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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index D > Freeman Dyson Quotes

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Freeman Dyson
(15 Dec 1923 - )

English-American physicist who is best known for his speculative work on extraterrestrial civilizations.

Science Quotes by Freeman Dyson (32 quotes)

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A good scientist is a person with original ideas. A good engineer is a person who makes a design that works with as few original ideas as possible. There are no prima donnas in engineering.
— Freeman Dyson
In Disturbing the Universe (1979), 114.
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All stable processes we shall predict. All unstable processes we shall control.
Describing John von Neumann's aspiration for the application of computers sufficiently large to solve the problems of meteorology, despite the sensitivity of the weather to small perturbations.
— Freeman Dyson
Infinite in All Directions (2004), 182. Dyson wrote his recollection of a talk given by Neumann at Princeton around 1950. The words are not a direct quotation, merely Dyson's description of Neumann's idea.
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For me too, the periodic table was a passion. ... As a boy, I stood in front of the display for hours, thinking how wonderful it was that each of those metal foils and jars of gas had its own distinct personality.
[Referring to the periodic table display in the Science Museum, London, with element samples in bottles]
— Freeman Dyson
Letter to Oliver Sacks. Quoted in Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001), footnote, 203.
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Fractal is a word invented by Mandelbrot to bring together under one heading a large class of objects that have [played] ... an historical role ... in the development of pure mathematics. A great revolution of ideas separates the classical mathematics of the 19th century from the modern mathematics of the 20th. Classical mathematics had its roots in the regular geometric structures of Euclid and the continuously evolving dynamics of Newton.? Modern mathematics began with Cantor's set theory and Peano's space-filling curve. Historically, the revolution was forced by the discovery of mathematical structures that did not fit the patterns of Euclid and Newton. These new structures were regarded ... as 'pathological,' ... as a 'gallery of monsters,' akin to the cubist paintings and atonal music that were upsetting established standards of taste in the arts at about the same time. The mathematicians who created the monsters regarded them as important in showing that the world of pure mathematics contains a richness of possibilities going far beyond the simple structures that they saw in Nature. Twentieth-century mathematics flowered in the belief that it had transcended completely the limitations imposed by its natural origins.
Now, as Mandelbrot points out, ... Nature has played a joke on the mathematicians. The 19th-century mathematicians may not have been lacking in imagination, but Nature was not. The same pathological structures that the mathematicians invented to break loose from 19th-century naturalism turn out to be inherent in familiar objects all around us.
— Freeman Dyson
From 'Characterizing Irregularity', Science (12 May 1978), 200, No. 4342, 677-678. Quoted in Benoit Mandelbrot, The Fractal Geometry of Nature (1977, 1983), 3-4.
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Gödel proved that the world of pure mathematics is inexhaustible; no finite set of axioms and rules of inference can ever encompass the whole of mathematics; given any finite set of axioms, we can find meaningful mathematical questions which the axioms leave unanswered. I hope that an analogous Situation exists in the physical world. If my view of the future is correct, it means that the world of physics and astronomy is also inexhaustible; no matter how far we go into the future, there will always be new things happening, new information coming in, new worlds to explore, a constantly expanding domain of life, consciousness, and memory.
— Freeman Dyson
From Lecture 1, 'Philosophy', in a series of four James Arthur Lectures, 'Lectures on Time and its Mysteries' at New York University (Autumn 1978). Printed in 'Time Without End: Physics and Biology in an Open Universe', Reviews of Modern Physics (Jul 1979), 51, 449.
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I believe that life can go on forever. It takes a million years to evolve a new species, ten million for a new genus, one hundred million for a class, a billion for a phylum—and that's usually as far as your imagination goes. In a billion years, it seems, intelligent life might be as different from humans as humans are from insects. But what would happen in another ten billion years? It's utterly impossible to conceive of ourselves changing as drastically as that, over and over again. All you can say is, on that kind of time scale the material form that life would take is completely open. To change from a human being to a cloud may seem a big order, but it's the kind of change you'd expect over billions of years.
