Life, Death, Chance, and Freeman Dyson
By Maria Popova
In her stunning “Hymn to Time,” Ursula K. Le Guin observed how death and chance course through “space and the radiance of each bright galaxy,” through our “eyes beholding radiance” — death and chance meaning death and life, for each of us is a wonder of improbability made by an immense Rube Goldberg machine of chance: If the Big Bang had churned out just a little more antimatter than matter, if the ratio of hydrogen and helium in the baby universe had been only a little bit different, if our Pale Blue Dot had snapped into orbit just a little bit closer to or farther from our life-warming home star, if the ratio of mutual attraction had been just a little bit different when your parents crossed orbits, if they had put on a different record and cross-pollinated gene pools on a different night, you would not exist. As the physicist Brian Greene put it in his poetic inquiry into what gives meaning to our ephemeral lives in an impartial universe, “by the grace of random chance, funneled through nature’s laws, we are here.”
Most of us, if at all aware of the glorious accident we experience as our own existence, are only dimly aware of it and only as an abstraction. Not so for the great physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson (December 15, 1923–February 28, 2020) — one of the vastest scientific minds of the past century, and one of the most humanistic.
When Dyson’s father — the English composer George Dyson — was a young music teacher, his closest friend — a lanky classicist who taught at the same school — was drafted into the British army during WWI and sent to fight in Paris. One day, this exceedingly tall young man stuck his head to look out from the trench. A German sniper killed him instantly. His sister, with whom he’d been incredibly close, was grief-stricken. So was his best friend. The grief brought the two together. A year after his death, they were married. When they had their first child, they named him for the slain hero: Freeman. Freeman Dyson lived out his entire life — a life of nearly a century, a life that lived through humanity’s darkest hour and through some of our most dazzling triumphs: the discovery of the double helix, the Moon landing, the birth of the Internet, the detection of gravitational waves, the signing of the Paris Agreement — never losing sight of the double-edged sword of chance that had made his own life possible by his uncle’s death. It informed his entire personal cosmogony, as a scientist and a humanist. Viewed in this light, this light of ultimate lucidity, all of our conflicts and combats — international or interpersonal — appear not only unnatural but anti-natural, foolish squanderings of the brief and improbable life that chance has dealt us, vandalized verses from the sacred poetry that is the book of nature.
Upon receiving the heart-sinking news of Freeman Dyson’s death, I expressed my condolences to his son — the science historian and splendid writer George Dyson, named for his grandfather. He responded with the above photograph from the family archives — a charming embodiment of the playfulness and free-spirited good nature that endowed Freeman Dyson’s brilliant mind with such coruscating creativity. When I remarked that something so utterly delightful — both the captured moment and the whole existence of the man — should be the product of chance in the shape of a bullet, he sent me a letter, found in an abandoned family trunk and shared here with his kind permission, which his grandfather had written to another friend fighting in the trenches of France, also a classicist — one who would, unlike the slain Freeman Atkey, survive to become an eminent Dante scholar.
In the hindsight of history, both Dyson’s personal history and our cultural history, the letter staggers the imagination with its account of the unimaginable and its subtle hope for a different future governed by different human choices — a stirring reminder that choice is the necessary reality-shaping counterpart to chance.
99th Infantry Brigade
I got what purports to be your address a little while ago and I am sending this scribble there in the hope that it will find you, and find you well and flourishing, “as it leaves me at present.” When next we meet there will be no end to the tales I have to tell you. Even in my palmiest days I was never so fluent as I shall be if and when I come back. I am now something of a specialist in trench warfare, having written the only booklet on grenade fighting which the war office has as yet permitted to see daylight. I run the grenadiers of my brigade and I am at present learning a fair stretch of front from that point of view. I am billeted with two or three other officers in what is left of a little cottage about 3/4 mile behind a fairly hot corner of this country. We are continually under shell fire in this sense, that the friendly Hun shells the immediate neighborhood every day. Just at this moment he has unfortunately caught a squad of men in the road outside with appalling results. Our own guns are blazing away like mad, so that you can’t hear yourself think. There are six aeroplanes up above and the German is making little white puffs of shrapnel all around them. The trenches are simply vile in this weather. Between knee-deep and thigh deep in mud, in addition to the havoc wrought by the Bosch. I was in a fairly heavy bombardment of them two days ago. Everybody retires to dugouts, and even down there, 20 feet below ground sometimes, the shock blows the candles out. Your old friend Dante had a very amateur conception of Hell. I could improve on it vastly.
