National Writing Project

Why I Write: Freeman Dyson Puts Words to Mathematics

Date: October 4, 2011

Summary: When people hear the name Freeman Dyson, they tend to think of breakthroughs in quantum physics, but Dyson is a prolific writer as well. He's known for bringing conscience and compassion to his books, which interweave scientific explanation and humanism.


I write because it is one of my two skills. My other skill is doing mathematical calculations.

Exercising a skill at a high level is one of the greatest joys. At my modest level of skill, I can feel the same joy as somebody at the top level, for example the singer Jacky Evancho. Jacky is thirteen years old and sings divinely. Recently I heard her sing on television. After she finished, the producer asked her how she feels when she is singing. She said, "Something great overwhelms me, and I feel comfortable and happy."

Those few words tell a deep truth about human nature. To achieve something great, you must first work hard practicing your skill. Then, if you are lucky, something great will overwhelm you. Shakespeare worked hard for twenty years writing mediocre poems and plays. Then he wrote Macbeth and Hamlet.

I was lucky when I was a young student in England to have the great mathematician G. H. Hardy as my teacher. Hardy was near the end of his life. He could no longer produce brilliant ideas in mathematics, but he loved teaching. He loved writing books to explain things to a wider audience than he could reach in the class-room. Since I was in love with mathematics, I thought that writing books was a waste of Hardy's precious time. With the arrogance of youth, I asked him why he had given up doing mathematics. Hardy replied, "Young men should prove theorems; old men should write books."

As a writer, I have a bigger audience.

Again, deep truth in a few words. This was the best advice that any of my teachers ever gave me.

I was lucky, like Hardy, to have two skills. Like him, I worked hard for twenty years practicing my skill as a calculator. Like him, I proved some theorems and made some elegant discoveries. Once I did a long and hard calculation, and then somebody did a physics experiment, and it turned out that Nature danced to my tune.

Writing to Discover Something Great

Those were times of great joy. Like Jacky, I was comfortable and happy. But when I grew older, I could no longer compete with the bright young people doing mathematics, and I remembered Hardy's advice. At the age of forty, it was time to practice my other skill as a writer. I began writing pieces for magazines such as Scientific American and The New Yorker, and then went on to write books for the general public. My skill as a writer grew while my skill as a calculator faded. From time to time, as I was writing, something great overwhelmed me.

Calculating and writing are not the only skills that give us a chance of greatness. Singing, or playing the saxophone, or composing symphonies, are gifts at least as great. To excel in golf or tennis or basketball is wonderful too. Hardy had a passion for cricket and talked about great cricket players more than he talked about mathematicians. Whatever your skill may be, pursue it to the utmost, and you will be rewarded.

Only one thing more is needed. Besides your skill, you also need an audience. You need people who admire and respond to your performances. That is a problem, especially for mathematicians. The audience for abstract mathematics is always small. That is another reason why I am glad to be a writer. As a writer, I have a bigger audience.

Almost every day I get a splendid response from some reader who takes the trouble to write an email, either agreeing or disagreeing with what I write. I learn more from those who disagree. That is why I advise young people to exercise their skills as writers as much as possible. A large fraction of us have writing skills. If you have something new or exciting to say, and if you have practiced your skill as a writer, you can be sure you will have an audience.

About the Author

Freeman Dyson is now retired, having been for most of his life a professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. His most useful contribution to science was the unification of the three versions of quantum electrodynamics invented by Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, Julian Schwinger, and Richard P. Feynman—who jointly won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965.

He has written a number of books about science for the general public. Dyson's books include Disturbing the Universe (1979), Weapons and Hope (1984), Infinite in All Directions (1988), Origins of Life (1986, second edition 1999), and The Sun, the Genome and the Internet (1999).

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