Freeman Dyson

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Freeman Dyson in San Francisco in 2005 (Photo: Jacob Appelbaum)
Freeman Dyson in San Francisco in 2005 (Photo: Jacob Appelbaum)

Freeman John Dyson (born December 15, 1923) is an English-born American physicist and mathematician, famous for his work in quantum mechanics, nuclear weapons design and policy, and for his serious theorizing in futurism and science fiction concepts, including the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.



Dyson worked as an analyst for British Bomber Command during World War II. After the war, he obtained a degree in mathematics from Cambridge University (1945) and was a Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1946 to 1949. In 1947 he moved to the US, on a fellowship at Cornell University and then joined the faculty there as a physics professor in 1951. In 1953, he took up a post at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. In 1957, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States.

In the years following the war, Dyson was responsible for demonstrating the equivalence of the two formulations of quantum electrodynamics which existed at the time - Richard Feynman's path integral formulation and the variational methods developed by Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga (Dyson operator).

From 1957 to 1961 he worked on the Orion Project, which proposed the possibility of space-flight using nuclear propulsion. A prototype was demonstrated using conventional explosives, but a treaty banning the use of nuclear weapons in space caused the project to be abandoned.

In 1977, Dyson supervised Princeton undergraduate John Aristotle Phillips in a term paper that outlined a credible design for a nuclear weapon. This earned Phillips the nickname The A-Bomb Kid.

Dyson has published a number of collections of speculations and observations about technology, science, and the future:

  • The Sun, The Genome and The Internet
  • Imagined Worlds
  • From Eros to Gaia
  • Disturbing the Universe

Dyson was awarded the Max Planck medal in 1969. In the 1984–85 academic year he gave the Gifford lectures at Aberdeen, which resulted in the book Infinite In All Directions.

In 1998, Dyson joined the board of the Solar Electric Light Fund. In 2000, Dyson was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.

As of 2003, Dyson is the president of the Space Studies Institute, the space research organization founded by Gerard K. O'Neill.

Dyson was a long time member of the JASON defense advisory group.


Dyson sphere

In 1960 Dyson wrote a short paper for the journal Science, entitled "Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infra-Red Radiation". In it, he theorized that a technologically advanced society might completely surround its native star in order to maximize the capture of the star's available energy. Eventually, the civilization would completely enclose the star, intercepting electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths from visible light downwards and radiating waste heat outwards as infrared radiation. Therefore, one method of searching for extraterrestrial civilisations would be to look for large objects radiating in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Dyson conceived that such structures would be clouds of asteroid-sized space habitats, though science fiction writers have preferred a solid structure: either way, such an artifact is often referred to as a Dyson sphere, although Dyson himself used the term "shell". One of the most famous examples was illustrated in an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which retired Engineer Scotty (from the original Star Trek) was found to have crash-landed on an abandoned Dyson sphere. Larry Niven's novel Ringworld was based on Dyson's concept, and was a scientifically detailed attempt to visualize a much simpler structure.

Dyson tree

Dyson has also proposed the creation of a Dyson tree, a genetically-engineered plant capable of growing on a comet. He suggested that comets could be engineered to contain hollow spaces filled with a breathable atmosphere, thus providing self-sustaining habitats for humanity in the outer solar system.


He has six children. One daughter is Esther Dyson, the noted digital technology consultant. His son is the historian of technology George Dyson, one of whose books is Project Orion: The Atomic Spaceship 1957-1965. His wife, Imme Dyson, is an accomplished masters runner. Despite sharing a last name, he is not related to early 20th-century astronomer Frank Watson Dyson. However, as a small boy, Freeman Dyson was aware of Frank Watson Dyson; Freeman credits the popularity of someone with the same last name with inadvertently helping to spark Freeman's interest in science.

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