Tag: Freeman Dyson

Robert Oppenheimer And The Shape of Genius


Freeman Dyson reviews the new biography of Oppenheimer by Ray Monk:

The subtitle, “A Life Inside the Center,” calls attention to a rarer skill in which Oppenheimer excelled. He had a unique ability to put himself at the places and times at which important things were happening.

Twice I had a reason to talk with him about bombs. The first occasion came in 1958, when I asked for a leave of absence from the institute to work on a project in California aimed at building a nuclear bomb–propelled spaceship. I told him how happy I was to be putting his bombs to better use than murdering people. He did not share my enthusiasm. He considered the spaceship project to be an exercise in applied science, unworthy of the attention of an institute professor. The only activity worthy of an institute professor was to think deep thoughts about pure science. He grudgingly gave me a leave of absence for one year, making it clear that if I stayed away for longer than a year I would not be coming back.

The second occasion for me to talk with Oppenheimer about bombs came a few years later, when I was chairman of the Federation of American Scientists, a political organization of scientists concerned with weapons and arms control. The federation was opposing the US deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in exposed positions in Europe and Asia. We considered these deployments to be unacceptably dangerous, because nuclear-armed troops involved in local fighting could start a nuclear war that would quickly get out of control. When we examined the history of tactical weapons, we learned that Oppenheimer himself had flown to Paris in 1951 to persuade General Eisenhower, then in command of American forces in Europe, that the United States Army needed tactical nuclear weapons to defend Western Europe against a Soviet invasion. Oppenheimer had been enthusiastically promoting the production and deployment of tactical weapons.

After learning this, I went to see Oppenheimer and asked him directly why he had thought that tactical nuclear weapons were a good idea. This time, he answered my question. He said, “To understand why I advocated tactical weapons, you would have to see the Air Force war plan that we had then. That was the God-damnedest thing I ever saw. It was a mindless obliteration of cities and populations. Anything, even a major ground war fought with nuclear weapons, was better than that.

I understood then how it happened that Oppenheimer came to grief. He was caught in a battle between the Army and the Air Force. The Army wanted small bombs to destroy invading armies. The Air Force wanted big bombs to destroy whole countries. The Army wanted fission bombs and the Air Force wanted hydrogen bombs. Oppenheimer was on the side of the Army. That was why he promoted tactical weapons. That was why he opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb.

The Air Force took its revenge on the Army by helping to drive Oppenheimer out of the government.

Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center is considered by one of my friends the best biography yet of Oppenheimer.

The book mentions this interview with Edward Murrow:

Freeman Dyson on The Difference Between Science and Philsophy

Freeman Dyson, writing in The NY Review of Books:

On quantum physics

The essence of quantum physics is unpredictability. At every instant, the objects in our physical environment—the atoms in our lungs and the light in our eyes—are making unpredictable choices, deciding what to do next. According to Everett and Deutsch, the multiverse contains a universe for every combination of choices. There are so many universes that every possible sequence of choices occurs in at least one of them. Each universe is constantly splitting into many alternative universes, and the alternatives are recombining when they arrive at the same final state by different routes. The multiverse is a huge network of possible histories diverging and reconverging as time goes on. The “quantum weirdness” that we observe in the behavior of atoms, the “spooky action at a distance” that Einstein famously disliked, is the result of universes recombining in unexpected ways.

On the difference between science and philosophy

Science is about facts that can be tested and mysteries that can be explored, and I see no way of testing hypotheses of the multiverse. Philosophy is about ideas that can be imagined and stories that can be told.

On philosophy

When and why did philosophy lose its bite? How did it become a toothless relic of past glories? These are the ugly questions that Jim Holt’s book compels us to ask. Philosophers became insignificant when philosophy became a separate academic discipline, distinct from science and history and literature and religion. The great philosophers of the past covered all these disciplines. Until the nineteenth century, science was called natural philosophy and officially recognized as a branch of philosophy. The word “scientist” was invented by William Whewell, a nineteenth-century Cambridge philosopher who became master of Trinity College and put his name on the building where Wittgenstein and I were living in 1946. Whewell introduced the word in the year 1833. He was waging a deliberate campaign to establish science as a professional discipline distinct from philosophy.

Whewell’s campaign succeeded. As a result, science grew to a dominant position in public life, and philosophy shrank. Philosophy shrank even further when it became detached from religion and from literature. The great philosophers of the past wrote literary masterpieces such as the Book of Job and the Confessions of Saint Augustine. The latest masterpieces written by a philosopher were probably Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra in 1885 and Beyond Good and Evil in 1886. Modern departments of philosophy have no place for the mystical.