Dyson's ideas have even made it where no one has been before.
Freeman Dyson, a physicist whose interests often took him to the edge of science fiction, died at the age of 96. Dyson is probably best known for his idea of spheres of the same name that would allow civilizations to capture all the energy that radiates from a star. However, his contributions ranged from basic physics to the practical aspects of using nuclear weapons for war and peace. And he remained intellectually active until his 90s, even though he was on the wrong side of science in terms of climate change.
Degree? Who needs them
It is difficult to find something that summarizes such a broad career, but a sense of his intellectual energy comes from his educational history. Dyson was a PhD student in physics when he managed to combine two competing ideas on quantum electrodynamics and put an entire field on a solid theoretical foundation. Instead of writing this down as his thesis, he simply switched to other interests. He only did his doctorate when the honorary members arrived later in his career. His contributions were considered so important that regardless of this, he kept getting faculty jobs.Enlarge /. Freeman Dyson on the launch of Breakthrough Starshot, an idea with a science fiction aura based on well understood physics.
Gary Gershoff / Getty Images
That happened after a fairly conventional start to his education: a bachelor's degree from the University of Cambridge. Like many other scientists at the time, his career was interrupted by World War II. Dyson worked for the Royal Air Force bomber command, evaluated data from completed missions and found ways to get more out of the nation's aircraft. After the war, he returned to Cambridge to finish his studies and then began a PhD program at Cornell University in the United States.
During this time, the field of physics struggled between two different ways of describing the behavior of particles that interact through electromagnetism. Two researchers, Sin-Itiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger, independently developed a theory to explain how things like electrons and protons interact (Tomonaga's ideas used to be, but didn't make it out of Japan due to the war). Richard Feynman meanwhile developed diagrams that formalized the mathematics that describe the behavior of particles. Dyson was the first to recognize that the two very different approaches were mathematically equivalent.
The other three researchers were awarded the Nobel Prize, possibly due to the Nobel Prize rules, which restrict it to three recipients. However, Dyson managed to secure a faculty job at Cornell without having to complete his thesis. He eventually moved to the Institute for Advanced Studies and stayed there for the rest of his career.
While his location was stable, his interests were anything but. Dyson contributed to both mathematics and other areas of physics, but also ventured into practice as well as imagination. He designed a civilian nuclear reactor for the production of isotopes used in medicine and a rocket propulsion system based on the detonation of nuclear warheads. At the same time, he also assessed the use of nuclear weapons on the battlefield for the US government.
Science fiction, entertainment and others
At the same time, Dyson often mixed science fiction with practical science. The interest in finding intelligent life prompted him to take into account the growing energy needs of advanced civilizations. The result was an idea floating in the science fiction world – a ball that surrounds a star and captures much of its energy – that was put on a solid mathematical foundation and converted into a signal that telescopes searched for could be.
Dyson's interest in space civilizations spanned the future of mankind, and he thought a lot about how we could find our way into the galaxy. Some of the ideas, like the nuclear missile, were built on a solid scientific foundation. But he was also a little bit enthusiastic about our ability to genetically modify trees, and suggested that we could get them so far that they could grow in chambers in hollowed-out comets. The same kind of optimism made him believe that we could simply construct trees to control our carbon emissions, making climate change a non-issue.
Dyson was not content to promote science fiction solutions to our problem, voiced poorly informed criticism of climate models, and dismissed concerns about our warming planet. He even criticized the scientists who produced this data. He eventually gave his name to a British organization, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which creates pseudoscientific advocacy papers to help prevent climate change. When the Institute for Advanced Study gave a series of lectures to celebrate his career, one of the featured speakers was William Happer, who made a nonsensical slogan about climate change (Happer finally attacked climate researchers from the Trump administration).
The celebration also included fantastic conversations about the possibility that life on Earth actually originated on Mars and the bizarre chemistry that occurs at the extreme pressures in gas giants. For the most part, these conversations held Dyson's career better: radical ideas that were largely based on solid scientific foundations.
Listing image by Gary Gershoff / Getty Images