Freeman J. Dyson: A Personal Remembrance

by John Church

The Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton joins the world in mourning the passing of renowned mathematical physicist and noted author Freeman J. Dyson on February 28 of this year at the age of 96.

Freeman, an Emeritus Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, was a great supporter of the role of amateurs in astronomy. A member of the AAAP for nearly 50 years, he helped us build our observatory in Washington Crossing State Park as well as giving the club many lectures in the Peyton Hall auditorium, which was always filled to capacity for such treats.

I first met Freeman in the early 1970’s after having summarized an article of his entitled “Energy in the Universe.” I remember telephoning him (with some trepidation) and asking if he would consider joining the AAAP. He responded that he would indeed be interested. This led to a friendship that lasted nearly half a century, of which more anon.

Here are some abridged selections from back issues of our newsletter Sidereal Times that mention Freeman’s long involvement with the club:

The Nov. 10, 1973 transit of Mercury was observed and timed from John Church’s driveway, using the club’s 6-inch refractor. Present were Freeman Dyson and Tullio Regge of the Institute for Advanced Study. A report was sent to Sky and Telescope, and the timings were published. With Freeman’s help, plans were proceeding to place a club observatory in a modified aluminum garage at the Institute that would be put on roll-off tracks. Member and civil engineer Karl Koehler prepared detailed drawings for the project. This proposal was not adopted due to finding that the Institute would have required construction to be performed by outside labor, which the AAAP could not have afforded.

AAAP member and Institute for Advanced Study Prof. Freeman Dyson was the speaker for the September 1986 meeting.

Prof. Freeman Dyson, long-time AAAP member who participated in the observatory construction in the late ‘70’s, presented a talk entitled “Hunting Comets and Planets” at the November 1990 meeting.

Prof. and AAAP member Freeman Dyson spoke to the AAAP on the subject of “Revolutions in Astronomy” at the December 1993 meeting.

AAAP held its 40th Anniversary Dinner at the Frist Center on the Princeton campus in November 2002. Freeman Dyson, one of the Washington Crossing observatory’s builders, spoke on “A New Way To Look For Life In Cold Places Far From The Sun.”

Our 50th Anniversary Dinner was held on the campus of the Institute in November 2012, at which Freeman also spoke.

On a personal note, my wife and I were invited to the Institute’s Sept. 2013 “Dreams of Earth and Sky” celebration of Freeman’s career. At the banquet on the final evening I gave a few remarks on Freeman’s contributions to our club, including the part he took in the building of our observatory in Washington Crossing State Park in 1977 and 1978. He was there at the site on many Saturdays. Here is a photo of him helping to dig the trench for the foundation:

Freeman J. Dyson digging foundation

photo by Richard Peery ©2020

On one fine Saturday afternoon, Freeman and I laid the fourth tier of cinder blocks in the east wall of the observatory. He helped with the project in many other ways as well.

I had the privilege of meeting privately with Freeman in his Institute office on many occasions when we discussed various topics in physics, astronomy, and cosmology. (Unfortunately, I haven’t kept written notes of our discussions.) On these occasions he would kindly host me for lunch in the Institute’s cafeteria. He very generously gave of his time to critique my draft of a personal memoir entitled From Eve and Morning that I issued privately in 2003. I have several of his books that he signed for me.

Freeman’s talents as a superbly clear and concise writer in multitudes of areas not necessarily related to physics are so well known that it would be superfluous for me to comment further here. As but one example, he served for many years as an invited contributor to the New York Review of Books. These wonderfully-written pieces engendered many replies, not always in agreement with his own views on subjects such as climate change and the role of enormous projects. He was a fan of small projects done inexpensively by individuals and small teams.

To conclude, here is a quotation from one of Freeman’s articles in the New York Review of Books on the subject of “Final Theories in Physics.” This is, I think, a good summary of his philosophy.

I find the idea of a Final Theory repugnant because it diminishes both the richness of nature and the richness of human destiny. I prefer to live in a universe full of inexhaustible mysteries, and to belong to a species destined for inexhaustible intellectual growth.

We in the Amateur Astronomers Association of Princeton will fondly remember Freeman and his many contributions to the welfare of our club as well as in so many other areas.

– John Church

This entry was posted in April 2020, Sidereal Times and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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