APS Physics Club Receives A New Collection

Charles Greifenstein is in charge of researcher services, the manuscript department, and security policies. He has an MA in English...

The APS has received the papers of physicist Freeman Dyson (APS 1976). In May 2019, Curator of Manuscripts Charles Greifenstein visited Dyson at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and retrieved his papers for deposition.

dyson and greifenstein
Charles Greifenstein with Freeman Dyson in Dyson’s office, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey, May 2019.

The collection covers the large range of Dyson’s interests in areas such as quantum physics, technology, space travel and space science, nuclear energy, mathematics, philosophy, evolution, genetics and, controversially, climate change (he believes the science is correct, but he thinks the models that predict effects of change as they exist now aren’t reliable).

To summarize the career of one of the most wide-ranging intellectuals of the last 100 years is impossible in a blog post, but perhaps a look at a few items in the papers will get us along the way.

Dyson to Oppenheimer
Dyson to Oppenheimer, October 17, 1947, outlining the utility of Feynman’s approach to quantum electrodynamics.  Dyson Papers, APS.

Dyson has admitted he was lucky to be living in a time of great developments in physics and mathematics. One such moment was when he was the first to see the utility of newly-developed Feynman Diagrams, which allowed for a much clearer way to explain quantum electrodynamics, a field which seeks to explain the interaction of light and matter. Robert Oppenheimer had to be convinced that Dyson was right. In a note (pictured) sent to Oppenheimer, Dyson explained himself effectively, prompting Oppenheimer to reply “Nolo contendere.” Oppenheimer was sufficiently impressed to offer Dyson a permanent position at the Institute for Advanced Study.

Oppenheimer note
Oppenheimer’s note to Dyson, pleading “no contest” to Dyson’s argument.  Dyson Papers, APS.

The papers include carbon copies of letters Dyson wrote to his family. These letters, beginning in the 1940’s, show even then his gifts as a writer and form an important part of his book, Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters, published in 2018.

MS page Disturbing the Universe
Manuscript page from Disturbing the Universe.  Dyson Papers, APS.

Perhaps his best known book is Disturbing the Universe, which examines his intellectual growth, his engagement with ideas and moral dilemmas, and his encounters with some of the pivotal figures in science. The papers have the original draft of Disturbing the Universe. The book is to help “unscientific people” understand science and technology, but 

“If you find it merely amusing or bewildering, it has failed in its purpose. But if you find none of it amusing or bewildering, it has failed even more completely. It is characteristic of all deep human problems that they are not to [be] apprehended without some humor and some bewilderment. Science is no exception.”

Unrevised, save for the missing “be,” the last two sentences appear in the published version.

Once processed, the Dyson Papers will provide many avenues of inquiry for researchers to pursue.

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