any time at all. When we met at his home, he was chatting away as if he had not a care in the world. He makes the difficult job he has look easy.
WRR: Although you’ve lived In Princeton for many years, you were born in England.
Yes, in a little town called Crowthorne. It’s become famous because they have a software company there, which makes software for traffic light systems used all over the world. So every time you get into a traffic jam you can blame Crowthorne. Otherwise I think it’s an undistinguished village about fifty miles west of London. I came to America after World War Two to study physics, and somehow got stuck here.
I was lucky with my parents who were very lively people. My mother was forty-three when I was born, and I remember them as being gray-haired even from early times. Of course they were wonderful intellectual companions. They never romped around with me, but they talked, and that was what really mattered. My father was a professional musician and composer. He’s been dead forty years. In spite of that, his works are still going strong and he makes more money from his compositions than I make from my books.
My mother was trained as a lawyer. By the time I came around, she had retired, but she was given to social work. She ran a birth control clinic at a time when that was not considered respectable. In many ways she was a lively character, and very strongly interested in literature. So my literary education mostly came from her.
Both my parents had some interest in science so we had plenty of popular science on the shelf. Most of what I learned about science came from books.
WRR: You also write about your experience in World War Two, how it changed your view about war, who the enemy is, and who might become the enemy. How has it influenced your work?
World War Two began when I was fifteen, and of course this dominated our lives. As a teenager I forgot that there had ever been peace. The fashionable thing for kids, at that time, was to become militant pacifists. So I became one. Pacifism was a strong rebellion against the war and everything associated with it.
I don’t regret my teenage idealism. I think in many ways our instincts were sound. Although, of course, in the actual circumstances of that war, pacifism didn’t make any sense. If you had religion, however, it was possible to say, ‘I’m a religious pacifist, and I won’t have any thing to do with war.’
But as a political program, it made no sense to say that England should make peace. That wasn’t an option. In the end, since I wasn’t a religious pacifist, I was a political pacifist. Eventually I came around and decided that England wasn’t such a bad place and we were putting up a pretty good fight, and I might as well join in.
WRR: Where did you serve?
I was very lucky. I never had to fight. I never went into the army. Instead, in 1943, when the war was two-thirds over, I was put into a civilian job working for the air force. It was an extraordinarily tragic experience. I was at the headquarters of the British Bomber Command doing what was called Operational Research. It meant that I studied operations as they happened.
Of course, Bomber Command’s campaign was a tragedy from every point of view. It was enormously destructive of civilian lives, but did essentially no real military damage to the Germans. From a military point of view, it was more costly to us than it was to them. The Bomber Command by itself cost something like one quarter of Britain’s entire war expenditures.
We produced thousands and thousands of these heavy bombers, and sent thousands and thousands of young men to get killed. The damage we did to Germany was very large, but not comparable to what it actually cost us. So the program, from the military point of view was a real flop. And, of course, from a human point of view you might say that it was a war crime, or a tragedy, depending upon how you look at.
WRR: Can you give an example?
The most famous example is Dresden, which was the biggest single massacre we caused during the war. We killed about a hundred thousand people in February 1945 when the war was essentially over, and when destroying an additional city made no sense.
So that was the war as I saw it. I had a frontline view seeing how the plans were made and what we actually accomplished. And it became more and more sickening as the days went on. In the end, of course, the soldiers on the ground won the war, not the bombers.
WRR: You saw war firsthand, and what it could cause. But you ended up working with people involved in the creation of the first nuclear bomb.
When the Manhattan Project was going on, I was still in England and didn’t know it existed. I first learned about nuclear weapons on the day of Hiroshima, and ever since, of course, I’ve been interested in nuclear weapons. First of all, as a scientific problem they are intellectually very interesting.
WRR: But they affect human beings.
Well it’s a profound problem. How can we deal with nuclear weapons? How can the world exist with them? That’s a problem I’ve been working on for most of my career, and it’s still one of our toughest. I think we’ve done amazingly well to have gotten through sixty years after Hiroshima without exploding another nuclear weapon in anger. And I’m really impressed with the fact that there are so few nuclear countries.
When we started thinking about this in 1945, everybody more or less agreed that there would be about fifty nuclear countries before the end of the twentieth century. That was sort of the reasonable guess, since it’s not that difficult to make nuclear weapons. The amazing thing is that instead of fifty countries, we have only eight or nine.
WRR: Why so few?
I think the reason for this is because most countries have more sense than we have. Most countries have understood that this is not a game you want to get into. It’s essentially a cause of headaches. And it doesn’t make you secure. It only makes life more dangerous. So I think we can be grateful to all the governments who could have built nuclear weapons, but didn’t.
WRR: You say that working with nuclear weapons is an interesting intellectual problem. Why?
