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Life, Death, Chance, and Freeman Dyson

“These matters are in the hands of a blind fate whose decrees it is perhaps well that we cannot foresee.”

Life, Death, Chance, and Freeman Dyson

In her stunning “Hymn to Time,” Ursula K. Le Guin observed how death and chance course through “space and the radiance of each bright galaxy,” through our “eyes beholding radiance” — death and chance meaning death and life, for each of us is a wonder of improbability made by an immense Rube Goldberg machine of chance: If the Big Bang had churned out just a little more antimatter than matter, if the ratio of hydrogen and helium in the baby universe had been only a little bit different, if our Pale Blue Dot had snapped into orbit just a little bit closer to or farther from our life-warming home star, if the ratio of mutual attraction had been just a little bit different when your parents crossed orbits, if they had put on a different record and cross-pollinated gene pools on a different night, you would not exist. As the physicist Brian Greene put it in his poetic inquiry into what gives meaning to our ephemeral lives in an impartial universe, “by the grace of random chance, funneled through nature’s laws, we are here.”

Most of us, if at all aware of the glorious accident we experience as our own existence, are only dimly aware of it and only as an abstraction. Not so for the great physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson (December 15, 1923–February 28, 2020) — one of the vastest scientific minds of the past century, and one of the most humanistic.

Freeman Dyson, aged 11, with his sister, Alice. (Photographer unknown. Courtesy of Dyson family.)

When Dyson’s father — the English composer George Dyson — was a young music teacher, his closest friend — a lanky classicist who taught at the same school — was drafted into the British army during WWI and sent to fight in Paris. One day, this exceedingly tall young man stuck his head to look out from the trench. A German sniper killed him instantly. His sister, with whom he’d been incredibly close, was grief-stricken. So was his best friend. The grief brought the two together. A year after his death, they were married. When they had their first child, they named him for the slain hero: Freeman. Freeman Dyson lived out his entire life — a life of nearly a century, a life that lived through humanity’s darkest hour and through some of our most dazzling triumphs: the discovery of the double helix, the Moon landing, the birth of the Internet, the detection of gravitational waves, the signing of the Paris Agreement — never losing sight of the double-edged sword of chance that had made his own life possible by his uncle’s death. It informed his entire personal cosmogony, as a scientist and a humanist. Viewed in this light, this light of ultimate lucidity, all of our conflicts and combats — international or interpersonal — appear not only unnatural but anti-natural, foolish squanderings of the brief and improbable life that chance has dealt us, vandalized verses from the sacred poetry that is the book of nature.

Upon receiving the heart-sinking news of Freeman Dyson’s death, I expressed my condolences to his son — the science historian and splendid writer George Dyson, named for his grandfather. He responded with the above photograph from the family archives — a charming embodiment of the playfulness and free-spirited good nature that endowed Freeman Dyson’s brilliant mind with such coruscating creativity. When I remarked that something so utterly delightful — both the captured moment and the whole existence of the man — should be the product of chance in the shape of a bullet, he sent me a letter, found in an abandoned family trunk and shared here with his kind permission, which his grandfather had written to another friend fighting in the trenches of France, also a classicist — one who would, unlike the slain Freeman Atkey, survive to become an eminent Dante scholar.

In the hindsight of history, both Dyson’s personal history and our cultural history, the letter staggers the imagination with its account of the unimaginable and its subtle hope for a different future governed by different human choices — a stirring reminder that choice is the necessary reality-shaping counterpart to chance.

