Skip

"All the really important things come as a big surprise."
March 30, 2014 8:51 AM   Subscribe

An interview with physicist Freeman Dyson in Quanta magazine.
posted by thatwhichfalls (32 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
A lot of people will be interested at least in this question:

You became a professor at Cornell without ever having received a Ph.D. You seem almost proud of that fact.

Oh, yes. I’m very proud of not having a Ph.D. I think the Ph.D. system is an abomination. It was invented as a system for educating German professors in the 19th century, and it works well under those conditions. It’s good for a very small number of people who are going to spend their lives being professors. But it has become now a kind of union card that you have to have in order to have a job, whether it’s being a professor or other things, and it’s quite inappropriate for that. It forces people to waste years and years of their lives sort of pretending to do research for which they’re not at all well-suited. In the end, they have this piece of paper which says they’re qualified, but it really doesn’t mean anything.
posted by bukvich at 9:22 AM on March 30 [7 favorites]


The Ph.D. system, at any given moment, is paying a few thousand people a living wage to spend most of their day for a period of about five years learning about, thinking about, and eventually trying to create pure mathematics. I'm aware that some people think that's a "waste of time," but I don't, and I don't really think Dyson does either.
posted by escabeche at 9:38 AM on March 30 [9 favorites]


What is it about numbers that made you want to figure them out?

It’s just like asking, “Why does a violinist like to play the violin?” I had this skill with mathematical tools, and I played these tools as well as I could just because it was beautiful, rather in the same way a musician plays the violin, not expecting to change the world but just because he loves the instrument.


QFT
posted by chavenet at 9:47 AM on March 30 [2 favorites]


Great interview. Thanks.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 9:55 AM on March 30


It's a bit disappointing that he goes from saying, "I have strong views about climate because I think the majority is badly wrong," in response to one question to saying, "I’m not saying the majority is necessarily wrong," in response to the very next question without the interviewer, apparently, even batting an eye.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 10:04 AM on March 30 [3 favorites]


He seems more moderate on climate change in this interview than I had remembered.
posted by Obscure Reference at 10:18 AM on March 30


More of Dyson in his own words -- many many hours worth of video from a 1998 interview hosted (with transcripts!) on Web Of Stories.
posted by Westringia F. at 10:28 AM on March 30


Jonathan Livengood, what's the contradiction?
posted by Gyan at 10:33 AM on March 30


As Jonathan Livengood points out, his statements on climate in this article are contradictory, and he concedes "I spend maybe 1 percent of my time on climate."

This perfectly illustrates why I'm as wary of celebrity scientists as I am of any other pundit. Dyson's conjectures on climate have been thoroughly critiqued by actual climate scientists since at least 2008, yet because he is a celebrity scientist he is still provided platforms from which to sow misinformation.
posted by feralscientist at 10:40 AM on March 30 [5 favorites]


Gyan:

"I have strong views about climate because I think the majority is badly wrong...
I’m not saying the majority is necessarily wrong."

posted by feralscientist at 10:45 AM on March 30 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure there is a contradiction, just some tension such that I think the interviewer should have asked for clarification. On the one hand, Dyson seems to be saying that the majority of climate scientists are flat wrong, i.e. they are saying that p but really, not-p. And on the other hand, he seems to be saying that the majority of climate scientists aren't so much wrong as that they don't really understand the climate yet, i.e. they are saying that p when no one knows whether p or not-p. The first implicates that he knows what's going on with climate where the climate scientists don't. The second is a bit different, and I wonder which of those he would ultimately endorse if pushed. Anyway, seems like a great place to dive in as an interviewer and get some clarity about his views. And the opportunity was missed.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 10:45 AM on March 30 [2 favorites]


I totally disagree. The most interesting things we can hear from Dyson concern things he knows well, right? If you had a chance to interview Serge Lang before his death, would you want to hear him talk about the future of number theory, or about his view that HIV doesn't cause AIDS?
posted by escabeche at 11:51 AM on March 30 [3 favorites]


He seems more moderate on climate change in this interview than I had remembered.

That might be because his name has been used relentlessly by climate change denialists to prove that SOMEONE IMPORTANT disagrees with the current consensus around climate science. Remember kids, There is no Consensus™!*

*Just kidding.
posted by sneebler at 12:28 PM on March 30 [1 favorite]


The Ph.D. system, at any given moment, is paying a few thousand people a living wage to spend most of their day for a period of about five years learning about, thinking about, and eventually trying to create pure mathematics. I'm aware that some people think that's a "waste of time," but I don't, and I don't really think Dyson does either.