— Freeman Dyson
Quoted in Omni (1986), 8, 38.
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I belonged to a small minority of boys who were lacking in physical strength and athletic prowess. ... We found our refuge in science. ... We learned that science is a revenge of victims against oppressors, that science is a territory of freedom and friendship in the midst of tyranny and hatred.
[Referring to the science club he founded to escape bullying at his preparatory school.]
— Freeman Dyson
Essay 'To Teach or Not to Teach'. In From Eros to Gaia (1992), Vol. 5, 191. Partial quote in Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001), 26. Different part of quote in Bill Swainson, Encarta Book of Quotations (2000), 299.
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In the modern world, science and society often interact in a perverse way. We live in a technological society, and technology causes political problems. The politicians and the public expect science to provide answers to the problems. Scientific experts are paid and encouraged to provide answers. The public does not have much use for a scientist who says, “Sorry, but we don’t know.” The public prefers to listen to scientists who give confident answers to questions and make confident predictions of what will happen as a result of human activities. So it happens that the experts who talk publicly about politically contentious questions tend to speak more clearly than they think. They make confident predictions about the future, and end up believing their own predictions. Their predictions become dogmas which they do not question. The public is led to believe that the fashionable scientific dogmas are true, and it may sometimes happen that they are wrong. That is why heretics who question the dogmas are needed.
— Freeman Dyson
Frederick S. Pardee Distinguished Lecture (Oct 2005), Boston University. Collected in 'Heretical Thoughts About Science and Society', A Many-Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe (2007), 43-44.
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Leaving aside genetic surgery applied humans, I foresee that the coming century will place in our hands two other forms of biological technology which are less dangerous but still revolutionary enough to transform the conditions of our existence. I count these new technologies as powerful allies in the attack on Bernal's three enemies. I give them the names “biological engineering” and “self-reproducing machinery.” Biological engineering means the artificial synthesis of living organisms designed to fulfil human purposes. Self-reproducing machinery means the imitation of the function and reproduction of a living organism with non-living materials, a computer-program imitating the function of DNA and a miniature factory imitating the functions of protein molecules. After we have attained a complete understanding of the principles of organization and development of a simple multicellular organism, both of these avenues of technological exploitation should be open to us.
— Freeman Dyson
From 3rd J.D. Bernal Lecture, Birkbeck College London (16 May 1972), The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1972), 6. Collected in The Scientist as Rebel (2006), 292. (The World, the Flesh & the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul is the title of a book by J. D Bernal, a scientist who pioneered X-ray crystallography.)
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Most of the crackpot papers which are submitted to The Physical Review are rejected, not because it is impossible to understand them, but because it is possible. Those which are impossible to understand are usually published. When the great innovation appears, it will almost certainly be in a muddled, incomplete and confusing form. To the discoverer himself it will be only half-understood; to everybody else it will be a mystery. For any speculation which does not at first glance look crazy, there is no hope.
— Freeman Dyson
In 'Innovation in Physics', Scientific American (Sep 1958), 199. Collected in From Eros to Gaia (1993).
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My view, the skeptical one, holds that we may be as far away from an understanding of elementary particles as Newton's successors were from quantum mechanics. Like them, we have two tremendous tasks ahead of us. One is to study and explore the mathematics of the existing theories. The existing quantum field-theories may or may not be correct, but they certainly conceal mathematical depths which will take the genius of an Euler or a Hamilton to plumb. Our second task is to press on with the exploration of the wide range of physical phenomena of which the existing theories take no account. This means pressing on with experiments in the fashionable area of particle physics. Outstanding among the areas of physics which have been left out of recent theories of elementary particles are gravitation and cosmology
— Freeman Dyson
In Scientific American (Sep 1958). As cited in '50, 100 & 150 years ago', Scientific American (Sep 2008), 299, No. 3, 14.
