By Donna Laframboise
An important scientist has left us, but his books and interviews remain.
Physicist Freeman Dyson, one of our most brilliant thinkers, has died at age 96.
The best journalism about Dyson is perhaps the 2009 profile that appeared in the New York Times Magazine. YouTube has numerous videos in which he’s interviewed about a range of topics. The one above is a Canadian production called Conversations that Matter (additional info here).
Most are intended for a lay audience. From Eros to Gaia, for example, is a collection of essays. Published in 1992, its Preface tell us he aims “to open windows, to let the experts inside the temple of science see out, and to let the ordinary citizens see in.”
It also includes these words:
My mother used to say that life begins at forty. That was her age when she had her first baby. I say, on the contrary, that life begins at fifty-five, the age at which I published my first book. So long as you have courage and a sense of humor, it is never too late to start life afresh. [bold added]
The final section of From Eros to Gaia, Part VI, begins with an epigraph appropriate at this time. It’s attributed to fellow scientist Leo Szilard: “Lead your life with a gentle hand and be ready to leave whenever you are called.”
Sprinkled throughout that volume’s pages we find numerous quotable quotes:
He had much to say about science. Not all of what he said was foolish. [p. 265]
When your eyes are blinded by the glitter of something big, all the little things look like nothing. [p. 26]
In science as in history, dogma dies hard. Deep in human nature is the desire to explain the cosmos with all-embracing schemes. [p. 279]
Nature does not decide by majority vote. [p. 57]
unfashionable people and unfashionable ideas have often been of decisive importance to the progress of science. [p. 168]
I do not say that the experts are giving us wrong answers. I say that they are frequently not asking the right questions. [p. 135]
Technology has always been, and always will be, unpredictable. Whenever things seem to be moving smoothly along a predictable path, some unexpected twist changes the rules of the game and makes the old predictions irrelevant. [p. 242]
The worst indignity that can happen to a scientist has happened to me. I have published a paper in a leading scientific journal. After it is published, it turns out to be completely, irreparably, wrong. [p. 340]
Fortunately, the social snobbery that used to flourish at Princeton is now dead. Instead, we now have academic snobbery, the snobbery of people who think that just because they work at a university and have a Ph.D. after their name they are a superior breed and are entitled to despise others… [p. 310]
Science is our exploration of the web that ties birds and butterflies together. History is our exploration of the web that ties human actions together. [p. 281]
My intention is not that my readers should believe everything I say, but that they should be provoked into forming their own judgments… [pp. 220-221]
we are better equipped for handling violence, mentally as well as physically, than we suppose. Nature designed human beings for living in a world of violence. We are designed to function well in good times and in bad. As Ecclesiastes said long ago, there is a time to be born and a time to die. [p. 339]