Freeman Dyson is an academic titan, and it’s hard to fully grasp his impact in the sciences. His work in theoretical physics and mathematics have impacted both fields through much of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. He’s influenced science and science fiction alike. (We’ve all read accounts of his theorized Dyson Sphere—it’s common in science fiction and has even shown up recently in the news.) He’s a man whose contemporaries included names like Hans Bethe, Richard Feynman, and Robert Oppenheimer. So when my friend Steve Leroux and I heard Town Hall Seattle was bringing him here to promote his new autobiography Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters and have a conversation with Neal Stephenson, we jumped at the chance to see him. Yesterday, I shared that we were attending, and some of my readers requested a recap. This is that recap.
Dyson is now ninety-four, and while still very sharp, the conversation felt a bit disjointed. Stephenson came very well prepared and managed to guide the discussion to some interesting bits. But it took a while for Dyson to engage and much of the dialogue was dry. That said, I particularly enjoyed Dyson’s stories about his experiences with British Bomber Command during World War II and how it shaped some of his thoughts in regards to theoretical models and practices.
My biggest takeaway was Dyson explaining how incredible ideas don’t just come while you’re lying on a beach. They’re a product of hard work. You do the work first, and that will eventually spark the idea. I’ve found myself thinking along these lines as well. Spending more time in silence with my own thoughts and less time drowning my brain with music, podcasts, or audiobooks.
Occasionally Stephenson would read from Dyson’s autobiography—a paragraph from a letter, a bit from a note—that sort of thing. I found Dyson’s writing striking, and I’ll probably get around to picking up his autobiography in the future. While I’m no disciple of his, I do appreciate how his mind works. He’s a fascinating character who has lived an incredible life, and he’s worth getting to know. I was glad to spend an hour listening to him.
I enjoyed his comments on the universal nature of science (and math, in particular) as a global unifying language. Scientific discourse is (at its best, and it often is) apolitical. It dismisses geopolitical boundaries.
Or put another way: nerds love nerding more than anything.
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