Freeman Dyson

Share This:



Connecting Worlds

2012 Quadrennial Physics Congress

Freeman Dyson

On Living Through Four Revolutions


Kendra Redmond, Sigma Pi Sigma Programs Manager

Freeman Dyson at PhysCon. Photo by Ken Cole.

At its core, the Sigma Pi Sigma Quadrennial Physics Congress (PhysCon) is about building community and looking forward. Early congresses brought together students from the first chapters of Sigma Pi Sigma to talk about the future of the society and how to transform the fraternity into a widely recognized honor society. As the society has grown, its congresses have engaged an increasing number of students and alumni, who come to set priorities for the organization and to explore the future of physics more broadly.

But looking forward can best be done in the context of looking backward; previous generations can provide the newest generation with advice and a foundation on which to stand. At the 2012 PhysCon, this spirit was perhaps best exemplified by Freeman Dyson’s talk, “Living Through Four Revolutions.” Society of Physics Students (SPS) student reporters from the University of Louisville (UofL) who attended the talk describe it here in their own words:

"Pacing gently on stage and speaking candidly, Dyson guided 800 people through the knowledge revolutions that made history and brought humanity to where it is today. Beginning with the atomic revolution, Dyson touched on both the excitement of successfully splitting the atom and the devastation caused by the first nuclear bombs. Looking to get a start in physics, a young Dyson [to take the reader back in time] sought out the scientific minds who first worked on the bombs at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. He eventually became a graduate student at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where many had gone after the war. 'Within one week, I hit the jackpot,' Dyson recounted. 'I got to know Dick Feynman, and it was obvious this guy was a genius. He was a marvelous guy, a clown, a buffoon, a great teacher.' Dyson then told stories of how Feynman once learned never to care for another person’s boa constrictor and refused to sleep in a tennis-themed hotel.

The second revolution also began with the Second World War, but involved developments in the field of rocketry that would eventually lead humanity into space. Dyson worked on Project Orion, a mission to use nuclear bombs as the launching mechanism for a spacecraft, a program that never quite took off. The bomb, developed as a means of destruction, would have been used for purposes of exploration and scientific advancement.

“When [Dyson] signed a PhysCon t-shirt for us, I felt like I was in the presence of a rock star.”
~ Student attendee from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in Galloway

Next came the biological revolution, which started with the model of DNA established by Rosalind Franklin, James Watson, and Francis Crick; the last two earned a Nobel Prize for their work. Dyson warned the audience never to take his advice, as he had tried to convince Crick to stay in physics rather than go into biology.

The most contemporary revolution described by Dyson was the computing revolution. Dyson’s colleague John von Neumann advised the US government that the country would never need more than 18 computers, an unfathomably low number from today’s perspective, considering the smartphones, graphing calculators, televisions, cars, and other modern conveniences that now run on computers. The proliferation of computation has left humanity, in Dyson’s words, 'living on little islands of understanding in a sea of information,' which is 'cheaper to collect . . . than to understand.'

More than just a history lesson, Dyson’s talk was the personal story of a career physicist making his way to the top. When asked for advice on juggling career and family, he jokingly told everyone that he had lots of advice, 'but you don’t have to take it.' Then he spoke briefly on the detrimental impact that going through a PhD program can have on one’s personal life. 'If you don’t need to get a PhD,' said Dyson, 'don’t.' Flexibility and good fortune, according to the accomplished physicist, go a long way: 'The important thing in life is to be lucky.' Remaining on a single path limits options, claimed Dyson, citing software as an example of flexibility. The programming skills a student learns on one research project can be applied to future projects, allowing for respecialization down the line.

Dyson clearly struck a chord with the crowd. Hordes of students mobbed him between sessions. Seeking photos, advice, opinions, and stories from one of science’s most esteemed figures, they lined the stage, preparing their questions. One student hoped to hear more about Dyson’s views on the modern educational path for doctoral students. Another asked about the safety and practicality of using atomic bombs as fuel for rockets, given the environmental impact. Whatever their reasons, students flocked to meet the living legend.

Discussions inspired by Dyson’s talk continued throughout the meeting, during the car/van/bus/train/plane rides back to campuses around the country, and into SPS chapter meetings, blog posts, and social media pages in the following days and weeks. As this newest generation of physicists completes degrees and prepares to meet whatever revolutions are on the horizon, Sigma Pi Sigma and its congresses are a strand that will continue to connect the past, present, and future of physics. Dyson, says UofL student David Warder, 'taught us that we as physicists have our own revolutions to look forward to, to live through, and to learn from.'"

Watch a video of “Living Through Four Revolutions” on the 2012 PhysCon website:
To read more from UofL and other SPS student reporters at PhysCon, browse the collection of  "PhysCon Articles," available at

2016 Congress

Save the date:

November 3 – 5, 2016
Hyatt Regency-San Francisco
San Francisco, CA

Primary scientific host will be the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

More from this Department

Connecting Worlds