Articles from the Institute Letter
Additional articles from new and past issues of the Institute Letter will continue to be posted over time and as they become available.
In 2013, Freeman Dyson celebrated his ninetieth birthday and also marked his sixtieth year as a Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, the longest tenure of any Faculty member in the Institute’s history. When Dyson first arrived as a Member in 1948, the Institute was less than twenty years old. “Dreams of Earth and Sky,” a conference and celebration conceived by Dyson’s colleagues in the School of Natural Sciences and held September 27–28, provided a perspective on his work and impact across the sciences and humanities. The program featured a range of talks on mathematics, physics, astronomy, and public affairs that reflect both the diversity of Dyson’s interests and his ability to open new dialogues.
The son of composer Sir George Dyson and Mildred Atkey, Dyson was born in Crowthorne, England, on December 15, 1923. He worked as a civilian scientist for the Royal Air Force in World War II, and graduated from Cambridge University in 1945 with a B.A. degree in mathematics. He went on to Cornell University as a graduate student in 1947 and worked with Hans Bethe and Richard Feynman. One of Dyson’s most notable contributions to science was the unification of the three versions of quantum electrodynamics invented by Feynman, Julian Schwinger, and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga. Dyson then worked on nuclear reactors, solid state physics, ferromagnetism, astrophysics, and biology, looking for problems where mathematics could be usefully applied. Author of numerous articles and books about science for the general public, he has also been heavily invested in human issues, from arms control and space travel to climate studies. Dyson once remarked that he was “obsessed with the future.” His keen observations and sense of wonder, which have inspired generations here at the Institute and beyond, are powerful testaments to the freedom provided by the Institute to follow one’s future, wherever it may lead.
By Pia de Jong
That boy was the seven-year-old Freeman Dyson. He did not understand why his father had sent his remark to Punch. It was after all technically correct. What was so funny about it?
Dyson grew up to be a world-famous mathematician, physicist, astronomer, and an elegant writer. For sixty years, he has worked at the Institute for Advanced Study. On December 15, he will be ninety. An elfin man with pointed ears and mischievous blue eyes, he still walks faithfully to his office every morning, invariably dressed as the British boarding school boy he once was—with a tweed jacket and tie.
To celebrate Dyson’s ninetieth birthday, a conference was held in his honor at the Institute. He himself gave it the title “Dreams of Earth and Sky.” The speakers, also all chosen by him, were just as exciting as the Jules Verne books he devoured as a child—until he realized that they lived only in science fiction.
Thus, I find myself immersed in his fascinating world. I hear the English Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, talk about alternative universes. I see a map of the nearest stars where extraterrestrial life might really exist. Magic formulas, the interior of the Earth, climate change, nuclear disarmament, life on Mars—ideas that are often as controversial as those of Dyson himself. But also with an equally infectious enthusiasm about everything there is to discover. If I were a child, Dyson would be my hero, and I would want to be an astronomer. Happily, there are many children in the audience.
By Siobhan Roberts
What lies beneath a structure with an unimaginable 196,883 dimensions?
In 1981, Freeman Dyson addressed a typically distinguished group of scholars gathered at the Institute for a colloquium, but speaking on a decidedly atypical subject: “Unfashionable Pursuits.”
The problems which we face as guardians of scientific progress are how to recognize the fruitful unfashionable idea, and how to support it.
To begin with, we may look around at the world of mathematics and see whether we can identify unfashionable ideas which might later emerge as essential building blocks for the physics of the twenty-first century.*
He surveyed the history of science, alighting eventually upon the monster group—an exquisitely symmetrical entity within the realm of group theory, the mathematical study of symmetry. For much of the twentieth century, mathematicians worked to classify “finite simple groups”—the equivalent of elementary particles, the building blocks of all groups. The classification project ultimately collected all of the finite simple groups into eighteen families and twenty-six exceptional outliers. The monster was the last and largest of these exceptional or “sporadic” groups.
By Graham Farmelo
In the early evening of March 15, 1933, a group of London socialites gathered in a Westminster mansion to hear a special lecture on the latest developments in nuclear science. The talk was chaired by Winston Churchill. The speaker—Churchill’s friend Frederick Lindemann, a friend of Einstein’s and a professor of physics at Oxford University—discussed John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton’s recent artificial splitting of the atom and James Chadwick’s discovery of the neutron. Churchill had foreseen an important role of this subatomic particle fifteen months before in his essay “Fifty Years Hence,” read widely in Britain and North America. He had told his readers in this article that scientists were looking for “the match to set the [nuclear] bonfire alight.”
“Fifty Years Hence” was by no means the only article in which Churchill looked forward to the nuclear age. He first did so in 1927 in another popular article, “Shall We All Commit Suicide?” where he alluded to the weapon envisaged by his friend H. G. Wells in the novel The World Set Free, where the term “atomic bomb” first appears. A decade later, Churchill warned four million readers of the News of the World in Britain that nuclear energy may soon be harnessed. He was right: Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, working in Hitler’s capital, discovered nuclear fission eight weeks after Churchill’s piece appeared.
By Piet Hut
Equilibrium thermodynamics explains the nature of human-made engines, but what will explain the nature of living matter?
Young children often pose the most interesting questions. “Why are we here?” is one of them. And this question can take on many forms. One of them is “Why is there anything at all?” Another is “Why am I alive?” or “Why am I me?”
These questions are closely connected to central questions in natural science. In my opinion, there are three, and all three are concerned with origins. After all, “Why is there X?” is closely related to “Where does X come from?” So what are the most interesting puzzles about origins? I would say: the origin of matter; the origins of life; and the origin of consciousness.
To put it in the form of questions: “Where did matter come from?” “How did matter become alive?” and “How did living beings develop the capacity to ask these three questions?” Fortunately, modern science is now making inroads toward providing at least some answers to some aspects of these questions, while suggesting more precise ways to pose the questions.
The first question concerns cosmology, the branch of astrophysics that studies the origin of the universe. In this area, enormous progress has been made. Thanks to very precise observations, from space as well as from the ground, the general Big Bang picture has been validated empirically as an accurate description of how the universe evolved, from a very early time, going back to at least the first microsecond after the current universe was born.