An epistolary memoir from a leading postwar physicist and mathematician, taking in the era from the 1940s to the end of the 1970s.
World War II was an excellent time to get an education, writes English-born physicist Dyson (Dreams of Earth and Sky, 2015, etc.), a longtime professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton: “The famous old professors were all there, but there were hardly any students.” Nonetheless, the war exerted some pull on his studies; in this collection of letters, he writes of operational research on detecting U-boats and such. Still, he heeded the advice of a senior professor who told him that “research never mixes well with learning,” and he set to puzzling out his own problems in quantum electrodynamics, particle theory, and other fields. A dozen years on, he recorded, happily, that as a result of one experiment, “we now have the job of changing our theories to agree with the new information, and this is likely to lead to substantial progress.” That passage is characteristic, for Dyson reveals himself to be wedded not to preconceived notions but to the primacy of proof, whether it be of that spinning particle or of the identity of a bomber on the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1969. “Undoubtedly,” he writes, “the radical students will be blamed for it.” The author’s account of events in the laboratory is punctuated by detours into popular culture (seeing, for instance, the film Treasure of the Sierra Madre on release in 1948 and finding in it “fairly obvious application to present-day international relations”) and contemporary intellectual history such as the debut work of sociologist Amitai Etzioni. Advocates of science will find in Dyson an admirable model. Why go to Mars when we could irrigate the Sahara, he asks. The science of space travel may be 10 times the benefit in the end, he writes, but “the main purpose is a general enlargement of human horizons.”
A pleasure for science students and particularly of science humanely practiced.