Thursday, March 14, 2013

Phillip F. Schewe’s "Maverick Genius"

Phillip F. Schewe works at the Joint Quantum Institute, located at the University of Maryland. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Scientific American, The Humanist, American Scientist, Physics Today, and Physical Review Letters. He is also a playwright. His previous book, The Grid, a history of how society uses and loses electricity, was named by NPR as one of the science books of the year for 2007.

Schewe’s present book, Maverick Genius, tells the story of the life of Freeman Dyson, a protean scientist-essayist who helped to reinvent quantum science, to design a best-selling nuclear reactor model, to design a nuclear-powered rocket ship used by Stanley Kubrick (at least at first) as the model for the spaceship in 2001, to launch the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (“Dyson Spheres”), to craft the limited nuclear testban treaty of 1963, to keep tactical nuclear weapons out of Vietnam, to invent adaptive optics (now used on most large optical telescopes), to prove the chemical stability of matter, and to introduce field theory into condensed matter physics. Dyson has been a frequent writer for The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. He won the million dollar Templeton Prize for writing on religion and science.

Schewe applied the “Page 99 Test” to Maverick Genius and reported the following:
Dropping in any page of Maverick Genius, the reader would see Dyson creating something interesting. On page 99 the time is the mid 1950’s, and Dyson is a new professor at the Institute for Advanced Study during the height of nuclear paranoia, which inspired thoughts of nuclear holocaust:
Survivors of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima blasts provide many gripping eyewitness accounts. Works of art, like Doctor Atomic, also vividly portray the general sense of nuclear dread. In the opera’s production on the grand stage of the Metropolitan Opera house, the climax of the story, the nighttime detonation of the “gadget” in the New Mexico desert, comes in the very last moment of the opera. In slow motion, with all the characters leaning in toward the distant explosion, as if to listen in on the revelation of an awful secret, the blast seems to shiver space itself apart and turn darkness into a ball of fire.
The text on page 99 continues with the aftermath of the humiliation of Dyson’s boss, Robert Oppenheimer:
The war was over. Not the Cold War; that would go on for decades. But the war over Oppenheimer was over. His security clearance was revoked and his involvement with government matters ceased. But at least he had not been fired from his post at the Institute. Dyson felt that Oppie, back in Princeton with fewer distractions, was a better director than ever. He met each Tuesday afternoon with senior Institute scientists, and continued with his sharp questioning of seminar speakers.

Freeman Dyson had one of the most prestigious jobs a scientist could have. He was a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study. The most famous residents at the Institute were physicist Albert Einstein and mathematician Kurt Gödel. Dyson never got to know either man. When Dyson came for the 1948/49 academic year, he didn’t know enough physics and had been too shy to talk to Einstein. Now, coming to the Institute as a professor Dyson knew more physics but generally avoided seeing the man because of Einstein’s outmoded views about quantum mechanics.

Dyson also spoke little with Gödel. It was said that Gödel and Einstein only talked with each other. The ideas Gödel introduced were no less important for mathematics than Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle had been for physics. Gödel demonstrated that within a formal mathematical system with a finite number of rules some logical propositions would exist which could not be proved or disproved by the logical rules of that system. In other words, no finite system of mathematics, no matter how extensive, would ever be satisfactorily complete. This demonstration is now generally called Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. And then, like his friend Einstein, effectively retired from active participation in forefront research.”
Learn more about Maverick Genius at the publisher's website.

My Book, The Movie: Maverick Genius.

--Marshal Zeringue