Freeman Dyson is Professor of Physics Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. His most recent book is Dreams of Earth and Sky, a collection of his writing in these pages.
 (May 2016)

Max Planck: The Tragic Choices

Max Planck, center, with Walther Nernst, Albert Einstein, Robert Andrews Millikan, and Max Laue, all physicists and winners of the Nobel Prize, Berlin, 1928
In the summer of 1946, as soon as possible after the end of World War II, the Royal Society of London organized a celebration for the three hundredth birthday of Isaac Newton. Newton was born on Christmas Day 1642, laid the foundations of modern physics with his masterpiece, Mathematical Principles …

Stardust

Star-forming nebula in the constellation Carina, 7,200 light-years from earth, 2006-2008

When we see things for the first time, the pictures are always a surprise. Nature’s imagination is richer than ours. We imagine things to be simple and Nature makes them complicated. In Expanding Universe, a magnificent selection of pictures taken by cameras on the Hubble Space Telescope, the big surprise is dust.

Einstein as a Jew and a Philosopher

Albert Einstein, Vienna, 1921
Why would anybody want to write another book about Albert Einstein? Why would anybody want to read it? These are two separate questions, but both of them have satisfactory answers. In spite of the large number of books already written about Einstein, there is still room for one more.

Scientist, Spy, Genius: Who Was Bruno Pontecorvo?

Bruno Pontecorvo around the time of his defection to the USSR
Why does the American public still consider all spies to be demons? Why does the public make no distinction between technical spies like Julius Rosenberg stealing useful knowledge and tactical spies like Kim Philby destroying human lives? Perhaps it is because the American public is misled by the American secrecy system.

Churchill: Love & the Bomb

Winston Churchill (second from right) and his scientific adviser Frederick Lindemann (far left) watching a demonstration of antiaircraft gunnery, June 1941
This book is the story of a love triangle. The three characters are Winston Churchill the statesman, H.G. Wells the writer, and Frederick Lindemann the scientist. Churchill was in love with war and weapons, ever since he was a small boy playing with a historic collection of toy soldiers. Wells …

The Case for Blunders

Humans need beliefs in order to live, and great scientists are no exception. The essential point of Mario Livio’s book Brilliant Blunders is to show the passionate pursuit of wrong theories as a part of the normal development of science. Science is not concerned only with things that we understand. The most exciting and creative parts of science are concerned with things that we are still struggling to understand. Wrong theories are not an impediment to the progress of science. They are a central part of the struggle.

How to Be an Underdog, and Win

Malcom Gladwell, 2008
The RAND Corporation is a think tank in Santa Monica, California, where scholars from many disciplines work for the Department of Defense, mixing academic research with practical advice concerning military problems. The experts at RAND consider themselves the brains of the military establishment. Two fat documents were among those produced …

Oppenheimer: The Shape of Genius

Robert Oppenheimer lecturing Edward R. Murrow on physics, Princeton, 1954
The real tragedy of Robert Oppenheimer’s life was not the loss of his security clearance but his failure to be a great scientist. For forty years he put his heart and soul into thinking about deep scientific problems. With the single exception of the collapse of massive stars at the end of their lives, he did not solve any of these problems. Why did he not succeed in scientific research as brilliantly as he succeeded in soldiering and administration?

What Can You Really Know?

Jim Holt’s Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story is a portrait gallery of leading modern philosophers. He visited each of them in turn, warning them in advance that he was coming to discuss with them a single question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Science on the Rampage

An engraving by William Blake from The Song of Los, 1795
In my career as a scientist, I twice had the good fortune to be a personal friend of a famous dissident. Both of them were tragic figures, intellectually brilliant and morally courageous, with the same fatal flaw. Both of them were possessed by fantasies that people with ordinary common sense could recognize as nonsense.

How to Dispel Your Illusions

Daniel Kahneman, New York City, September 2011
Cognitive illusions are the main theme of Daniel Kahneman’s book. A cognitive illusion is a false belief that we intuitively accept as true. The illusion of validity is a false belief in the reliability of our own judgment. Kahneman confesses that he himself still experiences the illusion of validity, after fifty years of warning other people against it. He cannot escape the illusion that his own intuitive judgments are trustworthy.

