On April 1 at 3 p.m. room 413 in Columbia University’s Dodge Hall was vibrating with anticipation, excitement, anxiety—Freeman Dyson would be arriving in one hour to answer questions about his many works of non-fiction and his experiences as a legendary physicist.
Just a quick refresher: Dyson is a theoretical physicist and mathematician who worked closely with Robert Oppenheimer—the man that is sometimes referred to as the “father of the atomic bomb”—and invented the Dyson Sphere, the method of searching for extraterrestrial civilizations by looking for large objects radiating in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Dyson is nothing short of a testament to the power of myth in the physics world: He is so revered as a writer and a scientist that he has become something of a science fiction—even an alien—character, a fantastical version of himself that exists only in his admirers’ imaginations.
Today he will address a group of writers studying at Columbia University’s graduate program at the School of the Arts, a mix of non-fiction, poetry, and fiction students who aspire to write as well, as much, and with the same level of notoriety as Dyson. In this classroom, he is as much of an expert storyteller as he is an accomplished scientist, and though several people in the room are familiar with his history in the physics community, we are mostly preoccupied with questioning him about his techniques as a writer.
After an hour of discussion about a few of his pieces for The New York Review of Books, we break for five minutes and the room fills up with other students and faculty who asked to be present for the discussion—the head of the non-fiction department and the director of academic administration among them. When Freeman Dyson walks into the room, the walls are lined with people crouching on benches and windowsills, gripping notebooks and pencils.
He is shorter than I imagined he would be, and slimmer too. His narrow face is the canvas for a set of striking features: eyes like silver marbles set underneath a pronounced brow, sharp ruddy red cheek bones, a broad nose, a thin mischievious mouth, and ears that extend from his head like the wings of a butterfly. He wears a goofy tie, multi-colored streaks of what could be paint splattered across the silk, and walks bent over, with a slow shuffle. He sports a subtle smirk that morphs into an easy, gleeful smile as he talks to us.
Science fiction helped spark his interest in pursuing a career as a scientist from his childhood. Dyson tells the class that he grew up reading Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, and that it never occurred to him that these tales weren’t true. In fact, he found that these authors painted a very vivid picture of how one might explore the universe in reality.
In this age however, Dyson contends that there is too much “doom and gloom.” He believes that this generation especially “needs desperately to get in a more cheerful mood.” He reminds us, lightheartedly, with a smile on his face, if you can imagine such a thing, that he did not think he was going to live through his teenage years in Britain during World War II. His reality check is harsh but necessary: He recalls that in his time, the world had worse unemployment, pollution was worse, and oh yeah—“We had Hitler.”
On the subject of his writing, Dyson informed us that the best things he writes, he only writes once, and then leaves alone. The room full of writers raised and educated on the power of multiple drafts laughed nervously—was that just his genius talking? Or should we really consider not writing multiple drafts? The urge to take his methods to heart was overwhelming. When he reminds us that there is no one way to write, a shudder of relief pulses through the room. Thank God.
We are most curious about how he connects his life as a writer to his longer career as a physicist. Dyson draws the line clearly about the two forms: There is science and writing but the two shouldn’t be confused—in fact, he claims that he could calculate before he could write. In science, he explains, “you don’t have to be entertaining, you have to be clear.” Science is a “body of facts” that is the source of much debate and argument, and when he writes about science, he says that he tries to be provocative, but also wants to have a dialogue with his readership, to leave a space for more conversation and growth between the material on the page and the mind of the reader.
The last questions are being fielded from the audience—one student asks who his favorite poet it is (William Blake because he was a rebel, “he broke the rules”; Alexander Pope claims the unfortunate status of being “obviously a prig”), and Dyson gives us the only advice he can about writing: Write about real people, doing real things. Where does that leave his own precious H.G. Wells and Jules Verne?
Though I don’t press him for more on the subject, I imagine that the characters living within the works of these first science fiction writers are just as real as Oppenheimer and Einstein but they exist within a fantasy world that our imagination makes real. These fictional characters represent the desire for exploration and discovery that exists within all people existing in our reality, that on-going passion for knowledge, expansion, to see and to experience not just the exotic but the everyday wonders of this world and all the others. What drives science fiction drives science just as much. The two are woven together, two partners on the same quest who happened to take different paths. Dyson was quick to separate writing from science, but I wonder if he was just trying to be provocative again—he must know that the two cannot exist without each other, that the goals of art and the goals of science meet in real people, doing real things—in those people who create new worlds from their imaginations and those who measure the sky looking for the real thing.