Still we are, by some providence, alive, and hope to remain so. These matters are in the hands of a blind fate whose decrees it is perhaps well that we cannot foresee. [Freeman] Atkey is, as you doubtless know, out here somewhere, but I have not come across him yet. He is well according to the latest news and not unhappy. The rest of our merry Marlborough “push” are scattered goodness knows where. I wonder if we shall ever have that Reunion dinner that we sometimes talk about.
I hear pretty regularly from “Thornhanger” and gather that a school is no place to be in in these days. Let me know what you and yours are doing. I saw and enjoyed the big London Zeppelin raid, but it’s child’s play to this! — Odd that I should have written that last sentence. It is now a half-hour later. Just where the dash is came a six-incher 10 yards to our left which finished the remaining windows and sent us to the cellar. A second one 10 yards to our right has fallen in an old barn, killed a horse and badly wounded three men. Enough for today. We must eat a humble tea and go on hoping for the best. Good luck to you,
Freeman Dyson began the preface to the wondrous collection of his own letters — the epistolary autobiography Maker of Patterns (public library) — with a sentiment of striking complementarity to his grandfather’s wartime lament:
In March 2017, when this book was almost finished, my wife received a message from our twelve-year-old granddaughter: “We are all metaphors in this dark and lonely world.” Our daughter added her own comment, “The sentiment is tempered by the fact that she has a pink Afro.” The pink Afro displays a proud and joyful spirit, masking the melancholy thoughts of a teenager confronting an uncertain future. Our granddaughter is now emerging into a world strikingly similar to the world of 1936 into which I came as a twelve-year-old. Both our worlds were struggling with gross economic inequality, stubbornly persistent poverty, brutal dictators on the rise, and small wars presaging worse horrors to come. I too was a metaphor for a new generation of young people without illusions. Her declaration of independence is a pink Afro. Mine was a passionate pursuit of mathematics.
Recounting how he fell under the spell of mathematics and physics through the work of the great English mathematician G.H. Hardy and quantum physics pioneer Paul Dirac, whose lectures plunged the young Dyson into “the strange new world of quantum physics, where strict causality is abandoned and atomic events occur by chance,” he adds:
The idea that chance governs nature was then still open to question. In the world of human affairs, Lev Tolstoy asked the same question, whether free choice prevails. While Dirac proclaimed free choice in the world of physics, Tolstoy denied it in the world of history. The idea that Dirac called causality, Tolstoy called Providence. At the end of his War and Peace, he wrote a long philosophical discussion, explaining why human free will is an illusion and Providence is the driving force of history. When I was a student in Cambridge, the same Providence that had destroyed Napoleon’s army in Russia in 1812 was destroying Hitler’s army in Russia in 1943. I was reading Tolstoy and Dirac at the same time.
If Dyson’s physics danced with chance, his humanism always landed on the side of conscious and conscientious choice. Three decades after a human finger trembling with the toxic thrill of nationalism fired the odd bullet to which Dyson owes his life, three years after humanity had savaged itself with another World War, and shortly after his “flash of illumination on the Greyhound bus,” the 25-year-old physicist attended a sermon by the renowned theologian Reinhold Niebuhr at Princeton’s university chapel. In a letter to his family, he summed up the sentiments that had resonated with his own convictions:
Just as the individual man can save his soul only by ceasing to worry about himself and immersing his actions in some larger ends, so also we shall stand a better chance of saving our civilisation if we do not worry too much over the imminent destruction of the little bit of it to which we happen to belong.
Dyson would later recount his father’s fighting strategy during the war — the supreme, most humanistic possible response to inhumanity, for we best survive by making art when life unmakes us:
My father… understood that the best way to show our contempt for Hitler was to continue making music… as if Hitler did not exist. My father said to the students in London in 1940, “All we have to do is to behave halfway decently, and the whole world will come to our side.” That was his way of fighting Hitler.
Complement with Freeman Dyson’s poignant admonition about how our self-expatriation from history shallows our present, then savor more of this uncommon mind, whose improbable existence will never again recur in all the possible configurations of chance and choice across all the rest of time and space, on the pages of Maker of Patterns.
Published March 1, 2020