Saturday, November 20, 2010

Freeman Dyson

This article is pretty well-balanced for the New York Times, and very interesting. This particular paragraph had me chuckling:

At Jason, taking problems to Dyson is something of a parlor trick. A group of scientists will be sitting around the cafeteria, and one will idly wonder if there is an integer where, if you take its last digit and move it to the front, turning, say, 112 to 211, it’s possible to exactly double the value. Dyson will immediately say, “Oh, that’s not difficult,” allow two short beats to pass and then add, “but of course the smallest such number is 18 digits long.” When this happened one day at lunch, William Press remembers, “the table fell silent; nobody had the slightest idea how Freeman could have known such a fact or, even more terrifying, could have derived it in his head in about two seconds.” The meal then ended with men who tend to be described with words like “brilliant,” “Nobel” and “MacArthur” quietly retreating to their offices to work out what Dyson just knew.

And this comment got to me too:

His older sister Alice, a retired social worker still living in Winchester, remembers how her brother “used to lie on the nursery floor working out how many atoms there were in the sun. He was perhaps 4.”

Dyson is a genius, but also a contrary and original thinker and, it seems, of a kind that we just don't see so many of now. Where are the upcoming people like Einstein, Feynman, Oppenheimer and Bethe now? I wonder why we don't see them? Maybe something to do with politicized consensus science? Being brilliant and original doesn't really work in the groupthink that so much science has become.

Update: And here are some of his heretical thoughts...


Fred Kiesche said...

Great article, I read it in print when it first came out. Dyson is an amazing guy--I think in one of his books (possibly "Disturbing the Universe") he talks about how he was brought over to the IAS in the hopes he would be the next Einstein or something--and the guy who brought him over was somewhat disappointed.

Alas, he is only a few miles from where I live but either his staff ignores all non-media requests or they are afraid of raving fanboys. I've tried to get to see him a couple of times (heck, I'd only be a semi-raving fanboy--"Dude! You invented the Dyson Sphere! Dude!" and ask for my books to be signed). No joy, alas. Great writer, great thinker.

Huan said...

You should read some of Oliver Sacks books, The man who mistook his wife for a hat, or An anthropologist on Mars.
Amazing the way the human brain works or doesn't.
I sometimes wonder if the brain is just a processor that is wired badly and needs to be reformatted with a different OS to get the best out of it.

Alex Cull said...

We need more scientists like Freeman Dyson who are not afraid to voice heretical thoughts.

Although really that ought to be a default position in science, and a pity it isn't, these days.

mr-maigo said...

Makes me think of The Big Bang Theory

Neal Asher said...

Fred, he is an impressive fellow and I'd certainly have my 'dude' moments if I met him. So I find it slightly sickening when, because he doesn't agree with their views, some dismiss him with comments that imply he's senile. Shows the quality of their arguments.

Huan, I certainly could do with a defrag. I'll check out Oliver Sacks.

Alex, independent thinkers are frowned on in the EUSSR. Science must be done by consensus, the spirit of Lysenko must rule and Karl Popper must be forgotten.

mr-maigo, the TV program?

Pan said...

Alas, I have been unable to convince my wife to name our gestating child either "Freeman" or "Dyson"...