A seasonal science project

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The Article

If I could have played Santa and swooped down chimneys bearing Christmas gifts, I would leave behind Freeman Dyson’s recently published book, The Scientist As Rebel.

Dyson is a very accomplished and respected physicist, and spends most of his time at the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.

This recent book is a collection of essays for non-scientists as were Dyson’s previous publications. And as he did in his two earlier books, Weapons and Hope (1984) and Infinite in All Directions (1988), Dyson opens the window into his world of the most extraordinary people – those scientists, physicists and mathematicians in particular – who plunge into the darkest and deepest mysteries of matter and life as rebels to unlock their secrets.

Dyson was born in England in 1923, came of age during the Second World War, and arrived in the U.S. joining Cornell University from Cambridge in 1947.

In his writings for the general reader Dyson interprets the achievements of individuals that have profoundly shaped our understanding of the universe. The joy of reading Dyson is discovering through him the wonder and poetry of the universe, and the humanity of great scientists as mortals endowed with the great gift of the mind.

In the first essay which gives the title to the book, Dyson speaks of science belonging to our common humanity. It belongs neither to the East nor to the West, neither to the North nor to the South, but through the ages it has grown richer because of individuals who refused to bend to authorities in their quest to know how the universe works.

Dyson writes about modern physicists and mathematicians – Albert Einstein, Paul Dirac, Stephen Hawking, Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, George Hardy, Paul Erdos, Kurt Godel. But his affection is reserved for his mentor and greatly admired friend Richard Feynman of whom he writes, quoting Ben Jonson’s hymn to Shakespeare, “I did love the man this side idolatry as much as any.”

It is a shame, for instance, Godel is not known to many people. Godel’s theorem of incompleteness profoundly shook the world of pure mathematicians when he demonstrated the ingenious proof, Dyson writes, “that in any formalization of mathematics including the rules of ordinary arithmetic there are meaningful arithmetical statements that cannot be proved true or false.”

I keeled over laughing reading Dyson describe how Paul Erdos – a famous mathematician at Cambridge when the Second World War was tearing their world apart – publicly referred to God by the initials SF meaning Supreme Fascist, or how Feynman took delight in making fools of over-pompous bureaucrats and politicians.

Dyson writes with charming elegance that comes with the love for poetry and music. The esthetics of science is as John Keats expressed, “truth is beauty.” Dyson observes:

“Science in its everyday practice is much closer to art than to philosophy. When I look at Godel’s proof of his undecidability theorem, I do not see a philosophical argument. The proof is a soaring piece of architecture, as unique and as lovely as Chartres Cathedral… The proof is a great work of art.”

This book is a gift from a special individual. It bears no message, except for the discerning of how utterly beautiful is our world despite ugly quarrels among men through the ages.

Salim Mansur
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