Disturbing the Universe, by sitting in your office reading

Freeman Dyson is one of my heroes, and IMHO one of the greatest writers about science, and the relation between science and humanity. I’m not certain which of his books I read first, but I think it was “Disturbing the universe“. I remember a section in the book, when he describes the operational research he undertook during the Second World War. The purpose of the research was to make Allied bombing of Germany more efficient, probably killing more civilians as a byproduct, and minimising Allied loss of life. In the book, he describes how he tried to explain his war work to one of his children. The catch, was that the woman he married after the Second World War, was German. How do you explain to one of your children, that your job had been trying to more efficiently kill the child’s mother and her relatives.

Dyson has a number of outstanding qualities, shared by few. Perhaps, ever fewer. First, he is a scientist who made profound and revolutionary contributions to science. This is not just a person who published one or two papers in Nature, or has ran a large research group. I am unable to judge or understand his contributions to physics, but it is possible to triangulate from those who know more, and who argue that he should have shared the Nobel prize awarded to Richard Feynman and Tomonaga. Whatever the merits of this ( and Dyson seems to think that he shouldn’t have received a Nobel prize), clearly a scientist at the top of the game.
The second aspect of him that I find compelling, is that he has a breadth of scholarship and reading that is becoming ever more scarce. In this respect, he clearly combines a phenomenal ability to analyse the world in a very focused manner, but combines this with an appreciation of natural history – not just of the natural world, but of humanity and the way science relates to humanity.

He writes regularly for the New York Review of Books. And on occasions, he seems to get things wrong, or at least that is what some people think. He has a remarkable generosity towards others, but is able to combine politeness with an angularity of intellect that few can match ( I would happily settle for one of these…). If he makes a factual error, he quietly admits it. If people strongly disagree with his opinions, his responses are always polite, but telling. But he clearly never worries about looking foolish: what he writes is there, think of it what you will. Time will tell. In this sense, he is mad in the best sense of the word. Mad may not be the best word here, ‘crazy’ sounds much better. So, with apologies to Apple, he is one of the crazy ones. The title of one of his book’s says it all: Disturbing the universe. Great science is about disturbing the universe.

There is an article by Dyson in the most recent edition of the New York Review of Books (2013, August 15). The piece is, in part, a review of a new biography of Robert Oppenheimer (Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center, by Ray Monk). Although Dyson discusses the book under review, he also discusses a number of other biographies of Robert Oppenheimer. What Dyson writes is informed by the fact that he knew Oppenheimer personally, and was present in the same place at the same time when major discoveries were being made; as well as a detailed knowledge about Oppenheimer’s work at Las Alamos, and personal knowledge of many of the others there.

I like Dyson’s choice of words to describe what occupied much of Oppenheimer’s life: ‘learning and exploring and teaching science’. How much I prefer this turn of phrase, to the modern dismal usage:pedagogy (ugh!), or being a ‘scholar’ (ugh!). (I’m happy with ‘scholarship’, but the word scholar makes my blood boil).

Dyson highlights work undertaken by Oppenheimer, and others, prior to the Second World War. Dyson remarks that this work was, in his opinion, Oppenheimer’s one and only revolutionary contribution to science. He then explores and describes how, when he met with Oppenheimer, he challenged Oppenheimer as to why he never developed this work further. He believed that Oppenheimer may not have actually appreciated the significance of his own work. Dyson then goes on to put this observation in a broader framework.
When Oppenheimer was old, sick and depressed, Oppenheimer’s wife asked Dyson if he could collaborate with Oppenheimer on a piece of technical scientific work. Dyson said no, saying that he would like to sit quietly with Robert Oppenheimer and hold his hand, but his days as a scientist were over. He ends his piece saying “it was too late to cure his anguish with equations.”

Throughout the piece, and echoing the title of the book (‘A life inside the center’) Dyson remarks that Oppenheimer’s ambition was to play a leading part in historic events. Something he clearly achieved. But  Robert Oppenheimer suffered from a lack of *Sitzfleisch*. This is a German term, and Dyson explains that it means the ability to sit still and work quietly (literally, I would say, ‘sitting on your backside’). He points out that Oppenheimer could never sit still long enough to complete difficult calculations, and that in addition to this restlessness, Oppenheimer had another quality that diminished his ability to do the science he so wished to do.
Oppenheimer always wanted to be at the centre of grand events. Dyson remarks that whilst this is good for soldiers and politicians, it is bad for original thinkers. Oppenheimer wanted to work on fashionable topics, while ignoring less famous people and their work outwith the mainstream. Dyson uses the example of John Wheeler, who revolutionised our understanding of astrophysics. He says that Oppenheimer didn’t take Wheeler’s work seriously, and this was because he was working working in a relatively unfashionable area. As he says, the work was “ignored by the fashionable mandarins”.

The story has a particular resonance for me, even at several orders of magnitude removed. I remember a professor of biochemistry, Roger Paine, in Newcastle, quietly remarking to me at coffee one day that he thought it must be very difficult for medics to do serious research. They always seemed so busy. Not enough time for sitzfleisch. Of course, many non-clinical scientists would say the same themselves now— successful ones often resemble chief executives. Bruce Charlton, a former colleague of mine in Newcastle, and long time friend, observed many years ago that many academics feel guilty if their colleagues ‘discover’ them in their office reading scientific papers, or worse still reading books. Like being caught reading pornography (I might imagine..). My take on this: keep the door closed, and ensure that the books you borrow from the library, are still in pristine condition.

Post by Jonathan Rees

Clinical academic and skin watcher at the University of Edinburgh

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