The Disciplined Free Creativity of Freeman Dyson

Freeman Dyson, legendary mathematician and theoretical physicist, died at the end of February, aged 96.

The New York Times remembered him as a 24-year-old genius who, while riding a Greyhound bus in Nebraska, saw that two very different, and stupefyingly recondite, ways of describing the behavior of electrons and photons (and electrons’ antimatter equivalent, positrons) were mathematically equivalent. The diagrams of Richard Feynman and the equations of Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga were in fact alternative ways of saying the same thing. The result was quantum electrodynamics, which Feynman called “the jewel of physics — our proudest possession.”

It takes an extreme capacity of mind, of both analysis and synthesis, to see that this is actually also that. An Aquinas, a da Vinci, an Einstein can do it; not many can. Dyson also could, and many believe he should have shared in the Nobel Prize that went to the three colleagues he conceptually connected.

As a graduate student in America, having been born and educated in England, Dyson landed a research fellowship at Birmingham and then a teaching position at Cornell before completing his Ph.D., so he never bothered to finish it. He spent the rest of his career at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, where he went for long walks with the likes of Robert Oppenheimer and Wolfgang Pauli.

Out of those long walks emerged a string of papers and books on a wide range of subjects. But Dyson’s most prominent interest was space travel, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and the colonization of the solar system and beyond.

If you have come across his name in the popular press, it’s likely for the idea of the “Dyson Sphere,” a hypothetical structure a future civilization could build entirely around its sun as a generous, lasting energy source. But he did enough serious science to win the prestigious Dannie Heineman Prize for Mathematical Physics in 1965 for his work in quantum field theory, just a few years after taking a leave to work on the possibility of an interplanetary spacecraft powered by controlled nuclear explosions.

Named a fellow of the British Royal Society and a member of the American National Academy of Sciences, Dyson received the Wolf Prize in physics in 1981. His writings also ranged over philosophy, ethics, and religion, however, such that he received the Lewis Thomas Prize, awarded to scientists for artistic achievements, in 1996, and the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 2000.

Indeed, the list of concepts that bear his name indicates something of the vast reach of his imagination. There is Dyson’s transform, a fundamental technique in the mathematics of  additive number theory (don’t ask me); the Dyson series, a perturbative series in which each term is represented by Feynman diagrams (ditto); the Dyson tree, a hypothetical genetically-engineered plant capable of growing in a comet (!); and his last great project, Dyson’s eternal intelligence, the project by which a civilization could escape the prospect of the heat death of the universe by extending subjective time to infinity while expending only a finite amount of energy.

How would it do that? By encoding its collective mind into a machine that would slow its own functions as energy sources diminished in a gradually expanding, and thus cooling, universe. Of course.

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What Does It Mean to Have Abundant Life?

In the summer of 1997, France mourned the death of Jeanne Calment. Why was her passing so remarkable?

Jeanne Calment was older than the Eiffel Tower. She was born in Arles in 1875, while work began on France’s most famous structure a dozen years later, in 1887.

Jeanne Calment was renowned as the oldest human being in the world—although some critics have suggested she wasn’t every one of the 122 years old she claimed to be. Even discounting her age by a full twenty per cent, however, she was still almost a century old. That’s a lot of life.

The same summer of 1997 saw the death of another famous European woman. Lady Diana Spencer, later Diana, Princess of Wales, was killed in a car crash in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel in Paris. Her driver was fleeing the paparazzi who had stalked her for almost two decades, virtually since her engagement to her former husband, Prince Charles, as a teenager.

Diana was only 36 years old when she died. But after a fairly nondescript, if privileged, childhood and adolescence, she had blossomed into a global celebrity, renowned and beloved for her beauty, charm, and many charitable interests.

After her divorce from the heir apparent to the British throne, she largely withdrew from public life and charitable sponsorships, but maintained several key concerns while conducting at least two romances with wealthy men. She also lovingly raised her two sons, Princes William and Harry, now both darlings of the world press.

For many, many mourners, Lady Di was “the people’s princess” at the pinnacle of worldly achievement. Even for a thirty-six-year-old, that’s a lot of life.

Yet another European woman passed away that same summer. Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu had been born in Skopje, now the capital city of North Macedonia and at the time an important town in Yugoslavia.

[For the rest, please click HERE.]

First Nations and Canada’s Priorities

The current Wet’suwet’sen controversy is vexing and perplexing in equal measure. Eventually, with the rest of Canada, I may get all that figured out.

What is infuriating and not at all confusing, however, is an issue that seems, and I say this with full irony, crystal clear: the fact that many, many of our First Nations are without clean running water.

It’s 2020…in a country with 20% of the world’s fresh water, second only to Iceland in renewable water supply per capita. How can over a hundred reserves across our country still be required to boil water or have it trucked to them?

A recent article in The Walrus, among many others easily garnered on the internet, paints an awful picture of partial gains and major losses, one step forward and another step back, and several, it appears, sideways. Here are some of the absurdities and outrages.

There are, across our country, over 60 long-term water advisories. That means that for over a year more than sixty aboriginal communities have been told that they cannot use their water safely without boiling it. Dozens more are experiencing a “short-term” (less than a year—a year) advisory.

Some reserves, such as Neskantaga and Shoal Lake 40 First Nations, have been under an advisory for more than twenty years. An entire generation is now entering adulthood who have never been able to drink water from their taps.

What’s in that water? E. coli and coliform contamination. Uranium. (Yes, uranium.) And suspected carcinogens: trihalomethanes that form when the “tea water” (the local water supply “browned” by organic material) interacts with the chlorine meant to purify it.

Why isn’t the water purified properly everywhere?

Well, how about engineering triumphs such as placing water intakes downstream of the outflows of sewage treatment? Or providing new machines, and even whole treatment plants, but no money for operation, maintenance, and training? Or funds being made available to upgrade homes with plumbing, but no money to bring water to homes currently lacking indoor plumbing?

Follow the money, and you find that there is much lower funding for reserves than for municipalities of the same size. You find that the federal government insists on an 80/20 funding formula regardless of a band’s ability to pay that 20 per cent. You find that feasibility studies sit on desks as governments change and then have to be re-done to satisfy the next government.

[For the rest, please click HERE.]