99th Infantry Brigade
B.E.F. France

Dear Bickersteth,

I got what purports to be your address a little while ago and I am sending this scribble there in the hope that it will find you, and find you well and flourishing, “as it leaves me at present.” When next we meet there will be no end to the tales I have to tell you. Even in my palmiest days I was never so fluent as I shall be if and when I come back. I am now something of a specialist in trench warfare, having written the only booklet on grenade fighting which the war office has as yet permitted to see daylight. I run the grenadiers of my brigade and I am at present learning a fair stretch of front from that point of view. I am billeted with two or three other officers in what is left of a little cottage about 3/4 mile behind a fairly hot corner of this country. We are continually under shell fire in this sense, that the friendly Hun shells the immediate neighborhood every day. Just at this moment he has unfortunately caught a squad of men in the road outside with appalling results. Our own guns are blazing away like mad, so that you can’t hear yourself think. There are six aeroplanes up above and the German is making little white puffs of shrapnel all around them. The trenches are simply vile in this weather. Between knee-deep and thigh deep in mud, in addition to the havoc wrought by the Bosch. I was in a fairly heavy bombardment of them two days ago. Everybody retires to dugouts, and even down there, 20 feet below ground sometimes, the shock blows the candles out. Your old friend Dante had a very amateur conception of Hell. I could improve on it vastly.

Still we are, by some providence, alive, and hope to remain so. These matters are in the hands of a blind fate whose decrees it is perhaps well that we cannot foresee. [Freeman] Atkey is, as you doubtless know, out here somewhere, but I have not come across him yet. He is well according to the latest news and not unhappy. The rest of our merry Marlborough “push” are scattered goodness knows where. I wonder if we shall ever have that Reunion dinner that we sometimes talk about.

I hear pretty regularly from “Thornhanger” and gather that a school is no place to be in in these days. Let me know what you and yours are doing. I saw and enjoyed the big London Zeppelin raid, but it’s child’s play to this! — Odd that I should have written that last sentence. It is now a half-hour later. Just where the dash is came a six-incher 10 yards to our left which finished the remaining windows and sent us to the cellar. A second one 10 yards to our right has fallen in an old barn, killed a horse and badly wounded three men. Enough for today. We must eat a humble tea and go on hoping for the best. Good luck to you,

Ever yours,
G. Dyson

Freeman Dyson (right) with his father, George, and his son, also George. (Photograph by Verena Huber-Dyson, courtesy of Dyson family.)

Freeman Dyson began the preface to the wondrous collection of his own letters — the epistolary autobiography Maker of Patterns (public library) — with a sentiment of striking complementarity to his grandfather’s wartime lament:

In March 2017, when this book was almost finished, my wife received a message from our twelve-year-old granddaughter: “We are all metaphors in this dark and lonely world.” Our daughter added her own comment, “The sentiment is tempered by the fact that she has a pink Afro.” The pink Afro displays a proud and joyful spirit, masking the melancholy thoughts of a teenager confronting an uncertain future. Our granddaughter is now emerging into a world strikingly similar to the world of 1936 into which I came as a twelve-year-old. Both our worlds were struggling with gross economic inequality, stubbornly persistent poverty, brutal dictators on the rise, and small wars presaging worse horrors to come. I too was a metaphor for a new generation of young people without illusions. Her declaration of independence is a pink Afro. Mine was a passionate pursuit of mathematics.

Recounting how he fell under the spell of mathematics and physics through the work of the great English mathematician G.H. Hardy and quantum physics pioneer Paul Dirac, whose lectures plunged the young Dyson into “the strange new world of quantum physics, where strict causality is abandoned and atomic events occur by chance,” he adds:

The idea that chance governs nature was then still open to question. In the world of human affairs, Lev Tolstoy asked the same question, whether free choice prevails. While Dirac proclaimed free choice in the world of physics, Tolstoy denied it in the world of history. The idea that Dirac called causality, Tolstoy called Providence. At the end of his War and Peace, he wrote a long philosophical discussion, explaining why human free will is an illusion and Providence is the driving force of history. When I was a student in Cambridge, the same Providence that had destroyed Napoleon’s army in Russia in 1812 was destroying Hitler’s army in Russia in 1943. I was reading Tolstoy and Dirac at the same time.

If Dyson’s physics danced with chance, his humanism always landed on the side of conscious and conscientious choice. Three decades after a human finger trembling with the toxic thrill of nationalism fired the odd bullet to which Dyson owes his life, three years after humanity had savaged itself with another World War, and shortly after his “flash of illumination on the Greyhound bus,” the 25-year-old physicist attended a sermon by the renowned theologian Reinhold Niebuhr at Princeton’s university chapel. In a letter to his family, he summed up the sentiments that had resonated with his own convictions:

Just as the individual man can save his soul only by ceasing to worry about himself and immersing his actions in some larger ends, so also we shall stand a better chance of saving our civilisation if we do not worry too much over the imminent destruction of the little bit of it to which we happen to belong.

