Spheres and Transforms — the Remarkable Life of Freeman Dyson
Anyone who reads science fiction knows what a dyson sphere is. It’s a structure constructed around a star to capture all of the energy it produces for an advanced civilization. At one point it was seriously postulated that the peculiar dimming pattern of Tabby’s Star was the result of a partially-completed sphere. (It turned out not to be aliens, but for a while? Aliens).
Those who pay a little bit more attention know that Dyson was a person; a scientist named Freeman Dyson who was known for out there theories just designed (deliberately?) for science fiction writers. But most don’t really know who Dyson was.
Freeman John Dyson passed away on February 28, 2020, at the grand age of 96.
So, Who Was Freeman Dyson?
Freeman Dyson was born in a place called Crowthorne and received a public school education in the British tradition. His father was a noted composer, and Dyson no doubt got a discount on the expensive school — his father was director of music there. Specifically, he went to Winchester College, which was founded in 1382.
By the age of 17 he was studying mathematics at Trinity College, Cambridge, and had a scholarship. There was, unfortunately, this little problem of World War II.
The young mathematician was drafted, but because of his intelligence and training he avoided the front lines and was instead assigned to the Operational Research Section of the Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command. He helped design bomber formations.
Once the war was over, he went back to Trinity College, and got his BA in mathematics, before becoming a college fellow.
He published his first two papers, in number theory, in 1947.
Then he came to the United States. He studied for a doctorate at Cornell University, then went back to England to do research at the University of Birmingham.
He apparently had a fondness for Cornell, however, because he applied to be a professor there. Despite the fact that he had not actually gained his PhD, he was accepted.
He remained at Cornell for the rest of his working life.
Dyson married twice and fathered a total of six children.
So, how did a mathematician end up with his name on a major science fiction trope?
A True Polymath
How, indeed. The fact is that Dyson was a true polymath, studying across multiple subjects (probably why it took him so long to get his doctorate).
Dyson worked on Project Orion (you know, the giant rocket propelled by nuclear explosions that never took off). He wrote books or papers on biotechnology and genetic engineering, the origin of life, space colonies, quantum physics, von Neumann machines and, of course, mathematics.
Basically, this guy was interested in everything. And this pulled him into being one of the true futurists. He explored technological concepts so far beyond as to almost reach the world of fantasy, but put them forward as plausible possibilities.
In addition to Dyson spheres, he came up with Dyson trees, which are…well. You genetically engineer trees, plant them on a comet, then live in the branches. This didn’t become as widespread a trope as the spheres, but has been used by authors ranging from Michael Swanich to Dan Simmmons to Stephen Baxter. The concept may have influenced Larry Niven’s The Integral Trees.
He also postulated that eventually a race might evolve to the point of extending time, essentially making themselves immortal, a concept called Dyson’s eternal intelligence.
Basically, this guy just loved giving ideas to science fiction writers, and I’m disappointed I never met him.
And that’s all while still managing to have two mathematical concepts named after him.
So, basically? Freeman Dyson is one of the largest contributors to modern science fiction despite never having written any. He also did a lot of work on space exploration ad the kind of quantum physics which might help give us quantum computers.
Yet, all most people know about is the spheres. As we remember his very long life, let’s also remember that it’s not the only thing he ever talked about.