A Flash of Illumination on the Greyhound Bus: Physicist Freeman Dyson on Creative Breakthrough and the Unconscious Mind
“It is strange the way ideas come when they are needed.”
By Maria Popova
“Invention,” Frankenstein author Mary Shelley wrote in contemplating how creativity works, “does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos” — the chaos of existing inspirations, properly comprehended and reconfigured into something new. Einstein termed this reordering “combinatory play.” But it is a process mostly unconscious, the product of which — the creative breakthrough we call originality — cannot be willed. It arrives unbidden, with an abruptness that often startles the very mind to which it alights — an exhilarating startlement the French polymath Henri Poincaré called “sudden illumination.” It constitutes the third stage in Graham Wallas’s pioneering 1926 guide to the four stages of the creative process — a moment Wallas described as “the culmination of a successful train of association, which may have lasted for an appreciable time, and which has probably been preceded by a series of tentative and unsuccessful trains.”
A captivating account of one such moment of creative breakthrough comes from the great physicist Freeman Dyson (December 15, 1923–February 28, 2020) in Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters (public library).
At twenty-two, Dyson was elected Fellow at Trinity College — a position Newton had held a quarter millennium earlier. During his time at Trinity, where he lived in a room just below Wittgenstein’s, Dyson was awarded a Commonwealth Fellowship that sent him to the United States in pursuit of a doctorate in physics. He landed at Cornell, where he quickly befriended Richard Feynman, not yet thirty himself. At the time, Feynman was working on a then-radical formulation of quantum electrodynamics based on his now-famous diagrams. His method was in rivalry with another, devised by Julian Schwinger. “The two ways of explaining the experiments looked totally different,” Dyson recalls, “Feynman drawing little pictures and Schwinger writing down complicated equations.”
In the spring of 1948, Dyson took a cross-country road trip with Feynman. They filled the time and distance with fiery conversation about physics punctuated by Feynman’s bittersweet memories of the love of his life, who had died three years earlier. Upon his return, Dyson headed to Ann Arbor to spend six weeks studying with Schwinger. He left Michigan for another cross-country trip, this time traveling by himself, with Feynman’s and Schwinger’s ideas swirling and bobbing around his head on the long bus journey. He was the only person to have been in close direct contact with both QED formulations and the minds of their originators.
Suddenly, in what Dyson terms a “flash of illumination on the Greyhound bus,” everything fell into place — he saw the equivalence of the two competing formulations with a clarity that had evaded everyone else, including Feynman and Schwinger themselves.
In a sentiment physicist and novelist Alan Lightman would come to echo decades later in his beautiful account of the out-of-body experience of creative breakthrough, Dyson writes in a letter from September 14, 1948:
On the third day of the journey a remarkable thing happened; going into a sort of semistupor as one does after forty-eight hours of bus riding, I began to think very hard about physics, and particularly about the rival radiation theories of Schwinger and Feynman. Gradually my thoughts grew more coherent, and before I knew where I was, I had solved the problem that had been in the back of my mind all this year, which was to prove the equivalence of the two theories. Moreover, since each of the two theories is superior in certain features, the proof of equivalence furnished a new form of the Schwinger theory which combines the advantages of both. This piece of work is neither difficult nor particularly clever, but it is undeniably important if nobody else has done it in the meantime. I became quite excited over it when I reached Chicago and sent off a letter to Bethe announcing the triumph. I have not had time yet to write it down properly, but I am intending as soon as possible to write a formal paper and get it published. This is a tremendous piece of luck for me, coming at the time it does.
Reflecting on this striking feat of unconscious processing — the same unconscious processing to which Bob Dylan attributes his best songwriting — Dyson adds:
It is strange the way ideas come when they are needed. I remember it was the same with the idea for my Trinity Fellowship thesis.
In a testament to Rilke’s conviction that “everything is gestation and then bringing forth,” Dyson incubated his insight for the next two weeks before bringing it forth formally. Upon returning to Cornell, he sat down to distill his Greyhound bus illumination in a paper. In a letter from September 30, he reports his feat of creation with his characteristic warm wit:
I was for five days stuck in my rooms, writing and thinking with a concentration which nearly killed me. On the seventh day the paper was complete, and with immense satisfaction I wrote the number 52 at the bottom of the last page.
In a lovely example of merited pride unmoored from ego and self-satisfaction, he adds:
It is impossible for me to judge at present whether the work is as great as I think it may be. All I know is, it is certainly the best thing I have done yet.
Less than a month after he submitted the paper to the prestigious science journal Physical Review, Dyson received a letter that it had been accepted in its entirety — a highly unusual decision in its rapidity. His paper, one of the longest the journal has ever published, had gone through the peer review process in record time. The first paper to make use of Feynman’s diagrams, it championed their power not merely as a computational tool but as a physical theory, inviting other scientists to appreciate their brilliance and splendor. It was a turning point for the acceptance of Feynman’s unorthodox ideas in the scientific community. Seventeen years later, Feynman and Schwinger would share the Nobel Prize “for their fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles” — a depth of consequence the twenty-four-year-old Dyson had been the first to demonstrate in a coherent and compelling way after his revelation on the Greyhound bus.
Dyson concludes the letter with a sentiment that captures the abiding thrill of the human impulse to conquer the unknown:
To arrive at the frontiers of physics is like breaking through a crust, after which one finds plenty of room to move in a lot of directions.
Maker of Patterns is a fascinating and deeply rewarding read in its totality, replete with Dyson’s insight into science, creativity, politics, love, and the complexities of being human. Complement this particular portion with Rilke on how inspiration strikes, physicist David Bohm on creativity, and neurologist Oliver Sacks on its three essential components, then revisit Dyson on the future of science and finding meaning in the randomness of life.
Published June 28, 2018