Another Side of Feynman

Nine letters by Freeman Dyson portray his relationship with the Nobel Laureate.

By Freeman Dyson | Introduction by Michael Segal | NAUTILUS

All through a long life I had three main concerns, with a clear order of priority. Family came first, friends second, and work third.”

So writes the pioneering theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson in the introduction to his newly published collection of letters, Maker of Patterns. Spanning about four decades, the collection presents a first-person glimpse into a life that witnessed epochal changes both in world history and in physics.

Here, we present short excerpts from nine of Dyson’s letters, with a focus on his relationship with the physicist Richard Feynman. Dyson and Feynman had both professional and personal bonds: Dyson helped interpret and draw attention to Feynman’s work—which went on to earn a Nobel Prize—and the two men traveled together and worked side by side.

Taken together, these letters present a unique perspective of each man. Feynman’s effervescent energy comes through, as does Dyson’s modesty and deep admiration for his colleague. So too does the excitement each scientist felt for his role in uncovering some of the foundations of modern-day theoretical physics.

November 19, 1947

Just a brief letter before we go off to Rochester. We have every Wednesday a seminar at which somebody talks about some item of research, and from time to time this is made a joint seminar with Rochester University. I am being taken in Feynman’s car, which will be great fun if we survive. Feynman is a man for whom I am developing a considerable admiration; he is the brightest of the young theoreticians here and is the first example I have met of that rare species, the native American scientist. He has developed a private version of the quantum theory, which is generally agreed to be a good piece of work and may be more helpful than the orthodox version for some problems. He is always sizzling with new ideas, most of which are more spectacular than helpful and hardly any of which get very far before some newer inspiration eclipses them. His most valuable contribution to physics is as a sustainer of morale; when he bursts into the room with his latest brain wave and proceeds to expound it with lavish sound effects and waving about of the arms, life at least is not dull.

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