Freeman Dyson’s Life, Through His Letters

Aug 21, 2018

By Kai Bird
April 17, 2018
An Autobiography Through Letters 
By Freeman Dyson 
400 pp. Liveright. $27.95.
As a reader, I was enthralled by this collection of Freeman Dyson’s letters. But as a biographer, I am most annoyed with him for having squirreled all these missives away. Long ago, this now 94-year-old physicist should have shared these nuggets of history. Specifically, back in the 1980s, when my co-author Martin J. Sherwin was interviewing sources for our 2005 biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Dyson kept mum about his treasure trove. This was rather miserly of him, for Dyson knew full well the value of these letters, written to his parents from 1941 through the late 1970s. He knew, because in 1968, after reading “The Double Helix,” James Watson’s account of his discovery with Francis Crick of the peculiar structure of DNA molecules — really, the secret of life — Dyson had asked Watson how he had been able to tell the human drama of the story, “with verbatim accounts of their conversations, stumbling and squabbling as they grope their way toward the truth.” The answer, of course, was that Watson had written letters each week to his mother, who fortunately had saved the correspondence. Dyson wrote his mother that same day, instructing her to preserve his own missives.
Clearly, even then the quantum physicist harbored literary ambitions. As an 18-year-old, Dyson had once asked his Cambridge mathematics professor, Godfrey Hardy, then aged 65, why he was writing books instead of working with numbers. “Young men should prove theorems,” Hardy replied. “Old men should write books.”
Born an Englishman in 1923, Dyson worked for the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command during World War II, but in 1947 he moved to Cornell University to study physics under Hans Bethe. He never earned his doctoral degree, but soon found himself at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., where he flourished. The institute’s director, Oppenheimer, was so impressed by Dyson’s work on quantum electrodynamics that in 1953 he offered the 30-year-old physicist a rare lifetime appointment. Dyson became an American citizen in 1957 — and has lived in Princeton for well over half a century. He knew Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Julian Schwinger and, well, just about anyone worth knowing in the scientific universe of the last six decades. But he is also no doubt today one of the world’s best-known theoretical physicists precisely because, like Oppenheimer, he has always been a polymath, a literary man of science who could explain the physical world to us in plain old English. Always a scientist-rebel, Dyson has been unafraid to wade into controversy, whether it be his reservations about climate change or his forays into the debates over nuclear weapons.
“Maker of Patterns” is not autobiography. That would require something more than just the long letters reproduced here, occasionally annotated with italicized commentary. But these letters will delight any reader with their often contrarian observations. Dyson is an excellent witness, an acute observer of personality and human foibles. This volume should make any reader pine for a deep memoir. Dyson has published more than a dozen books, and while his 1979 book, “Disturbing the Universe,” contains reminiscences, it is more philosophical than autobiographical. Readers who desire a full biography could turn to Phillip F. Schewe’s 2013 “Maverick Genius: The Pioneering Odyssey of Freeman Dyson.”
Dyson’s letters are particularly engaging when they describe the occasional flashes of illumination that lead to a scientific insight. Riding on a cross-continental Greyhound bus, past Iowa cornfields, Dyson notes: “On the third day of the journey a remarkable thing happened; going into a sort of semi-stupor as one does after 48 hours of bus riding, I began to think very hard about physics, and particularly about the rival radiation theories of Schwinger and Feynman. Gradually my thoughts grew more coherent, and before I knew where I was, I had solved the problem that had been in the back of my mind all this year, which was to prove the equivalence of the two theories. … This piece of work is neither difficult nor particularly clever, but it is undeniably important.” Dyson was chiefly pleased that once back in Princeton, he would “now encounter Oppenheimer with something to say which will interest him.”
Dyson is fascinated by Oppenheimer: “I have been observing rather carefully his behavior during seminars. If one is saying, for the benefit of the rest of the audience, things that he knows already, he cannot resist hurrying one on to something else; then when one says things that he doesn’t know or immediately agree with, he breaks in before the point is fully explained with acute and sometimes devastating criticisms, to which it is impossible to reply adequately even when he is wrong.” Dyson thought this “impatience” demonstrated by “Oppy” was beyond his control, and in any case, “To me, the interruptions provided many valuable new ideas.”
The letters are also sometimes painfully candid and close to home. In early 1957, Dyson writes his parents from Aspen, Colo., where he has gone on vacation with his mathematician wife, Verena — and he has to report that Verena has “fallen in love and decided to run away” with one of Freeman’s old Cambridge friends. Dyson is clearly devastated that his wife of six years is walking out of what he had considered a “happy” marriage, leaving behind two young children, Esther and George. (Both children forged innovative careers, Esther as a digital-age journalist and angel investor, and George as a historian of science.) Freeman stoically writes his parents: “Please do not offer me your sympathy or your pity. I have been happy in this marriage, and I have no regrets now it is over. … What she has done may be crazy, but it is not irresponsible.”
And then within months, Dyson’s letters begin to mention the name of Imme Jung, the Berlin-born, 20-year-old au pair Verena had hired just before she walked out. “The more I see of Imme,” Dyson writes his parents, “the more impressed I am with her firm and solid character.” Escorting her to dinner at the Oppenheimers one night that spring, Dyson feels like “Higgins taking his Eliza to the ball; after all, Imme is extremely young and has little formal education.” But fortunately, that night Oppenheimer himself was charming: “Oppy especially went out of his way to be friendly to her.”
Dyson was falling in love with his soon-to-be second wife. In an italicized note, he explained that for the next two years as a single dad, while the divorce was taking shape, “I held back from any display of affection for Imme, but it was obvious to all.”
So, these letters are not only about science and politics. There is a love story too! They went on to have four more daughters; Imme became a master runner — the Dysons like to joke that “he has the brains, she has the legs.” If this “autobiography through letters” is not quite memoir, maybe it will nevertheless inspire a film.
Kai Bird is executive director of the Leon Levy Center for Biography at CUNY Graduate Center and co-author, with Martin J. Sherwin, of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.”

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