The Case for Far-Out Possibilities

David Deutsch, Christ Church, Oxford
Since people began to wonder about human destiny, there have always been prophets of hope and prophets of doom. Long ago in Mesopotamia, as recorded in the book of Genesis, Abraham fell on his face and God talked with him, saying: Behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt …

The ‘Dramatic Picture’ of Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman, circa 1985
In the last hundred years, since radio and television created the modern worldwide mass-market entertainment industry, there have been two scientific superstars, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. Lesser lights such as Carl Sagan and Neil Tyson and Richard Dawkins have a big public following, but they are not in the same class as Einstein and Hawking. Sagan, Tyson, and Dawkins have fans who understand their message and are excited by their science. Einstein and Hawking have fans who understand almost nothing about science and are excited by their personalities. Two new books now raise the question of whether Richard Feynman is rising to the status of superstar.

How We Know

Érik Desmazières: La Salle des planètes, from his series of illustrations for Jorge Luis Borges’s story ‘The Library of Babel,’ 1997–2001. A new volume of Desmazières’s catalogue raisonné will be published by the Fitch-Febvrel Gallery later this year. Illustration © 2011 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris.
James Gleick’s first chapter has the title “Drums That Talk.” It explains the concept of information by looking at a simple example. The example is a drum language used in a part of the Democratic Republic of Congo where the human language is Kele. European explorers had been aware for a long time that the irregular rhythms of African drums were carrying mysterious messages through the jungle. Explorers would arrive at villages where no European had been before and find that the village elders were already prepared to meet them.

‘What Price Glory?’

Jupiter’s atmosphere in the area of the Great Red Spot, shown in a mosaic of images taken in 1979 by the unmanned space probe Voyager 1. This image comes from Michael Benson’s 2003 book Beyond: Visions of the Interplanetary Probes, which is now the basis of the Smithsonian’s exhibition ‘Beyond: Visions of Our Solar System,’ at the National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C., May 26, 2010 –May 2, 2011. Benson’s new collection of astronomical images, Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle, has just been published by Abrams.
Steven Weinberg is famous as a scientist, but he thinks deeply and writes elegantly about many other things besides science. This collection of his writings is concerned with history, politics, and science in roughly equal measure. The picture on the jacket shows dark waves on deep water with a distant …

Silent Quantum Genius

Paul Dirac, one of the discoverers of quantum mechanics, with part of a model airplane he was building with the physicist Patrick Blackett, near Thorpe-le-Soken, Essex, England, 1933
Why should anyone who is not a physicist be interested in Paul Dirac? Dirac is interesting for the same reasons that Einstein is interesting. Both made profound discoveries that changed our way of thinking. And both were unique human beings with strong opinions and strong passions. Besides these two major …

When Science & Poetry Were Friends

The first balloon crossing of the English Channel, January 7, 1785; detail from an oil painting by E.W. Cocks, circa 1840
The Age of Wonder means the period of sixty years between 1770 and 1830, commonly called the Romantic Age. It is most clearly defined as an age of poetry. As every English schoolchild of my generation learned, the Romantic Age had three major poets, Blake and Wordsworth and Coleridge, at the beginning, and three more major poets, Shelley and Keats and Byron, at the end. In literary style it is sharply different from the Classical Age before it (Dryden and Pope) and the Victorian Age after it (Tennyson and Browning).

Leaping into the Grand Unknown

The Nobel Prize–winning particle physicist Frank Wilczek, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, February 2007
Frank Wilczek is one of the most brilliant practitioners of particle physics. Particle physics is the science that tries to understand the smallest building blocks of earth and sky, just as biol-ogy tries to understand living creatures. Particle physics is running about two hundred years behind biology. In the eighteenth …

Struggle for the Islands

The most dramatic moment of our trip to the Galápagos Islands in May 2008 was on the last day. My wife and I were leaning over the railing on the deck of the tourist boat Integrity, watching an orca whale. The orca swam close to the boat, almost directly underneath …