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One of the memorable moments of my life was when Willard Libby came to Princeton with a little jar full of crystals of barium xenate. A stable compound, looking like common salt, but much heavier. This was the magic of chemistry, to see xenon trapped into a crystal.
— Freeman Dyson
Letter to Oliver Sacks. Quoted in Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001), footnote, 203.
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Plasma seems to have the kinds of properties one would like for life. It's somewhat like liquid water-—unpredictable and thus able to behave in an enormously complex fashion. It could probably carry as much information as DNA does. It has at least the potential for organizing itself in interesting ways.
— Freeman Dyson
Quoted in T.A. Heppenheimer, 'After The Sun Dies', Omni (1986), 8, No. 11, 38.
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Science is a human activity, and the best way to understand it is to understand the individual human beings who practise it. Science is an art form and not a philosophical method. The great advances in science usually result from new tools rather than from new doctrines. ... Every time we introduce a new tool, it always leads to new and unexpected discoveries, because Nature's imagination is richer than ours.
— Freeman Dyson
Concluding remark from 'The Scientist As Rebel' American Mathemtical Monthly (1996), 103, 805. Reprinted in The Scientist as Rebel (2006), 17-18, identified as originally written for a lecture (1992), then published as an essay in the New York Review.
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Scientists come in two varieties, hedgehogs and foxes. I borrow this terminology from Isaiah Berlin (1953), who borrowed it from the ancient Greek poet Archilochus. Archilochus told us that foxes know many tricks, hedgehogs only one. Foxes are broad, hedgehogs are deep. Foxes are interested in everything and move easily from one problem to another. Hedgehogs are only interested in a few problems that they consider fundamental, and stick with the same problems for years or decades. Most of the great discoveries are made by hedgehogs, most of the little discoveries by foxes. Science needs both hedgehogs and foxes for its healthy growth, hedgehogs to dig deep into the nature of things, foxes to explore the complicated details of our marvelous universe. Albert Einstein and Edwin Hubble were hedgehogs. Charley Townes, who invented the laser, and Enrico Fermi, who built the first nuclear reactor in Chicago, were foxes.
— Freeman Dyson
In 'The Future of Biotechnology', A Many-Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe (2007), 1.
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Technology is a gift of God. After the gift of life it is perhaps the greatest of God's gifts. It is the mother of civilizations, of arts and of sciences.
— Freeman Dyson
Infinite in All Directions: Gifford lectures given at Aberdeen, Scotland (2004), 270.
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The analogies between science and art are very good as long as you are talking about the creation and the performance. The creation is certainly very analogous. The aesthetic pleasure of the craftsmanship of performance is also very strong in science.
— Freeman Dyson
As quoted in Robert S. Root-Bernstein, Michele M. Root-Bernstein, Sparks of Genius: The Thirteen Thinking Tools of the World's Most Creative People (2013), 11.
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The game of status seeking, organized around committees, is played in roughly the same fashion in Africa and in America and in the Soviet Union. Perhaps the aptitude for this game is a part of our genetic inheritance, like the aptitude for speech and for music. The game has had profound consequences for science. In science, as in the quest for a village water supply, big projects bring enhanced status; small projects do not. In the competition for status, big projects usually win, whether or not they are scientifically justified. As the committees of academic professionals compete for power and influence, big science becomes more and more preponderant over small science. The large and fashionable squeezes out the small and unfashionable. The space shuttle squeezes out the modest and scientifically more useful expendable launcher. The Great Observatory squeezes out the Explorer. The centralized adduction system squeezes out the village well. Fortunately, the American academic system is pluralistic and chaotic enough that first-rate small science can still be done in spite of the committees. In odd corners, in out-of the-way universities, and in obscure industrial laboratories, our Fulanis are still at work.
— Freeman Dyson
From a Danz lecture at University of Washington, 'Six Cautionary Tales for Scientists' (1988), collected in From Eros to Gaia (1992), Vol. 5, 19.
