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Dyson as the new Emerson

2 July 2013

In the range of his intellectual interests and literary accomplishments, the physicist Freeman Dyson resembles the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson.

By Phillip F. Schewe

Life, said Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, is lived forwards but understood backwards. A biographer must therefore move in both directions, telling the story of the life forwards and assessing backwards what it all meant. Part bio and part graph, a biography is not as complex or full as the subject's life. Rather, it aims for literary coherence by taking apart the life and putting it back together in an order that helps tell a story within a finite number of pages.

Seeking a retrospective understanding, a biographer sifts the life for themes. In Maverick Genius (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2013), my biography of scientist and writer Freeman Dyson, I sort his life into chapters that naturally follow the curving trajectory of Dyson's multifarious career: as mathematician, physicist, engineer, biologist, and more.

But for me, the overarching theme of Dyson's life is his search for "meaning." Meaning is not usually something physicists bother with; their goal is to gather and integrate facts and phenomena. As a scientist, Dyson has done just that, formulating his findings in the conventional language of mathematics and physical law.

As an essayist, however, Dyson uses a different language. He allows himself to be historical and philosophical, even moralistic. That movement toward the frontier between science and humanism is what defines Dyson's peculiar role as a public intellectual. With the exception of the physics Nobel, he has won many of the important physics prizes. Still, I predict he will be ultimately regarded as an essayist—indeed, as the Ralph Waldo Emerson of our time.

Who was Emerson? In terms of subjects covered, literary style, and influence on other writers, he was the most important American essayist of the 19th century. Once a Unitarian minister, he gave up the church but continued to preach, chiefly through lectures and magazine articles. What he preached was not formal religion but how to live a better life, an "examined" life. He questioned conventional wisdom and sought new ways of understanding the world.

Dyson also aims to promote the examined life. He regards deterministic science as incredibly valuable but only one route to knowledge. He insists that we view the universe through many windows, that we use the tools of science as well as the tools of art and history to explore the human role in the cosmos.

Emerson and Dyson have a lot in common. Both write in an aphoristic way, and both like addressing grand themes.

Emerson: "In all my lectures, I have taught one doctrine, namely, the infinitude of the private man."

Dyson: "My message is the unbounded prodigality of life and the consequent unboundedness of human destiny."

In the tempestuous era before the Civil War, Emerson wrote of the corrosive effect of human slavery on society and of the difficulty of getting people in the American South to even imagine society and their plantation economy without the institution of slavery. Analogously, during the worst parts of the cold war, Dyson frequently wrote of society's bondage to nuclear weapons.

Perhaps the most important kinship between Emerson and Dyson is their hankering for the transcendent, the perception of things that aren't apparent to the senses—sublime things that are often awesome or beautiful and sometimes dangerous. Emerson fell away from traditional Christian beliefs but continued to seek spiritual energy in such writers as philosopher Immanuel Kant and romantic poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Johann von Goethe.

Although Dyson grew up steeped in mathematics and later in quantum physics, from his youth he, too, had an interest in spiritual things. In high school, he was simultaneously devouring the poems of William Blake and books about differential equations. Thus it is that Dyson, with highly cited papers in particle physics, condensed-matter physics, statistical mechanics, nuclear physics, and mathematical physics, would also publish reviews and essays—usually in the pages of the New York Review of Books—on extrasensory perception, information theory, philosophy, theology, climate change, and space travel. He coined a word, theofiction, to describe the peculiar genre of literature at the intersection of theology and science fiction. He invented the term to describe Olaf Stapledon's novels, but it also applies to the great poems of Dante and John Milton.

Dyson's views are often controversial. In a profile in the New York Times, he voiced skepticism as to the seriousness of climate change and earned himself the title of "global warming heretic." More than a century before, Emerson earned Harvard University's opprobrium for leaving the Unitarian Church. Emerson was the leader of a short-lived but influential movement called transcendentalism, which was an interesting mixture of science, nature, literature, and spirituality. Dyson, through his popularization of such space-colonization ideas as "Dyson spheres" and "Dyson trees," has inspired many writers of science fiction novels. A video game character was named after him, and an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation pivoted around the concept of Dyson spheres.

I like to think that if Dyson had lived in mid-19th century America, he might have been a thinker like Emerson. Conversely, if Emerson had lived in the 20th or 21st century, with their emphasis on science and technology, he might have become an essayist in the mold of Dyson, Carl Sagan, Edward O. Wilson, Steven Weinberg, Stephen Jay Gould, and Oliver Sacks—the fine literary scientific writers of our time.

Phillip Schewe works at the Joint Quantum Institute in College Park, Maryland. He is the author of Maverick Genius: The Pioneering Odyssey of Freeman Dyson (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press, 2013) and The Grid: A Journey Through the Heart of Our Electrified World (Joseph Henry Press, 2007).

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