Well, of course it’s interesting because it’s something very new. It’s not obvious how to make the thing work efficiently. So I’m not surprised that people get trapped by it. It’s sort of like an addiction. If you are good at it, it’s very hard to let go. So lots of people in various countries around the world are still in love with nuclear weapons. And it’s a fact, which we have to deal with. In this country we have three weapons laboratories, at least two too many. Of course they’re competing with each other and there are lots of bright people there. It’s a big temptation to invent new things for them to do.
WRR: You knew Robert Oppenheimer, director of the Manhattan Project, often called “father of the atomic bomb,” pretty well.
WRR: Scientists have always collaborated at the international level. Given the tension between the U.S. and countries like Iran, do you see that changing?
Of course not. Science has always been international, and it still is. That’s one of the great things about science, which is one of the reasons why I went into it in the first place. It’s a wonderful international club. When you’re a scientist, you have friends everywhere. You can talk the same language whether it’s broken English, or broken Chinese, or broken Russian, or broken Iranian. So we have friends and colleagues in places like Iran.
What has happened is that I make a sharp distinction between nuclear weapons and nuclear power. Peaceful nuclear energy, which I believe is good, is quite different from nuclear weapons. When nuclear power first became declassified, all the countries involved had a big meeting in Geneva. And the scientists told each other the secrets. That was in 1955, and it was a wonderful get-together.
WRR: How did it affect you?
After that, I began working at a company called General Atomic in California, which is still going strong. In fact, I designed a nuclear reactor with tremendous help from my Iranian friend Massoud Simnad. Massoud was actually a metallurgist who was a wizard with nuclear materials, and he made the thing work. I designed the physics and he designed the chemistry and metallurgy. Together we were a good team, and the reactor was built and I think we sold about seventy-five of them. It’s still working around the world and we’re very proud of that.
The fact that Massoud happened to Iranian made no difference at all. And of course there were others in Iran like him. The idea that Iranians are somehow lacking in scientific talent is absurd. And I’m impressed with the fact that they haven’t built any bombs by now. They easily could have. All that is lacking in these countries, which don’t have bombs, is the mania that drives them to do it.
Now, of course, we’re pushing them hard in that direction. But, anyway, we’ll see what happens. I think there’s no doubt that Iran could easily build bombs if they wanted to. I wouldn’t regard that as a disaster because they probably would handle them as well as anybody else.
WRR: You were also involved with the space program.
I’ve been very much interested in space and I worked on a big space project in the 50s called Orion, which was a nuclear spacecraft that would have gone around the solar system in grand style propelled by nuclear bombs. That was a big dream from which I have very happy memories. But, I also think it’s just as well we never got the green light to build Orion.
WRR: It seems that you and your colleagues, all young scientists at the time, felt that the future was beyond our planet.
Oh, it’s still true of course. We now have a magnificent space program, but it doesn’t involve as many people as we once needed. We have twenty or thirty spacecraft from different countries doing a wonderful job exploring the universe. But what’s changed is that you don’t need people out there to do it. We have extremely capable instruments, extremely good communications. You can observe the moons of Saturn and what goes on there without the trouble and expense of going. It’s a much better way of doing it. You might say it spoils the fun, but not really.
WRR: Has anything about the solar system recently crossed your desk that a layperson might not know?
Anything secrets, you mean?
WRR: If there were, would you tell?
Well, there are no secrets as far as I know. But there is a huge amount being discovered. One of the places I’m interested in is Enceledus, one of the moons of Saturn. When I was doing the space project in 1958, we planned to land there.
We wanted to go to Enceledus because we knew we could refuel there. It’s conspicuously bright white so it must be made of snow, at least on the surface. To everyone’s surprise, in the last few months we’ve discovered that it has a waterspout at the South Pole, which is like a huge geyser spilling out steam and spray 200 km high. We have pictures of this geyser and also some pictures of strange hot trenches on the surface.
There’s something weird going on underneath. Everyone imagined Enceledus to be just a ball of very cold snow. Instead, it seems to be one of the hottest places in the solar system. So that’s the kind of thing we’re finding out. The Cassini Mission is going around the moons of Saturn and observing them in detail, which is what we had planned to do with our spaceship. In those days we thought of ourselves as just trudging around on the moons of Saturn with notebooks and writing this all down, never imagining that you could actually send pictures.
WRR: Well, back in those days anything was possible, right?
That’s the beauty of it. In another fifty years, if people do go to Enceledus, they’ll be doing things we never imagined.
WRR: Can you talk a little bit about mathematics? You write so eloquently about your love for it.
Mathematics has been a passport for me, a union card, whatever you like to call it. Something I can’t remember not being in love with. When I was three years old, I started calculating, and I’ve gone on ever since. I just fell in love with numbers. So that’s my skill, and that’s all I really have to work with.