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The ground of science was littered with the corpses of dead unified theories.
— Freeman Dyson
From Disturbing the Universe (1979), 62.
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The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known that we were coming.
— Freeman Dyson
In Disturbing the Universe (1979), 250. As cited in Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life (1996), 163.
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The most revolutionary aspect of technology is its mobility. Anybody can learn it. It jumps easily over barriers of race and language. … The new technology of microchips and computer software is learned much faster than the old technology of coal and iron. It took three generations of misery for the older industrial countries to master the technology of coal and iron. The new industrial countries of East Asia, South Korea, and Singapore and Taiwan, mastered the new technology and made the jump from poverty to wealth in a single generation.
— Freeman Dyson
Infinite in All Directions: Gifford lectures given at Aberdeen, Scotland (2004), 270.
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The poetic Wheeler is a prophet, standing like Moses on the top of Mount Pisgah, looking out over the promised land that his people will one day inherit.
— Freeman Dyson
Spoken at a 90th birthday celebration. Quoted in Dennis Overbye, 'John A. Wheeler, Physicist Who Coined the Term Black Hole, Is Dead at 96', New York Times (14 Apr 2008).
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The reason Dick's [Richard Feynman] physics was so hard for ordinary people to grasp was that he did not use equations. The usual theoretical physics was done since the time of Newton was to begin by writing down some equations and then to work hard calculating solutions of the equations. This was the way Hans [Bethe] and Oppy [Oppenheimer] and Julian Schwinger did physics. Dick just wrote down the solutions out of his head without ever writing down the equations. He had a physical picture of the way things happen, and the picture gave him the solutions directly with a minimum of calculation. It was no wonder that people who had spent their lives solving equations were baffled by him. Their minds were analytical; his was pictorial.
— Freeman Dyson
Quoted in Michio Kaku and Jennifer Trainer Thompson, Beyond Einstein: the Cosmic Quest for the Theory of the Universe (1987, 1999), 56-57, citing Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe (1979, 1981), 55-56.
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The reason why new concepts in any branch of science are hard to grasp is always the same; contemporary scientists try to picture the new concept in terms of ideas which existed before.
— Freeman Dyson
In 'Innovation in Physics', Scientific American, 1958, 199, 76. Collected in From Eros to Gaia (1993).
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The seeds from Ramanujan's garden have been blowing on the wind and have been sprouting all over the landscape.
[On the stimulating effects of Ramanujan's mathematical legacy.]
— Freeman Dyson
From lecture, the Ramanujan Centenary Conference, University of Illinois (2 Jun 1987), 'A Walk in Ramanujan's Garden', collected in Selected Papers of Freeman Dyson (1996), 198.
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The success of Apollo was mainly due to the fact that the project was conceived and honestly presented to the public as an international sporting event and not as a contribution to science. The order of priorities in Apollo was accurately reflected by the first item to be unloaded after each landing on the Moon's surface, the television camera. The landing, the coming and going of the astronauts, the exploring of the moon's surface, the gathering of Moon rocks and the earthward departure, all were expertly choreographed with the cameras placed in the right positions to make a dramatic show on television. This was to me the great surprise of the Apollo missions. There was nothing surprising in the fact that astronauts could walk on the Moon and bring home Moon rocks. There were no big scientific surprises in the chemistry of the Moon rocks or in the results of magnetic and seismic observations that the astronauts carried out. The big surprise was the quality of the public entertainment that the missions provided. I had never expected that we would see in real time astronauts hopping around in lunar gravity and driving their Rover down the Lincoln- Lee scarp to claim a lunar speed record of eleven miles per hour. Intensive television coverage was the driving force of Apollo. Von Braun had not imagined the possibilities of television when he decided that one kilohertz would be an adequate communication bandwidth for his Mars Project.
— Freeman Dyson
From a Danz lecture at University of Washington, 'Sixty Years of Space Science 1958-2018' (1988), collected in From Eros to Gaia (1992), Vol. 5, 52.
