For decades, Professor Freeman J. Dyson has been discussing mind-boggling prospects in just that calm, matter-of-fact, “one-should-expect” way. It is his hobby, he says disarmingly, something that grew up alongside his career as one of the finest mathematical physicists of our time. To his colleagues at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, Dyson is known for his understanding of what goes on in the core of a star or in the interaction of high-energy beams of subnuclear particles — contributions that have earned him the American Institute of Physics’ Heineman Prize, the Royal Society’s Hughes Medal, among other honors.
To a wider circle, though, he is known for imagining an artificial biosphere — or environment in which life can exist — called the “Dyson shell.” It is a vast structure built by dismantling a Jupiter-sized planet and using the raw material to provide living area millions of times greater than that of any planet. He further suggests that the powerful gravitational field of a white-dwarf binary star might serve as a super-slingshot to accelerate interstellar voyagers free of fuel costs . . . and that an army of self-reproducing automatons could mine the ice of Saturn’s moons and use it to make chill, arid Mars a garden planet.
Freeman Dyson was born in Crowthorne, England, in 1923. He attended a public school in Winchester where his father was a teacher, entering Cambridge during World War II. After two years of service with the RAF’s bomber command, he took a B.A. in mathematics (his specialty was number theory). Dyson came to the United States in 1947, after a few years at Cambridge and the University of Birmingham. At Cornell, he was drawn from mathematics into physics by the influence of Richard Feynman and Hans Bethe; in 1953, he moved to the Institute for Advanced Studies where he has worked ever since.
Dyson’s speculative side lay dormant, he says, until 1956 when he met physicist and bomb designer Ted Taylor at a series of conferences convened by the General Atomic Co. in San Diego. They worked together on the fail-safe design of the TRIGA research reactor, and on Project Orion — a plan to propel spacecraft far larger than Apollo (even the size of a city!) by detonating nuclear or thermonuclear bombs behind a “pusher plate.” Since then, the two men have been close friends, stimulating each other in imaginative synergy. Dyson also has worked for the U.S. Disarmament Agency, served as consultant to NASA and the Department of Defense, and is a former chairman of the Federation of American Scientists.
Age 55 at the time of this iconic interview in 1978, Dyson was more freewheeling than ever in his speculation. He jumped from details of a rocket that might be launched the next day to the outlook for the next ten billion years of evolution. After a while, it was possible to sort out what he said by how he began each sentence. “It’s inevitable . . .” signified his certainty about the next century or two; “It seems obvious . . .” enlarged the scope to the future of mankind on the earth; and “One should expect . . .” reached from the Big Bang to the end of the cosmos.
Dyson is a small, compact man with sharp features softened by a half-smile. When the smile broke into laughter, the laugh was that of a hearty, delighted young man, and it seemed almost too large for its owner. However much he deprecated his “hobby,” Dyson clearly enjoyed it. When OMNI contributing editor Monte Davis arrived for the interview in 1978, Dyson had just spent much of the past decade In the last decade watching and advising the growth of Princeton physics professor Gerard O’Neill’s plans for self-sufficient colonies in space, supplied with raw material catapulted from the moon by an electromagnetic “mass driver.” The interview began with that subject: