Dear Professor Dyson: Twenty Years of Correspondence Between Freeman Dyson and Undergraduate Students on Science, Technology, Society and Life

By Dwight E. Neuenschwander, World Scientific, 2016, 428 pages, ISBN: 9814675857, $36 paperback

This book is based on a correspondence for over 20 years between Freeman Dyson and Dwight Neuenschwander and his students in a general education capstone course "Science, Technology, and Society" (STS) taught at Southern Nazarene University in Bethany, Oklahoma. Neuenschwander, who is listed as the "editor" of this book, but perhaps more accurately should be listed as the author, has taught a section of this STS class for over 20 years. He has used Dyson’s semi-autobiographical book Disturbing the Universe as the textbook for this class. In 1993 Neuenschwander and his students sent a letter to Dyson along with questions and comments about Disturbing the Universe, hoping to get some brief response. In fact within a week of receiving this letter Dyson responded with lengthy replies to six of the students’ queries along with copies of some of his talks. Thus began a continuing intellectual and personal dialog between Freeman Dyson and the professor and his STS students. They covered a range of topics involving the impact of science and technologyon society and other more general areas often centered on morality and ethics.

Their discussions include topics on: how best to live a good and ethical life; how to choose one’s life’s work;how to reconcile the teachings of religion and science; Dyson’s predictions about the future of human civilization beyond our solar system and his involvement with project Orion; Dyson’s interactions with famous scientists like Oppenheimer, Teller and Feynman; our relationship with machines; the differences and similarities between artistic and scientific endeavors; the efficacy and ethics of aerial bombing; the development and use of nuclear weapons; nuclear disarmament; genetic engineering doubt and faith; and ending with a chapter titled "Family First: Letters on Priorities".

In many ways this book is a narrative about how Neuenschwander runs his STS class. About half of the actual text is written directly by the author where he describes how he runs the class, summarizes some of the scientific topics discussed in class, such as big bang cosmology, and presents his opinions on the topics discussed. About 20% to 25% of the text consists of Dyson’s responses to the letters written to him by Neuenschwander and his students and some of this consists of comments like where Dyson was when he wrote a particular letter. The remainder consists of excerpts from written material by the students and brief quotes from a variety of sources including Disturbing the Universe. These different types of material are distinguished from one another by the use of different fonts. Each chapter discusses one or more related topics without any precise chronological ordering of the exchanges between the STS classes and Dyson.

Some of Dyson’s letters are particularly interesting such as his discussion on the nature of scientists and their work and creative methods compared to those in other areas like the arts, and one in which he writes about the difficulty of acting in a war-time setting in what in hindsight he realizes could have been a more correct and moral manner. Here he discusses his work with the British Bomber Command whose efforts he eventually saw as futile and also deadly to both the British pilots and German civilians and compares his experiencesto the work of the scientists at Los Alamos who built the A bomb. He explains how difficult it was for him or them to disengage from their efforts during wartime to reflect on what they were doing and he appreciates how the Los Alamos scientists could have been so caught up in their potentially deadly work that some of them said they enjoyed it. There are a few of Dyson’s replies that talk about his childhood and about his family, his parents, his sister, his children and his grandchildren. We also learn of some of Dyson’s iconoclastic views on topics like global warming, the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., and how best to respond to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Dyson is an excellent writer and a brilliant scientist. His writings on science and religion make him an exceptional person to study in an STS class at a faith-based university like the author’s; this is evident when he writes that "science and religion are two windows that people look through, trying to understand the big universe outside, trying to understand why we are here… to me religion is not a matter of belief but a way of life. I go to church to be part of a community of caring people. I consider myself a Christian, but I don’t believe in the resurrection." But throughout this book Dyson is regarded as the "Wise Grandfather" or spirit guide and his responses to the students’ questions are always accepted without challenge or comparison with opposing views while often being used to guide and validate the personal choices and opinions of the author and his students. Much interesting material is presented in the book. However, considering the amount of space actually devoted to Dyson’s writings, if one wants to learn more about Dyson and his wide-ranging and interesting thoughts on almost any topic it is more efficient to read Dyson’s books and articles directly.

Martin Epstein
California State University, Los Angeles

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.