The Ph.D. system has been terrible to friends of mine. A friend spent about three years with his life on hold, prevented by the department from doing any research and forced to do scut work, before being told that they would never let him graduate. He quit with nothing to show for years of work. Obviously.

Another friend was in a department with a notoriously over the top qualification process. A few years ago they literally failed every single student taking qualification exams, about 30 graduate students. Again, years of work wasted and prospective careers ruined.

I don't agree with Dyson on everything but I'm with him on this: The current legacy system is horribly broken and needs replacing.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 12:43 PM on March 30 [1 favorite]


feralscientist, granted Freeman is a celebrity (with other scientists mostly) but he is not exactly what we have come to characterize as a "celebrity scientist" [sic].

Freeman Dyson's contributions to quantum electrodynamics alone will certainly stand the test of time—until they do not, just like all other science. But in this case, it should be a while.

Freeman Dyson is not some pundit science-loving famous person with a science background; he is one of the top minds of the 20th century and now 21st century. Robert Oppenheimer appointed him to his post at Princeton for understanding Richard Feynman's work before Oppenheimer, and then showing Oppenheimer where Oppenheimer was wrong. Oppenheimer is the person who first came up with the idea of collapsed stars, which in turn led to the seminal work on black holes by John Wheeler.

These are giants among giants. Were Freeman Dyson's stature as a celebrity indeed commensurate with the body of his work, his face would be a symbol on tshirts, dorm room posters, and we'd be calling really, really intelligent people "Dysons".* As it is, the best we can do is harp on him when he's argumentative about consensus climate change. That's not a celebrity, that's a person with real genius who also happens to still be with us and contributing.

If Freeman Dyson backpedaled a bit in the interview, hurrah for humanness! However, what fame he has attained nearly exclusively has to do with continuous and substantial contributions to the body science and the capabilities and achievements of his mind, and not because of his YouTube following, TV show or guest television appearance, or talent for getting retweeted.

* We do have Dyson spheres. Not quite Hot Topics material but certainly indicative of the nature of Dyson's contributions.
posted by Mike Mongo at 1:17 PM on March 30 [4 favorites]


Were Freeman Dyson's stature as a celebrity indeed commensurate with the body of his work

Well, he didn't play bongos.
posted by thelonius at 1:33 PM on March 30 [2 favorites]


thelonius: "Well, he didn't play bongos."

Mike Mongo: " Robert Oppenheimer appointed him to his post at Princeton for understanding Richard Feynman's work before Oppenheimer, and then showing Oppenheimer where Oppenheimer was wrong."

bongos ain't in it.
posted by chavenet at 1:54 PM on March 30


A few years ago they literally failed every single student taking qualification exams, about 30 graduate students.

People are always going on about how academic scientists need to practice "birth control" by training fewer PhDs. If those graduate students were second-years and left with a Master's, this is arguably better than letting them founder around for six or seven years and then either not graduating them at all (which happens!), or releasing them into an extremely competitive market in which they would have zero chance of getting a job.

I agree there's probably a grain of sadism involved in failing 30 out of 30 students, and in my experience at least, performance on most qualifying exams is at best only moderately correlated with success in research. But on the other hand this is sort of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation for the department.

Funding could also have been a major issue, especially in theoretical disciplines where profs are not dependent on graduate student labor and therefore do not have the large grants necessary to support a lot of junior scientists.
posted by en forme de poire at 1:56 PM on March 30


Freeman Dyson is not some pundit science-loving famous person with a science background; he is one of the top minds of the 20th century and now 21st century.

And yet there are numerous examples of how brilliance within one scientific field does not necessarily extend even to competence in another. Just because someone is deservedly famous as a scientist does not make their arguments any likely to be more correct outside of their field of expertise, as escabeche's example of Serge Lang upthread shows. (See also Kary Mullis, Jim Watson, Linus Pauling...)
posted by en forme de poire at 2:01 PM on March 30 [2 favorites]


The most interesting things we can hear from Dyson concern things he knows well, right?

Actually, no.

