Freeman Dyson: A Fond Farewell (1923-2020)

"Mr Data, Could This be a Dyson Sphere?"

Freeman John Dyson passed away on 28th February 2020. He lived a remarkable life and contributed a great deal to the field of theoretical physics. Without being as immensely smart as he was, it seems impossible to even get a grasp on some of the ideas he presented, and fields, theories, and concepts that he dealt with. Often, those gifted with super-brains find it hard to try and relay complex matters in a way that those of us who aren’t Albert Einstein, or Stephen Hawking (Hawking’s A Brief History of Time set out to address this issue), will be able to accept, even if we don’t understand it. Dyson is an example of a Scientist, whose work strives to reach as many people as possible. He was brilliant as a pioneering thinker, and rightly well-respected in his field, by colleagues and peers; however, he also managed to transcend boundaries, and enter into popular culture, too. He did so without ever compromising scientific methods (you don’t just get to be a Professor), and well there are those (perhaps well qualified to comment) who may claim he “sold out”, or that his work suffered as a result of celebrity status, what remains absolutely undeniable is his humanity.

In Star Trek the Next Generation episode “Relics”, the U.S.S. Enterprise D encounters a massive object in space, that Data states is “roughly 200 million kilometers in diameter”, and in theory could house up to 250 million M-class planets (M class has Earth-like qualities, meaning it can support life). The ship gets pulled inside the impossible to fathom the size of the structure. In short, Dyson postulated (As Captain Picard states) that if a large enough casing could be constructed around a star, then a civilisation could harness a much greater proportion of energy from it than Earth does from the sun (a tiny proportion). As mentioned, the physics and maths skills required to even debate this intelligently are supreme, and not something most people have. Putting that to one side, it’s enough for some of to simply accept that the idea itself is really cool — like Spock in his gangster suit sort of cool. Rick Berman (TNG show-runner and Star Trek royalty) and the episode writer Ronald D Moore seemed to think so.

Sometime later, Dyson explained that the concept wasn’t wholly accurate, in the portrayal on-screen and in stories. He explained that the actual idea was more of a biosphere (again, feel free to research this as I know very little and can’t claim strongly enough to be aware of that fact). Yet, he graciously accepted that sometimes things just take hold and there is little that you can do when this happens. Dyson credited one of his favorite writers, Olaf Stapleton, with first inspiring him to begin thinking about it in terms of the laws of physics, that resulted in his 1960 paper “Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation”. It seems that this concept was always destined to be used in fiction, and of course Science Fiction. Specifically, Star Trek is absolutely primed to talk of such a concept, and imagine it becoming a reality. Dyson himself stated that he began to imagine the needs of an advanced society that reached out to the stars and required more and more power to make exploration a possibility.

Other aspects of Dyson’s personality included the fact he was religious. This is is interesting, considering his chosen profession. Despite being bound by a series of rules that govern absolutes, he still imagined that there just might be an explanation for all those things that his beloved physics can’t provide evidence for. Of course, religion, and the experiencing of it, is a deeply personal matter. The exact ideas that he had are not known; suffice to say, that he believed something more than just the life we live. Scientists holding views that support some sort of idea of a divine being are more common than assumption might otherwise result in. It can be hard to understand how anyone who works in such a rational field can entertain ideas without evidence, and follow associated texts on them (Dyson self-identified his views as “watered-down Church of England Christianity. Physicists, specifically, are said to be more likely to turn to what can’t be pinned down, as at least a possibility for the wonders of the universe. That’s not the same as an explanation; being open to what’s not known, fundamentally, is the crucial nuance to understand. Perhaps, it’s the only way they can explain what they find so absorbing about the sheer unfathomable nature of the size of the Universe. Dyson resented those who seek only to prove Science is right; equally, he held in disdain those who deny science. For him, they were able to co-exist quite peacefully, these days. For that to happen, just meant people were trying to practice tolerance and respect.

Climate change was another area that Dyson held strong views on. In true scientific style, he openly acknowledged that he was by no means an expert. Of course, anyone with his level of intelligence doesn’t just run around making wild claims. Much of what he said was about the way in which the issue was addressed socio-politically. Dyson felt that biases in various media, and their propensity to whip up storms to create stories that generate sales or hits on websites, led to a dangerous precedent of populism, about facts. He wasn’t claiming there was no need to be concerned. Like so many other things, he seemed to be commenting on the increasingly hostile environment that serious issues are in. Dyson balanced what it is to be an acclaimed intellectual, with what it should be to at least try and remain an open-minded human. The mind and the spirit were both important to him. His approach brought a much needed human side to the big questions of the day, which is a remarkable trait, and one that others could benefit from seriously considering. This applies equally, to everyday citizens, as much as it does to leaders.

Ultimately, when we leave the mortal realm, nobody discusses how nice are shoes were, at our funeral, because we could afford such expenses. Death is the time for reflection, and when what we’ve chosen to do with our lives, who we’ve decided to be, is measured through analysis. Dyson definitely left a rich legacy and will be remembered. Those who think it is possible will hope he is among the stars, or maybe even a part of one now, drifting in the eternal ether; those who don’t entertain such thoughts of an afterlife can celebrate him for the human being he was, and his skills as a thinker, writer, and teacher. His books, lectures, and findings will remain, almost certainly continuing to inspire many others who follow in his footsteps. With so much uncertainty in today’s world, a person who tried to appeal to both sides, to make sense of things, will be sorely missed. He was a giant of a being, who will leave not only a gap on Earth that can’t be filled but also a cavity in the wider Universe. Go and read his books, watch his talks and interviews; that way, his death doesn’t have to be the end of all he was — he’s one person we can’t afford to forget about, especially now.

One Comment
  • myerpheus
    6 March 2020 at 9:53 am -

    Interesting read. Keep up the good work!

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