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Freeman Dyson--mathematician, astronomer, physicist--entices us into his autobiography with the charming story of himself at eight, reading Edith Nesbit's The Magic City. The boy in the story sees his drawings of a city transformed into reality and becomes the city's picaresque hero. One theme is this: whoever in the city wishes for a piece of machinery is compelled to use it, and to go on using it for the rest of his life. Dyson's memoirs reflect on that theme as he traces the course of 50 years of contact with pivotal figures and momentous events. It is an extremely rich account with new insights into personalities as opposed as Oppenheimer and Teller, by someone who could be a friend to both--and also to Hans Bethe, Richard Feynman, Theodore Taylor, John von Neumann, and others in the illustrious groups at Cornell, Los Alamos, or the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton (Dyson's eventual base). But it is not the intellectual accomplishments of 20th-century physics and astronomy that are central to the work. Dyson constantly deals with the social values and moral dilemmas posed by those who disturb the universe--the quote, echoed in the title, is based on ""The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock."" Dyson's humility and humanity are revealed as he traces his development: the naive ""cosmic unity"" ideas he held as a teenager, his sense of futility at the waste of human life he witnessed as part of an English WW II bomber command, his early opposition to the banning of atomic tests in the atmosphere (coupled with his enthusiasm for a nuclear powered space vehicle--Project Orion), his thoughts and decisions when asked to testify on recombinant DNA experiments (he quoted Milton's Areopagitica). . . . Time and again his reflections attest to the growth of a remarkable intellect, sensitive to individuals, ideas, ideologies. He records his vacillations and mistakes, and concludes with speculations, dreams, and hopes--which align him with those who see design rather than chance in the universe. Altogether a first-rate performance by Dyson as a writer as well as a scientist/philosopher.

Pub Date: Aug. 29th, 1979
ISBN: 0465016774
Publisher: Harper & Row