If you had a chance to interview Serge Lang before his death, would you want to hear him talk about the future of number theory, or about his view that HIV doesn't cause AIDS?

This is a false choice wrapped up in a subtly offensive hypothetical. In that, how about I wouldn't actually want, let alone deserve in that moment, to hear about more of either? And, how about just listening to what dying people have to say, period?
posted by polymodus at 2:48 PM on March 30


I'm aware that some people think that's a "waste of time," but I don't, and I don't really think Dyson does either.

There is no rational interpretation of Dyson's statements that makes this characterization remotely true. He used specific words and it is an intellectual disservice to project one's own opinion onto points that he is quite clearly trying to convey.
posted by polymodus at 2:58 PM on March 30


Freeman Dyson is a brilliant scientist. He should know better than to publicly run his mouth about a technical subject he spends "maybe 1 percent" of his time on. Even if he agreed with the consensus, it's inappropriate for him to lend the clout he's rightfully earned from his contributions to physics, cosmology and math in order to sway popular opinion on contentious topics in other scientific fields.
posted by anifinder at 3:04 PM on March 30 [4 favorites]


There is no rational interpretation of Dyson's statements that makes this characterization remotely true.

I'm not sure what you're referring to. In the interview, he says, of the Ph.D. system, "It forces people to waste years and years of their lives sort of pretending to do research for which they’re not at all well-suited." And I'm saying, no, I don't think that's what it does. Or, more precisely, it may do that for some people but what it does for most people is something very different.
posted by escabeche at 3:34 PM on March 30 [2 favorites]


This is a false choice wrapped up in a subtly offensive hypothetical. In that, how about I wouldn't actually want, let alone deserve in that moment, to hear about more of either?

Maybe I inadvertently created the impression I was talking about a deathbed interview? No, I just meant if you interviewed him in, like, 1995, when he was alive. And yes, I would want to hear about his thoughts on the future of number theory, but it was an honest question -- it's fine if you wouldn't want to hear about that!

And, how about just listening to what dying people have to say, period?

That's a good idea in general, but when you're interviewing somebody you ask questions.
posted by escabeche at 3:42 PM on March 30 [1 favorite]


Mike Mongo, you make valid points and I regret my choice of words in my earlier my comment. However I also agree with en forme de poire.

Dyson's hunch about anthropocentric climate change is at odds with the official positions of the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, The American Chemical Society, The American Geophysical Union, The American Meteorological Society, The American Physical Society and a deep and vast sea of peer-reviewed papers.

If Dyson could make a solid case using legitimately conducted research and data, that would be one thing, but he is not able to do so. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, yet Dyson appears to have none. Though he does offer praise for Willie Soon, a climate-denier on the payroll of the Koch brothers.
posted by feralscientist at 3:45 PM on March 30 [3 favorites]


My conjecture, not backed by anything at all:

If you're a brilliant scientist and keen thinker with six children and at least 16 grandchildren, The math behind climate change might suggest that they are almost certainly completely and utterly fucked. That might be a bit hard to get behind?
posted by maxwelton at 12:13 AM on March 31


I totally disagree. The most interesting things we can hear from Dyson concern things he knows well, right? If you had a chance to interview Serge Lang before his death, would you want to hear him talk about the future of number theory, or about his view that HIV doesn't cause AIDS?

I see your point. But here are three things to consider, at least. I don't know that they ought to convince you, but maybe you'll move from total disagreement to merely strong disagreement. ;)

First, there is, I think, good reason to be interested in the way that great thinkers screw things up. Are there patterns to the way great thinkers make mistakes? Do those patterns hold for not-so-great thinkers (like me) as well? How can we avoid such mistakes? So, from my perspective, I would like to know how/why Dyson came to be screwed up with respect to climate change. (If, contrary to what I believe, he is actually right about climate change, then it is even more important to get clear on his reasoning.)

Second, climate change is, I think, the most important scientific and political problem of our time. Perhaps in terms of pure intellectual interest, quantum electrodynamics trumps it. But in terms of our practical concerns, there is no comparison. Hence, I'm not so sure that the analogy with Lang works. I'm not sure there is a topic that I'd rather hear Dyson talk about than climate change. I want to know what he thinks about climate change because I think climate change is such a hugely important topic.

