Visionary Physicist Freeman Dyson Dead At 96

Freeman Dyson — physicist, mathematician, but also something of a philosopher, pondering such topics as the origin of life itself — died February 28, 2020, at the age of 96. His daughter, Mia Dyson, told NPR that the scholar died after a short illness. Dyson, world-renowned for his contributions to science, never earned a doctoral degree. Robbert Dijkgraaf, director of Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, where Dyson worked as a professor of physics, said it was because Dyson "felt he was an eternal graduate student, and so he had a license to be interested in everything." 

Dyson, said Dijkgraaf, was "a great unifier of physics." He was born in England and studied at Cambridge, working as a civilian scientist during World War II with the Royal Bomber Command. His landmark work began as a graduate student at Cornell University, where the New York Times reports Dyson wrote a paper "that deepened the understanding of how light interacts with matter to produce the palpable world," a theory known as quantum electrodynamics. Dyson "warned against the temptation of confusing mathematical abstractions with ultimate truth," including disagreement with the larger scientific community over climate change models.

Always a student

His work wasn't entirely theoretical, however. In 1958, says NPR, he helped design an inherently safe nuclear reactor that could be operated "even in the hands of an idiot," and was part of Project Orion, which worked to create spacecraft powered by controlled nuclear explosions. In 2000 he was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, though according to his daughter, he rejected organized religion — or anything else — that tried "to contain his understanding of God and the infinite." As a climate change contrarian — he was not at all convinced that changing climate was due to human activity, or even that, ultimately, it would be bad for the planet — he believed he could help people "think about the facts and see them for what they are," said Mia Dyson. He is survived by his wife, Imme; six children; and 16 grandchildren.