Mathematician and phyicist Freeman Dyson has died at the age of 96. Like Albert Einstein, after emigrating to the USA, he spent most of his life at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study.

Freeman Dyson

Freeman John Dyson was born December 15, 1923 in Crowthorne, Bershire, England. He died January 28, 2020 in New Jersey. He was the son of Sir George Dyson, the composer, and Mildred Atkey Dyson, a lawyer and a social worker. Most science fiction fans will know him as the man behind the Dyson sphere.

A Dyson sphere is a theoretical construct, first envisioned by Olaf Stapledon in his 1937 book Star Maker, and described in more detail by Dr. Dyson in 1960. It has been used in Star Trek: The Next Generation in the episode “Relics” and in books by Larry Niven, Bob Shaw, Peter Hamilton, and others. A Dyson sphere would be a giant sphere, completely surrounding a star and trapping all its energy. Unfortunately, the size of such a thing would require all material in our solar system to construct. Dr. Dyson suggested it would be more accurately called a Stapledon sphere.

Although a Dyson sphere is probably centuries beyond our current technology, it is not impossible that a more advanced alien species might be able to overcome the problems inherent in building one. Astrophysicists can look for intelligent life in space by looking for signs of a Dyson sphere around a distant star.

Dr. Dyson studied mathematics at England’s Cambridge University. During WWII, he developed analytical methods for calculating the ideal density for bomber formations to help the RAF bomb German targets. He was only 19 when he worked with the RAF’s Operational Research Section. After the war, he returned to Cambridge and earned his BA in mathematics. He came to the United States in 1947 to earn a doctorate in physics. He returned to England a few years later as a research fellow at the University of Birmingham. In 1951, he joined the faculty at Cornell as a physics professor, despite not having a Ph. D. in physics yet, but in 1952 he moved to Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, where he remained for the rest of his career.

He was twice married, to Swiss mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson, with whom he had two children, Esther and George, and to athlete Imme Jung Dyson, with whom he had four daughters, Mia, Dorothy, Rebecca, and Emily.

Dr. Freeman was a friend and colleague of Richard Feynman(1918-1988) and the first scientist after Feynman himself to use Feynman diagrams in his work. In the 1950’s Freeman worked on Project Orion, which suggested the possibility of space flight using nuclear pulse proposion. He worked with Edward Teller on TRIGA (Training, Research, Idotopes, General Atomics) to develop a small, safe nuclear reactor to produce medical isotopes. He wrote numerous scientific and mathematical papers. He won several awards for science,, mathematics, and religion, but never the Nobel Prize, which some of his colleagues thought he deserved.

“I think it’s almost true without exception if you want to win a Nobel Prize, you should have a long attention span, get hold of some deep and important problem and stay with it for ten years. That wasn’t my style.” he said in an interview with the New York Times Magazine.

Oliver Sacks, the author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, said, “A favorite word of Freeman’s about doing science and being creative is the word ‘subversive’. He feels it’s rather important not only to be not orthodox, but to be subversive, and he’s done that all his life.”

Unorthodox, but brilliant, Dyson’s research will be studied and argued about for years.