A few days ago, I came across this interview with Freeman Dyson, a man who I truly admire for a long time, since I started to learn about his contribution to QFT more than 10 years ago. In particular, I came to learn more about him through one of my most beloved book entitled: “QED and the men who made it” by S. Schweber. This is a wonderful book written by a spectacular author. Schweber is not merely a historian, but a true theoretical physicist, with a strong interest in the history of modern science. In fact, he has a well-written book on QFT dated back to 1961.
Dyson is one of few influential people who I scientifically looked into his contribution every now and then. Penrose is the other. Similar to Penrose, he started to spell his belief in other subjects such as life and religion in his writings. It is always eye-opening to hear how these brilliant minds look at life. In particular, it is very comforting when you find your thoughts and ideas are close to theirs. Although I strongly suggest reading the whole article (which is not very long), I just highlight a few points of this interview that I have been also discussing in this blog occasionally:
“what’s the biggest misconception about mathematics? ”
Dyson: I think the biggest misconception is that everybody has to learn it.
It is truly amazing to see that Dyson, a true mathematical physicist, suggests to tune down teaching math in schools, at least the way it is taught. Later in this interview, he compares math to music, like Violin, and he insists, it is not necessary or even possible for everyone to learn it.
Are you not into the Ph.D. system?
Dyson: Oh, very much against it. I’ve been fighting it unsuccessfully all my life.
The second stunning response is the fact that as someone teaching in one of the most prestigious schools (i.e., Princeton) in the world, is against PhD. The main reason is that PhD system has been deflected from its main path. There are many disadvantageous to the current PhD system, where I only summarize two of them, below. First, it is not tailored for every person, so it does not flourish the true abilities of the students. Second, it takes the most significant few years of the students’ youth. Not to mention, many things are wrong with supervisors, admission, and so on.
What’s the most astounding thing about the universe to you?
Dyson: I think that’s what I would say: It’s us that’s really amazing. As far as I can see, our concentration of different abilities in one species — there’s nothing I can see that in this Darwinian evolution that could’ve done that. So it seems to be a miracle of some sort.
Last but not least, it is so fascinating to hear that one of the most significant mathematical minds, who is very familiar with many subjects including life sciences, also believes that Darwinian evolution theory is not enough to take into account the details of life as it is. This is a brave statement from an intellectual person in academia, in particular in this era, when many people arrogantly allow themselves to dismiss the whole idea of any other possibilities just by trusting the evolution, while many scientists themselves are not that sure yet!