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Freeman Dyson
Freeman Dyson
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Freeman Dyson Interview

Theoretical Physicist and Author

June 16, 2000
Scottsdale, Arizona

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  Freeman Dyson

Professor Dyson, you've done so many different things in your career that this may be a difficult question to answer. But how would you explain, to someone who doesn't know anything about your work, what makes it so exciting for you?

Freeman Dyson: My life's been more or less divided in two parts: I mean, the first half as a scientist, the second half as a writer. They're surprisingly similar in a way. I mean, in both cases you're just using a skill to do all kinds of interesting things. So as a scientist I used my skill in mathematics to solve puzzles in many different areas. And each time you solve a puzzle, of course it's exciting. It's hard work and you work terribly hard, groping around in the dark trying to find a way to attack a problem. I would sit at the desk and scribble. My way of thinking is just by scribbling equations on bits of paper, so I would scribble a hundred pages worth of equations. And then when the time is ripe you suddenly begin to see the pattern and you begin to see how it's going to work. And then that's of course when all the blood, sweat and tears finally pays off, and then it takes only a couple of hours then actually to figure out how to do it. And then after that it's fairly easy then to fill in all the details. So then you have a problem solved, and you go and write it up for a paper to go into a professional journal, and you begin making speeches and you suddenly become useful. You've done something that other people can make use of. So that's a great life as a scientist. It's like building a cathedral: you put in a brick here and there and gradually the cathedral grows. That's the feeling you have in science, that it's a communal enterprise. It's exciting because things do change, and they do grow, and you finally end up producing something very great and beautiful, but my contribution is quite modest. But still it's part of the big picture. So that's very satisfying.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

Is there one particular problem you solved that excited you a great deal?

Freeman Dyson: They've all excited me more or less equally. But they had very unequal importance. It didn't matter to me whether they're important or not, as long as I could solve them. But it was one in particular that turned out to be important, which was sort of the nature of the way atoms behave, interacting with radiation, with light, and radio waves. So that was a physics problem which I was able to solve about two years after I came to America. So it was early in my career. So it was a great piece of luck that particular problem turned out to be important, and that's why I got ahead. I mean, I became a full professor on the basis of that. So that particular problem had been hanging around for some time, and so it was well known to be important, and I had the mathematical tools that were needed. And after that I looked at all sorts of other problems which, to me, were just as exciting, but which were only interesting to two or three people all together. That's just a matter of chance in a way.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

In most careers there are moments of frustration, of failure, self doubt. Have you suffered those things?

Freeman Dyson: Oh, yes. I certainly deal with those.

I have the advantage, of course, of this short attention span, so that I didn't ever get obsessed with a problem in a sort of pathological way. I have had a number of failures. I published several papers that actually turned out to be wrong. That's very depressing, when one of your colleagues calls up and says, "Look, that's all wrong for the following reasons..." And you think, "Oh, I'm absolutely no good. I've lost it." But after a week or two you recover. That's happened to me several times. I have the good fortune not to take myself too seriously. I know what I can do, and when I make a mistake it's not a tragedy. Luckily people have short memories too.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

You say you have a short attention span, but it must take patience too, to write out hundreds of equations in search of a solution. Is patience important?

Freeman Dyson: Yes, it certainly is, and what we call sitzfleisch. Sitzfleisch is a German word which means just the flesh on the bottom where you sit. That's important, to be able to sit in a chair for six hours scribbling at a stretch without being distracted. That's very important. You have to be able to lose yourself in a problem and not get impatient.

What about criticism? How have you handled criticism in your lifetime?

Freeman Dyson: Oh, I rather enjoy it.

When I started my second career, as a writer, the first book I wrote was called Disturbing the Universe, which I still consider to be the best. It's a more personal book, and it tells about my life. The very first review of that book that came out in The New York Times really tore it apart. It was written by Horace Judson, who's a good friend of mine, who is also a writer. He really tore into that book and told everybody it was no good and for the following reasons. And then that was, of course, the best thing that ever happened. There's nothing like a bad review for selling a book. So I always felt I learned more from the bad reviews than from the good ones. The same is true of criticism in general, and you learn more from your failures than from your successes. So if you have an honest critic, that's an enormous help. And of course my wife is the honest critic that I rely on. She's always telling me when I've really screwed up.

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