One starry night 35 years ago, I drove the physicist Freeman Dyson through the British Columbia rain forest toward a reunion with his estranged son, George. The son, then 22, was a long-haired, sun-darkened, barefoot dropout with an uncanny resemblance to Thoreau. He had emigrated to Canada during the Vietnam War, and he lived 95 feet up a Douglas fir outside Vancouver. His passion was the aboriginal North American skin boat. In a workshop near his tree house, he had resurrected the baidarka, the kayak of the Aleutian Islands—a watertight second skin, lightweight and nimble, in which the Aleut hunter originally, and young George himself eventually, became a kind of sea centaur, half man and half canoe. The father, Freeman, was then and continues to be a professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, employed there, as Einstein was before him, to think about whatever he finds interesting.
Freeman Dyson is one of those force-of-nature intellects whose brilliance can be fully grasped by only a tiny subset of humanity, that handful of thinkers capable of following his equations. His principal contribution has been to the theory of quantum electrodynamics, but he has done stellar work, too, in pure mathematics, particle physics, statistical mechanics, and matter in the solid state. He writes with a grace and clarity that is rare, even freakish, in a scientist, and his books, including Disturbing the Universe, Weapons and Hope, Infinite in All Directions, and The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet, have made a mark. Dyson has won the Lorentz Medal (the Netherlands) and the Max Planck Medal (Germany) for his work in theoretical physics. In 1996, he was awarded the Lewis Thomas Prize, which honors the scientist as poet. In 2000, he scored the Templeton Prize for exceptional contribution to the affirmation of life’s spiritual dimension—worth more, in a monetary way, than the Nobel.