Death of a heretic: A tribute to Freeman Dyson

Jude Mockridge pays tribute to an exceptional mathematician who passed away recently.

Jude Mockridge
3rd March 2020
Freeman Dyson, a renowned mathematician, has died at the age of 96. Famous for his multidisciplinary efforts including nuclear engineering, solid state physics, ferromagnetism, astrophysics, biology and a host of other fields - his works focused on bridging the quantum and human worlds.

Known to “chip at the ice” of common academic beliefs, he was a scholarly boy. He enjoyed being in the minority that sat “surrounded by encyclopedias”, compared to his sporty peers. He elaborated on this fringeness by reading cynics such as Bertrand Russel. He carried this championship of minority causes throughout his career. Working in the RAFs Operational Research Section during the Second World War, he developed analytical methods for calculating the ideal bomber density.

Nurturing a private passion for number theory, he became one of the leading figures in the ancient field of Diophantine approximation, the attempt to prove real numbers with rational numbers. With the technological advancements made in physics in the late 1940s, he joined the Caucus of scientists researching quanto-mechanical interactions between photons and electrons. When the first major study was released in 1948, he was 25. A promiscuous intellectual, he mused “I have a short attention span, I solve problems for fun”, and this migrating focus has gifted some fascinating hypotheses. Most famously, his thought experiment - the Dyson Sphere - hypothesised that upon the inevitable expenditure of a planet's energy sources, an advanced civilization would build solar megastructures around stars to harness their energy, pertaining that the search for alien life could be achieved by infra-red satellites. His response when asked of the possibility of such upon the advent of these devices in the early 1980s was “near impossible, there are so many things in the sky”, reflecting his reputation as a curt, devil’s advocate figure.

An inherent distaste towards ‘hype’, and a trepidation imbued by the gravity of human misunderstanding illustrate his views on several consensus. He voted against the declaration of a climate crisis on the basis that such can not be assumed given that we do not fundamentally understand the ice age. He posed opposition to natural selection, arguing that whilst logical in larger groups, smaller groups (often the genesis of definite species) would rely more on natural drift, explaining anomalies like the 500,000 beetle species.

Brushing shoulders with some of the most eminent intellectuals of the last century, he eyed science with his scrupulous gaze until the last year of his life.

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