WiredAt 90, a Brilliant Mathematician Ponders His Next ChallengeBy Thomas Lin, Quanta Magazine

03.31.14 | 12:44 pm

Freeman Dyson — the world-renowned mathematical physicist who helped found quantum electrodynamics with the bongo-playing, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman and others, devised numerous mathematical techniques, led the team that designed a low-power nuclear reactor that produces medical isotopes for research hospitals, dreamed of exploring the solar system in spaceships propelled by nuclear bombs, wrote technical and popular science books, penned dozens of reviews for The New York Review of Books, and turned 90 in December — is pondering a new math problem.

“There’s a class of problem that Freeman just lights up on,” said the physicist and computational biologist William Press, a longtime colleague and friend. “It has to be unsolved and well-posed and have something in it that admits to his particular kind of genius.” That genius, he said, represents a kind of “ingenuity and a spark” that most physicists lack: “The ability to see further in the mathematical world of concepts and instantly grasp a path to the distant horizon that’s the solution.”

Press said he’s posed a number of problems to Dyson that didn’t “measure up.” Months and years went by, with no response. But when Press asked a question about the “iterated prisoner’s dilemma,” a variation of the classic game theory scenario pitting cooperation against betrayal, Dyson replied the next day. “It probably only took him a minute to grasp the solution,” Press said, “and half an hour to write it out.”

Together, they published a much-cited 2012 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The next year, Press traveled to Princeton, N.J., for a two-day celebration of Dyson at the Institute for Advanced Study, Dyson’s intellectual home for the past six decades. In honor of Dyson’s 90th birthday, there was seemingly boundless cake, a forest of long, white candles, 350 guests — including his 16 grandchildren — and lectures recognizing his eclectic achievements in math, physics, astronomy and public affairs.H. T. Yau of Harvard University commenced the math section, launching into Dyson’s work on the universality of random matrices. George Andrews of Pennsylvania State University and Kathrin Bringmann of the University of Cologne followed with the implications of Dyson’s early contributions to number theory, which he began contemplating in high school. William Happer, a physicist at Princeton University and a fellow skeptic of the perils of anthropogenic climate change, closed day one with a talk provocatively titled “Why Has Global Warming Paused?”

Dyson’s unfinished science fiction story, “Sir Phillip Roberts’s Erolunar Collision,” written in the early 1930s when he was 8 or 9.

Dyson admits to being controversial when it comes to climate science. But during an hour-long interview with Quanta Magazine in December, he said: “Generally speaking, I’m much more of a conformist.” Still, he has written fondly of science as an act of rebellion. In his 2006 anthology of essays and reviews, “The Scientist as Rebel,” Dyson writes, “I was lucky to be introduced to science at school as a subversive activity of the younger boys.” With characteristic concern for social issues, he goes on to advise parents: “We should try to introduce our children to science today as a rebellion against poverty and ugliness and militarism and economic injustice.”

On the second day of the 2013 celebration in Princeton, after numerous speakers had recounted past collaborations with Dyson, alternately feting and roasting his brilliance, Press took a different tack. Referring to their collaboration on the prisoner’s dilemma, Press — a professor at the University of Texas, Austin — said he “thought it would be a little extreme to reminisce with Freeman about a paper that was just published.” Instead, he described his own recent result on safer “adaptive” clinical trials, adding that although he had solid computational data, the mathematical analysis proved too formidable. “I wish I had worked on it with Freeman — and maybe still will get the chance to do so,” he said slyly.

Press’ comment proved prescient. After the celebration, Dyson began mulling over the problem — unbeknownst to Press, who didn’t find out until Quanta contacted him in March about the new “collaboration.” “I’m glad to know it’s on his stack of things to do!” he said. “I’m looking forward to seeing what he comes up with.”

Quanta Magazine interviewed Dyson at the institute, just days after his 90th birthday. An edited and condensed version of the conversation follows.

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