The miracle of it is that mathematics turns out to be the language nature talks. It’s something quite mysterious and we don’t understand why. I remember the extraordinary experience when I was twenty-four, and I came to America. And I did my first serious calculation applying mathematics to physics. It was a calculation measuring how an electron behaves in a hydrogen atom, and it was extremely complicated. I remember I scribbled and scribbled, pages and pages and pages. At the end of it all, there came a number. And then that was the theory, which I had worked out.
There was a character at Columbia University who had actually done an experiment with electrons. His name was Polycarp Kusch, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1955. Kusch measured what an electron actually did, and he got the same number as my equation. And I was amazed that this scribbling of the equation somehow tells how an electron works, and what it has to do. So that’s been my life story. All the time I’m doing these calculations and it turns out it actually means something in the real world.
WRR: In Disturbing the Universe, you include a quote from a letter Robert Oppenheimer sent to you. You write, “He wrote to me as usual, critically, quoting a Hungarian proverb: ‘It’s not enough to be impolite, one must also be wrong.’” Given the context of your work with nuclear energy and what’s going on in the world today, what does the quote mean to you?
I suppose it means if you are only arguing about manners, then your argument doesn’t have much substance. If you really want to make progress you have to prove that somebody is wrong, rather than proving he’s just impolite. I think that’s basically what he had in mind. Of course he said it in a paradoxical way.
But, I think this applies, for example, to the Bush administration. This is an obvious example. The Bush administration is extraordinarily insensitive and impolite in all sorts of ways. Why do you call Iran the axis of evil? It’s just a gratuitous insult that means nothing. But worse than that, it’s also wrong. I mean in fact there’s a great deal of good in Iran. By the way, did you see the film “The Color of Paradise?” It’s an Iranian film and came out quite recently. It describes the real Iran, which of course is totally different from the Iran you see in the newspapers. For one thing it’s green. But, I think that’s what the proverb means. It’s not just bad manners, the whole idea is wrong.
WRR: At Quark Park, you’re in the company of an extraordinary group of scientists. It’s rare to gather such a diverse cross section of disciplines together. How do you feel about science in this country right now? How it’s recognized, who’s studying it, and where it’s going?
Of course it’s doing very well, but I should tell you another story. I belong to a committee that deals with biological hazards. We’re trying to give advice to the government about how to deal with biohazards, and we wanted to have an international meeting here. It was nothing secret, but half the scientists couldn’t get visas for the United States, so we all got a free trip to Mexico.
By making it so difficult and very often impossible for people to get visas, we’re cutting this country off from international science, which could really be a disaster. Luckily there are some strong movements now to repair the damage. But there has been a lot of damage. These visa rules are just deadly because science depends completely on being international.
Anyway, we all got a wonderful trip to Cuernavaca, which is the headquarters of the Mexican Health Research Institute. And, of course they were laughing about how the United States was no longer a player on the international scene. That isn’t true, but it could be if we go on this way.
In the meantime I think we’re doing pretty well. Although, there’s no doubt that cutting yourself off from the world is absolutely fatal.
WRR: What projects are you working on now? And what do you see for the future?
In the course of day-to-day activities, I’m correcting proofs of my forthcoming book, and answering a lot of email. I’m not doing much science, but I like to feel that I’m still a scientist. And so I do have a science project, which I work on a little bit when I have time to spare. And that project is gravitons.
WRR: What are gravitons?
I don’t want to give a lecture, but I find gravitons to be fascinating.
There’s a prevailing dogma among scientists these days that you have to unify everything. And of course they want to unify quantum mechanics with gravitation. And, of course, that’s a big theme of theoretical science. They want to produce something called quantum gravity. And, if you had a theory of quantum gravitywhich we don’tthen there would exist a particle called a graviton, a quantum of gravity.
Well, I raise a question. Does quantum gravity make sense? You could say I’m advancing a heretical viewbecause I love to be a hereticthat in fact gravitons don’t mean anything. If there were such a thing as a graviton, there is no way in which you could detect it. Therefore, it’s physically meaningless.
And so, this is my little hobby. I don’t claim to have proved anything, but at least I raised the question. So if my view turns out to be true that nature doesn’t want to be unified, I might, in fact, make quite a difference to the way science is done. I don’t know whether I’ll be around when this is decided.
WRR: Maybe you’ll be in the ether somewhere.
WRR: Is there anything you’d like to add?
I think we’ve been here long enough, but thank you very much.
Celebrating the mysteries of science and art, Quark Park is a collaboration of Princeton-area visionaries, scientists, artists, and architects including Templeton-prize winner, Freeman Dyson. Over the coming months, Wild River Review will be running a series of interviews with many of the players in this one-of-a-kind sculpture garden...