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Freeman Dyson: we explore the extraordinary life of the rebel physicist

04 May 2023 Hamish Johnston

In this episode of the Physics World Weekly podcast I explore the remarkable life of Freeman Dyson with the historian and physicist David Kaiser. Born in England a century ago, Dyson made important breakthroughs in quantum theory and applied mathematical rigour to a wide range of projects. These included the design of a popular research reactor still in use today and a nuclear-powered rocket, which thankfully was never built.

Kaiser is editor of the new book “Well, Doc, You’re In”: Freeman Dyson’s Journey through the Universe. This looks at the mathematical physicist’s early life, formative years, and professional life in chapters written by historians and science journalists as well as colleagues and relatives of Dyson.

In our wide-ranging conversation, we look at how Dyson’s negative experiences at English boarding schools and his frustrations while doing operational research for the Royal Air Force during the Second World War shaped his lifelong rebellious streak. We discuss how his early love of mathematics served him well when he tackled problems beyond the realm of physics. Kaiser also addresses the contrarian views on climate change that Dyson developed late in life.

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