Freeman Dyson, famed physics and math contributor, passes away

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A free thinker, the architect of modern particle physics, eternal graduate student and a man whose thoughts were truly infinite in all directions – that’s how friends and colleagues described Freeman J. Dyson.

Dyson, who died Feb. 28, was 96 years old. He had been a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton since 1953. The Institute for Advanced Study is dedicated to independent study across the sciences and humanities.

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Dyson made fundamental contributions in an incredibly wide variety of fields in physics and mathematics, said Edward Witten, who is the Charles Simonyi Professor in the School of Natural Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study.

“No life is more entangled with the Institute and impossible to capture (than Dyson),” said Robbert Dijkgraaf, director of the Institute for Advanced Study, which announced Dyson’s death.

Dijkgraaf described Dyson as “the architect of modern particle physics, a free-range mathematician, an advocate of space travel, astrobiology and disarmament, a rebel to preconceived ideas – including his own – and a wise observer of the human scene.”

“Freeman’s secret was simply saying ‘yes’ to everything in life, until the very end. We are blessed that Freeman and his family made the Institute for Advanced Study their home,” Dijkgraaf said.

Dyson, who was born in Great Britain, studied physics as an undergraduate at Trinity College in Cambridge, England, according to the Institute for Advanced Study.

Dyson left college and worked for two years as a civilian scientist conduction operations research for the Royal Air Force’s bomber command during World War II.

After the war, he enrolled at Cambridge University and earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1945. He was awarded a Commonwealth Fellowship in 1947, which brought him to Cornell University and studies in theoretical physics.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was the director of the Institute for Advanced Study, invited Dyson to become a member in 1948. He returned to the Institute for Advanced Study for a second membership in 1950.

Dyson was invited to take a permanent appointment to the faculty in 1953, where he joined top physicists and mathematicians that included Albert Einstein, who was a founding member of the Institute for Advanced Study, and Oswald Veblen and John von Neumann.

In 1956, he began a three-year association with General Atomic to design a nuclear reactor that would be inherently safe. The TRIGA reactor is still in production today, and it is used mostly be hospitals.

Dyson also participated in the debate about the nuclear test ban treaty, and whether an exception should be made for the purposes of experimentation.

He was elected to the council of the Federation of American Scientists in 1960 and subsequently served as its chairman. He advocated for the creation of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, which was merged with the U.S. State Department in 1999.

Through his work with the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Dyson concluded that further nuclear testing was wrong – technically, militarily, politically and morally. He testified in support of the nuclear test ban treaty in front of the U.S. Senate in 1963.

During his lifetime, Dyson was awarded with more than 20 honorary degrees. He had been elected to numerous learned societies, such as the Royal Society and the National Academy of the Sciences, for his contributions to science, mathematics and public policy.

“Freeman Dyson was truly a ‘free thinker.’ There were absolutely no bounds to what he was willing to imagine. There were no bounds of complexity, of conventional wisdom, of scope and time,” said Charles Simonyi, chairman of the Institute for Advanced Study’s board of trustees.

“His thoughts, just as the universe he was exploring and expressed in the title of one of his many books, were truly ‘infinite in all directions,'” Simonyi said.

 

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