Freeman Dyson Quotes

Freeman Dyson

On Godfrey Hardy

When I was 17 years old [1940] I came as a student to Cambridge University and got to know the famous mathematician Godfrey Hardy [64 years old]... He gave lectures on the pure mathematics that he loved to four or five students sittig around a small table in a small seminar room. In that little room we sat within a couple of feet of Hardy, three times a week for two years. He lectured like Wanda Landowska playing Bach on the harpsichord: precise and totally lucid, but displaying his passionate pleasure to all who could see beneath the surface. Each lecture was carefully prepared, like a work of art, with the intellectual dénouement appearing as if spontaneously in the last five minutes of the hour. For me these lectures were an intoxicating joy, and I used to feel sometimes an impulse to hug that little old man with the white hair two feet away from me, to show him how desperately grateful we were to him for his willingness to go on talking.

— Freeman Dyson, Sun, Genome, & Internet (1999), pp. vii-viii

Butterflies and Superstrings

Superstrings and butterflies are examples illustrating two different aspects of the universe and two different notions of beauty. Superstrings come at the beginning and butterflies at the end because they are extreme examples. Butterflies are at the extreme of concreteness, superstrings at the extreme of abstraction. They mark the extreme limits of the territory over which science claims jurisdiction. Both are, in their different ways, beautiful. Both are, from a scientific point of view, poorly understood. Scientifically speaking, a butterfly is at least as mysterious as a superstring... Almost all the things scientists think and dream about are mysterious.

— Freeman Dyson, Infinite in All Directions(1988), p. 14

Conclusion of Talk "Manchester & Athens" (1980)

Fortunately, the recent successes of particle physics and of cosmology do not exclude the possiblility that the world of physics is truly inexhaustible, that Michael Polanyi was right when he said: "This universe is still dead, but it already has the capacity of coming to life," that John Wheeler is right when he says: "The universe is a self-excited circuit," that Emil Wichert was right when he said: "The universe is infinite in all directions."

— Freeman Dyson, Infinite in All Directions(1988), p. 53

Enlightenment at 15

Enlightenment came to me suddenly and unexpectedly one afternoon in March [1939] when I was walking up to the school notice board to see whether my name was on the list for tomorrow's football game. I was not on the list. And in a blinding flash of inner light I saw the answer to both my problems, the problem of war and the problem of injustice. The answer was amazingly simple. I call it Cosmic Unity. Cosmic Unity said: There is only one of us. We are all the same person. I am you and I am Winston Churchill and Hitler and Gandhi and everybody. There is no problem of injustice because your sufferings are also mine. There will be no problem of war as soon as you understand that in killing me you are only killing yourself.

For some days I quietly worked out in my own mind the metaphysics of Cosmic Unity. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that it was the living truth. It was logically incontrovertible. It provided for the first time a firm foundation for ethics. It offered mankind the radical change of heart and mind that was our only hope of peace at a time of desperate danger. Only one small problem remained. I must find a way to convert the world to my way of thinking.

— Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe (1979), p. 17

On Frank Thompson

Listening to him talking, I learned that there is no way to rightly grasp these great questions except through poetry. For him, poetry was no mere intellectual amusement. Poetry was man's best effort down the ages to distill some wisdom from the inarticulate depths of hs soul.

— Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe (1979), p. 35

Futility of Quantitative Predictions

In the long run, qualitative changes always outweigh quantitative ones. Quantitative predictions of economic and social trends are made obsolete by qualitative changes in the rules of the game. Quantitative predicitons of technological progress are made obsolete by unpredictable new inventions. I am interested in the long run, the remote future, where quantitative predictions are meaningless. The only certainty in that remote future is that radically new things will be happening.

— Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe (1979), p. 192

On the Illusion of Time

It was Einstein who gave us a new scientific vision of the universe as a harmonious whole in which past and future have no absolute significance. Einstein learned in March 1955, shortly before his own death, that Michele Besso had died. Besso had shared Einstein's thoughts in the great days of his youth and had remained for more than fifty years Einstein's closest friend. Einstein wrote a letter of condolence to Besso's sister and son in Switzerland. This is how the letter ended:

Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.

Einstein went serenely to his death four weeks later. His discovery of relativity taught us that in physics the division of space-time into past, present and future is an illusion. He also understood that this division is as illusory in human affairs as it is in physics.

— Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe (1979), p. 193

Mother & Son Dialogue: Cosmic Unity & World Soul

When my mother was past 85, she could no longer walk as she once did... Her favorite walk in those years was to a nearby graveyard which commands a fine view of the ancient city of Winchester and the encircling hills. Here I often walked with her and listened to her talk cheerfully of her appraching death...

Sometimes we talked about the nature of the human soul and about the Cosmic Unity of souls that I had believed in so firmly when I was 15 years old. My mother did not like the phrase Cosmic Unity. It was too pretentious. She preferred to call it a world soul. She imagined that she was herself a piece of the world soul that had been given freedom to grow and develop independently so long as she was alive. After death, she expected to merge back into the world soul, losing her personal identity but preserving her memories and her intelligence. Whatever knowledge and wisdom she had acquired during her life would add to the world soul's store of knowledge and wisdom. “But how do you know that the world soul will want you back?” I said. “Perhaps, after all thes years, the world soul will find you too tough and indigestible and won't want to merge with you.” “Don't worry about that,” my mother replied. “It may take a little while, but I'll find my way back. The world soul can do with a bit more brains.”

— Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe (1979), p. 252

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