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The technologies which have had the most profound effects on human life are usually simple. A good example of a simple technology with profound historical consequences is hay. ... It was hay that allowed populations to grow and civilizations to flourish among the forests of Northern Europe. Hay moved the greatness of Rome to Paris and London, and later to Berlin and Moscow and New York.
[The year-round growth of green grass in the Mediterranean climate meant that hay was not needed by the Romans. North of the Alps, hay maintained horses and oxen and thus their motive power, and productivity.]
— Freeman Dyson
'Quick is Beautiful'. Infinite in All Directions: Gifford Lectures Given at Aberdeen, Scotland (1988, 2004), 135.
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The technologies which have had the most profound effects on human life are usually simple. A good example of a simple technology with profound historical consequences is hay. Nobody knows who invented hay, the idea of cutting grass in the autumn and storing it in large enough quantities to keep horses and cows alive through the winter. All we know is that the technology of hay was unknown to the Roman Empire but was known to every village of medieval Europe. Like many other crucially important technologies, hay emerged anonymously during the so-called Dark Ages. According to the Hay Theory of History, the invention of hay was the decisive event which moved the center of gravity of urban civilization from the Mediterranean basin to Northern and Western Europe. The Roman Empire did not need hay because in a Mediterranean climate the grass grows well enough in winter for animals to graze. North of the Alps, great cities dependent on horses and oxen for motive power could not exist without hay. So it was hay that allowed populations to grow and civilizations to flourish among the forests of Northern Europe. Hay moved the greatness of Rome to Paris and London, and later to Berlin and Moscow and New York. ... Great inventions like hay and printing, whatever their immediate social costs may be, result in a permanent expansion of our horizons, a lasting acquisition of new territory for human bodies and minds to cultivate.
— Freeman Dyson
Infinite In All Directions (1988, 2004), 135. The book is a revised version of a series of the Gifford Lectures under the title 'In Praise of Diversity', given at Aberdeen, Scotland.
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The total disorder in the universe, as measured by the quantity that physicists call entropy, increases steadily steadily as we go from past to future. On the other hand, the total order in the universe, as measured by the complexity and permanence of organized structures, also increases steadily as we go from past to future.
— Freeman Dyson
From Page-Barbour lecture, University of Virginia (Mar 2004). Collected in 'A Friendly Universe', A Many-Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe (2007), 62.
Science quotes on:  |  Entropy (38)

Walking the streets of Tokyo with Hawking in his wheelchair ... I felt as if I were taking a walk through Galilee with Jesus Christ [as] crowds of Japanese silently streamed after us, stretching out their hands to touch Hawking's wheelchair. ... The crowds had streamed after Einstein [on Einstein's visit to Japan in 1922] as they streamed after Hawking seventy years later. ... They showed exquisite choice in their heroes. ... Somehow they understood that Einstein and Hawking were not just great scientists, but great human beings.
— Freeman Dyson
Foreward to Alice Calaprice, The Quotable Einstein (1996), xiii-xiv.
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We cannot hope to either understand or to manage the carbon in the atmosphere unless we understand and manage the trees and the soil too.
— Freeman Dyson
From From Eros to Gaia (1993). In Bill Swainson, Encarta Book of Quotations (2000), 299.
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[John Wheeler] rejuvenated general relativity; he made it an experimental subject and took it away from the mathematicians
— Freeman Dyson
Quoted in Dennis Overbye, 'John A. Wheeler, Physicist Who Coined the Term Black Hole, Is Dead at 96', New York Times (14 Apr 2008).
Science quotes on:  |  John Wheeler (35)

Quotes by others about Freeman Dyson (1)

“Half genius and half buffoon,” Freeman Dyson ... wrote. ... [Richard] Feynman struck him as uproariously American—unbuttoned and burning with physical energy. It took him a while to realize how obsessively his new friend was tunneling into the very bedrock of modern science.
In Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (1992), Prologue, 4.
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See also:

Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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