Physicist Dyson shares radical changes in science practice


Rabab Al-Sharif | Staff Writer

Freeman Dyson, theoretical physicist and professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study, has lived through some radical changes.

Dyson will give the 10:45 a.m. lecture Wednesday in the Amphitheater about Week Eight’s theme, “Radicalism.” During his lecture, Dyson will talk about the radical changes in science that happened throughout his career.

In the 1940s, four major revolutions were beginning in science — nuclear energy, space, genomics and computing, Dyson said.

Those were not so much new ideas as new tools that transformed the practice of science, he said.

“Those all started at the same time — with luck — just when I was starting my career after World War II,” Dyson said.

The beginnings of each of those revolutions occurred within a two-year span.

In 1944, the first rockets exploded in London, and Oswald Avery demonstrated that genomes were made of DNA. In 1945, the nuclear revolution started with Hiroshima, and the first electronic computer was introduced in Philadelphia.

“Obviously, the big success was computing, which changed the world,” he said. ‘The big failure was nuclear energy, which turned out to be a flop.”

The other two revolutions had both successes and failures, he said.

“Genomics and space turned out to be a success for science, but failure as far as medicine and human adventure were concerned,” he said.

When a transformation is starting, it is hard to tell what the outcome will be, Dyson said. It is not so unexpected that some would succeed while others fail.

“Radical changes are always a gamble,” he said. “It’s a high-risk, high-payoff situation.”

Dyson was born in Crowthorne, England, and worked as a civilian scientist for the Royal Air Force during World War II. He received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of Cambridge in 1945.

In 1947, Dyson went to Cornell University as a graduate student, and he settled in the U.S. permanently in 1951.

It was then when he became a professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in 1953, and he retired as professor emeritus in 1994.

Along with his work in the field of physics on the professional side, Dyson is in touch with the “human side” of science as well. He has written many books for a public audience, including Disturbing the Universe, Weapons and Hope, The Scientist as Rebel and The Sun, the Genome and the Internet.

He was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 2000.