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Venerated mathematical physicist Freeman J. Dyson dies at 96

Freeman Dyson
Freeman Dyson in his office at the Institute for Advanced Study in the spring of 2019.

Freeman Dyson, one of the last great theoretical physicists of the WWII era, who walked the Princeton grounds alongside the likes of Einstein and Oppenheimer, died last Friday at 96.

Dyson’s career spanned over seven decades from World War II, when he was an operations researcher with the British Royal Air Force, to his move to the United States, where he developed a deep friendship with Richard P. Feynman GS ’42, to his postgraduate work at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.


Dyson died at Princeton Medical Center on Friday, Feb. 28, due to complications following a fall, according to his daughter, Mia Dyson.

Freeman John Dyson was born in the small village of Crawthorne in Berkshire, England, on Dec. 15, 1923. His father was Sir George Dyson, a famed composer who became the director of the Royal College of Music in London and fought to keep it open amid the German bombings of the Second World War. Dyson’s mother, Mildred, was a lawyer who later worked as a social worker.

A math prodigy, Dyson entered Trinity College, Cambridge University, in 1941 to study mathematics. There, Dyson studied under some of the greats of 20th-century physics and mathematics, such as Paul Dirac, G. H. Hardy, and John Edensor Littlewood.

However, he found his studies interrupted during the Nazi bombings of London by the Luftwaffe in 1940. Dyson, a committed pacifist in his youth, joined the war effort as a civilian scientist for the British Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command.

Dyson initially planned to study physics in the Soviet Union after the war ended, but sensing a deteriorating political situation, he decided to move to the United States instead. In 1946, he enrolled in the physics department at Cornell University as a doctoral student under the mentorship of Hans Bethe. Dyson never completed his Ph.D.

At Cornell, Dyson struck a pivotal friendship with Feynman, a young professor at the time. 


“When I came to America I had never heard of Feynman, but within two weeks I was his friend,” Dyson said in a 2008 interview.

That summer, Feynman invited Dyson to a road trip across the United States, during which Feynman discussed his newfound theory of quantum electrodynamics. It was on a Greyhound bus on his way back from Ann Arbor that Dyson formulated his thoughts on the paper he would write at Princeton — “The Radiation Theories of Tomonaga, Schwinger, and Feynman” — which convinced the broader physics community of Feynman’s theories of quantum electrodynamics.

After Dyson’s work was published in 1949, he briefly taught at Cornell but then took up a position at IAS, which he retained for the rest of his life.

Despite his mathematical contributions to the theories of quantum electrodynamics, Dyson did not receive the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics alongside Feynman, Schwinger, and Tomonaga. The theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg GS ’57, who shared the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics, told The New York Times in 2009 that the Nobel Prize Committee “fleeced” Dyson by not awarding him a prize for his work on quantum electrodynamics.

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Dyson himself was never dismayed about not being a Nobel laureate. "People ask, ‘why didn’t you get the prize?’” he said in a 2012 interview. “It’s much better than if they were asking, ‘why did you get it?’” 

Among Dyson’s many honors are the Max Planck Medal (1969), the Harvey Prize (1977), and the Wolf Prize in Physics (1981).

When asked about the achievement of which he was the proudest, Dyson smilingly replied, “I would say bringing up six kids who are all productive citizens.”

According to the Albert Einstein Professor in Science Paul J. Steinhardt, Dyson, famous for being an opponent to consensus, was “extremely encouraging of [Steinhardt’s] work challenging the Big Bang inflationary picture and proposing instead a cyclic model of the universe.”

When asked about Dyson’s greatest legacy for physics as a discipline and profession, Steinhardt wrote, “the example he set for us all.”

Dyson was intently dedicated to finding progressive usage of nuclear energy, particularly in the late ’50s, where he spent many months working on the La Jolla campus of General Atomics, a peacetime version of the famous Los Alamos research facilities that produced the nuclear bomb.

Ferris Professor of Journalism John McPhee ’53, who spent several weeks reporting on Los Alamos, said to The Daily Princetonian that even among the Los Alamos veterans, “people lionized Freeman Dyson. They would give him the problems no one else could solve.”

Early experiences in the war instilled in Dyson a grave responsibility for the role of science and technology. Dyson, who was morally opposed to indiscriminate bombing, wrote in 1981 that “bomber command was an early example of the new evil that science and technology have added to the old evils of soldiering.”

Harold A. Feiveson GS ’72, Lecturer in Public and International Affairs and Senior Research Policy Analyst, Emeritus, described Dyson as a visionary thinker with a “religious optimism for the future.”

“He knew if we did the right things today, people in the future, looking back, would be grateful,” he said to the ‘Prince.’

Dyson was also a fierce advocate for nuclear disarmament and an ambitious thinker who, while working on Project Orion, envisioned the Dyson Sphere, a hypothetical structure that encircles a star, that would be the ultimate solution to the world’s energy problem.

The last time Feiveson recalls talking to Dyson was three weeks ago, when he invited him to attend a talk on the role of scientists in World War II. According to Feiveson, Dyson's mind "was as sharp as ever" and even cracked a joke during the talk. When the lecturer observed that in 1942, few individuals were confident that the Allies would prevail, Dyson injected that he “knew the Germans would lose the war.”

Dyson, even at 96, was a highly involved member of the Princeton community and continued to welcome students. Last year, four students — Miles Simpkins ’22, Mason Wasserman ’22, Edward Tian ’22, and Satya Nayagam ’22 — visited  Dyson’s office after he offered to help them on their documentary project for their freshman seminar, FRS 134: Scientists Against Time.

Simpkins, who is a member of the rocketry club, remembered Dyson taking a deep interest in the students.

“We mentioned that we were making an attempt at launching rockets into space as students in the rocketry club, he was fascinated and wanted to come to the launch,” he said.

“He was kind of a renaissance man, working on many different subjects, from mathematics to nuclear physics to astrophysics,” wrote Chiara R. Nappi, Professor of Physics, Emeritus, in an email to the ‘Prince.’ “[He was a] very nice guy at a personal level. When I got involved in education in the early [1990s], he was one of my cheerleaders.”

In an interview with the ‘Prince,‘ Eugene Higgins Professor of Physics, Emeritus, and Professor of Mathematical Physics, Emeritus, Elliot H. Lieb described Dyson’s acute mindset.

“Dyson had an eye for fundamental questions, and he would always get to the center of the matter,” Lieb said. “He did not waste a lot of time discussing generalities; he was very focused.”