Freeman J. Dyson, a prodigy of mathematics and physics who advanced subatomic physics before confronting Earth's environmental future and the deadly realities of war, died this Friday near Princeton, N.J. in a hospital, reports the New York Times. He was 96 years old.
Mia Dyson, his daughter, confirmed his death.
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Dr. Dyson, the mathematics prodigy
While he was a young graduate student at Cornell in 1949, Dr. Dyson wrote a breathtaking paper — deserving of a Nobel Prize — that expanded our understanding of how matter and light interact to create the tangible world. Dyson's theory put forward an idea called quantum electrodynamics, also called QED. It's one of the greatest achievements of modern science.
However, Dyson's work as a writer and technological visionary garnered him public renown. He imagined spaceships propelled through the solar system by nuclear explosions to colonize planets with genetically engineered plant life.
"Life began at 55, the age at which I published my first book," wrote Dyson in From Eros to Gaia, a collection of his writings published while he was on staff at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, as a physics professor. While he held this prestigious position before he possessed a doctorate, he earned a slew of honorary degrees and a fellowship in the Royal Society.
This is why he was called Dr. Dyson.
Dyson doubted physics of a "Theory of Everything"
Depsite his many accolades, Dyson referred to himself as a scientific heretic, often warning others about the temptation to confuse mathematical abstractions with ultimate truth. While his early work on QED helped to bring electrons and photons into a coherent theoretical framework, Dr. Dyson was doubtful that superstrings, or anything else, would ultimately lead to a Theory of Everything, capable of unifying all physics under one "elegant" formula marketable through kitschy coffee mugs.
When he accepted the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 2000, Dyson quoted Francis Bacon: "God forbid that we should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world."