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Physicist Freeman Dyson

Physicist Freeman Dyson


Institute of Advanced Study/Dan Komoda

Freeman Dyson, a physicist, mathematician and author, has died at the age of 96. The UK scientist’s ideas encompassed everything from the abstruse physics of quantum mechanics to enormous Dyson spheres that harvest the entire energy output of a sun. He posited the latter in 1960, long before it was featured in sci-fi settings like Star Trek: The Next Generation or when scientists started talking about alien megastructures.

The Institute for Advanced Study, his academic home in Princeton, New Jersey, for 60 years, announced Dyson’s death Friday.

“The world is a little less bright without his genius,” tweeted Tim O’Reilly, who rose to Silicon Valley celebrity status through his technology book publishing business. Dyson also is the father of Silicon Valley investor Esther Dyson.

His career began at the UK’s Bomber Command during World War II, where his statistical analysis helped discover the reason so many British airmen died attacking Germany was simply because their planes’ aircraft hatches were impractically small. That episode is detailed in his first book, Disturbing the Universe.

After the Cold War began, he worked on cutting nuclear weapons testing and urged creation of the US government’s Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. “The military knows that our nuclear weapons are essentially useless for fighting real wars. The problem is to educate the politicians,” he said in a 2013 Slashdot interview

He also worked on Project Orion, a US effort to build a spacecraft propelled by nuclear explosions, and was a fan of space exploration. He also showed a contrarian streak, though, for example considering the US Space Shuttle program a waste of money.

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