Third, the interviewer asked the questions that led to the prima facie problematic statements. It just seems like good professional practice to care about the questions you are asking. Maybe if the interviewer had heeded your point, those questions wouldn't have been asked in the first place. And that might have produced a better interview. But since those questions were asked, and since the weird answers were given, it seems to me that the interviewer should have stopped and asked what those answers signified.
posted by Jonathan Livengood at 5:43 AM on March 31 [1 favorite]


escabeche: "The Ph.D. system, at any given moment, is paying a few thousand people a living wage to spend most of their day for a period of about five years learning about, thinking about, and eventually trying to create pure mathematics. I'm aware that some people think that's a "waste of time," but I don't, and I don't really think Dyson does either."

I think you've managed to completely miss his point. He's not suggesting in the slightest that university studies are a waste of time, and he never comes close to suggesting math studies are a waste of time.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:13 PM on March 31


I'd place his opinion somewhere between the two, IAmBroom, somewhat closer to what escabeche is reacting to. That is, I don't believe he views studying mathematics or physics as a waste, but my take is that he indeed considers university studies to be of questionable value.

Not only did Dyson not have a PhD, he also barely trained any graduate students because he considered the system to be an abomination. He talks about this a bit in the Web of Stories videos I posted above, specifically in #95 where he discusses leaving Cornell to go the the IAS precisely so that he wouldn't have to advise PhD students:
But I hated the PhD system, and that was what--- I felt basically out of tune with the main job I had at Cornell, which was to train PhD students. The whole PhD system to me is an abomination. I don't have a PhD myself, I feel myself very lucky I didn't have to go through it. I think it's a gross distortion of the educational process. What happens when I'm responsible for a PhD student, the student is condemned to work on a single problem in order to write a thesis, for maybe two or three years. But my attention span is much shorter than that. I like to work on something intensively for maybe one year or less, get it done with and then go on to something else. So my style just doesn't fit this PhD cycle. What would happen, a PhD student would want to go on working on a problem for two or three years, but I would lose interest before he was finished. And so there was a basic mismatch between the way I like to do physics and this straightjacket which was imposed on the students. And so I found it was very frustrating... all the PhD students had these same constraints imposed on them, which I basically disapprove of. I just don't like the system. I think it is an evil system and it has ruined many lives. So that was the down side of the Cornell, whereas at Princeton I was offered a job at the Institute for Advanced Study which works on a one year cycle. We have only post docs at this Institute here, so the post docs arrive each year, then they can decide what they want to do. I can collaborate with a post doc for a year, I don't have to keep him fed for the next two or three years after that. So at the end of six months or a year we can say goodbye and I can go and do something else, he can go and do something else if he likes. It's a much more flexible system, and it suits my style much better. So that was a strong reason for coming to Princeton.
Even there, though, I think he's very clear that his beef is with the system surrounding PhD studies, not the study itself. If you go back to #65 or so where he talks about Hans Bethe -- or even earlier where he talks about Kemmer -- what he describes is precisely the sort of mentorship that a PhD is meant to be.

Of course, considering how little direct experience he had as either a student or advisor in a PhD program, I suspect he has a very impoverished & distorted view of the system he's critiquing. Not to say it can't sometimes become a "condemnation" that "ruins lives," but I think he perceives it as more rigidly confining than it actually is. After all, Hans---and most of Dyson's other mentors---inspired & fostered many brilliant PhDs within that system, just as they did Dyson.
posted by Westringia F. at 7:22 PM on March 31 [1 favorite]


But, westringia F., all of those quotes from Dyson hinge over and over again on one word - "PhD". Not "college education", of which he was a part (however small).

Dyson isn't saying at all that college education is worthless. He's saying, very explicitly, that the using the PhD as the sole-bar and bottleneck to university career advancement is absurd.

One can believe that, and still believe 100% in the value of universities. And, AFAICT, Dyson did believe both.
posted by IAmBroom at 10:28 PM on March 31


escabeche is talking about PhD programs specifically when he's saying that people get paid a living wage for 5-6 years to do math full-time. I can't find another reference in this thread to "college education" besides yours...?
posted by en forme de poire at 3:41 AM on April 1


Dyson tree - "Dyson has suggested that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere could be controlled by planting fast-growing trees. He calculates that it would take a trillion trees to remove all carbon from the atmosphere."
posted by kliuless at 11:42 PM on April 13


« Older "In Iran, the government insists that all women...   |   The burden of survival Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments



Post