Dyson would later recount his father’s fighting strategy during the war — the supreme, most humanistic possible response to inhumanity, for we best survive by making art when life unmakes us:

My father… understood that the best way to show our contempt for Hitler was to continue making music… as if Hitler did not exist. My father said to the students in London in 1940, “All we have to do is to behave halfway decently, and the whole world will come to our side.” That was his way of fighting Hitler.

Complement with Freeman Dyson’s poignant admonition about how our self-expatriation from history shallows our present, then savor more of this uncommon mind, whose improbable existence will never again recur in all the possible configurations of chance and choice across all the rest of time and space, on the pages of Maker of Patterns.


Bloom: A Touching Animated Short Film about Depression and What It Takes to Recover the Light of Being

How the warm rays of hope and healing enter the dark inner chamber of leaden loneliness through the unexpected cracks of kindness.

“Sometimes one has simply to endure a period of depression for what it may hold of illumination if one can live through it, attentive to what it exposes or demands,” the poet May Sarton wrote as she contemplated the cure for despair amid a dark season of the spirit. But what does it take to perch that precarious if in the direction of the light? When we are in that dark and hollow place, that place of leaden loneliness and isolation, when “the gray drizzle of horror induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain,” as William Styron wrote in his classic account of the malady — an indiscriminate malady that savaged Keats and savaged Nietzsche and savaged Hansberry — what does it take to live through the horror and the hollowness to the other side, to look back and gasp disbelievingly, with the poet Jane Kenyon: “What hurt me so terribly… until this moment?”

During a recent dark season of the spirit, a dear friend buoyed me with the most wonderful, hope-giving, rehumanizing story: Some years earlier, when a colleague of hers — another physicist — was going through such a season of his own, she gave him an amaryllis bulb in a small pot; the effect it had on him was unexpected and profound, as the effect of uncalculated kindnesses always is — profound and far-reaching, the way a pebble of kindness ripples out widening circles of radiance. As the light slowly returned to his life, he decided to teach a class on the physics of animation. And so it is that one of his students, Emily Johnstone, came to make Bloom — a touching animated short film, drawing from the small personal gesture a universal metaphor for how we survive our densest private darknesses, consonant with Neil Gaiman’s insistence that “sometimes it only takes a stranger, in a dark place… to make us warm in the coldest season.”

Complement with Tim Ferriss on how he survived suicidal depression and Tchaikovsky on depression and finding beauty amid the wreckage of the soul, then revisit “Having It Out with Melancholy” — Jane Kenyon’s stunning poem about life with and after depression.


Between the Body and the Soul: Neri Oxman Reads Walt Whitman

A timeless song of praise for our belonging with “Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees,” with “night of the large few stars.”

Between the Body and the Soul: Neri Oxman Reads Walt Whitman

A century before computing pioneer Alan Turing comforted his dead soul-mate’s mother, and perhaps himself, with the insistence that “the body provides something for the spirit to look after and use,” and generations before Rilke defiantly refused to become “one of those who neglect the body in order to make of it a sacrificial offering for the soul,” Walt Whitman (May 31, 1819–March 26, 1892) appointed himself the poet of the body and the poet of the soul in one of the most famous opening lines in all of poetry, from one of the most beloved poems in his Leaves of Grass — a poem that has helped Holocaust survivors survive and continues to help generations endure the small everyday terrors of life.

That timeless, generous poem came alive at The Astronomy of Walt Whitman — a special miniature edition of The Universe in Verse on Governors Island in partnership with Pioneer Works — in a soulful performance by designer, artist, architect, inventor, and poet of matter Neri Oxman.

Half a century after Rachel Carson made ecology a household word, Oxman coined the term material ecology — a term Whitman would have cherished — to describe her singular work weaving the structures, systems, and aesthetics of nature, from silkworms to honeybees to the human breath, into our built environment. That term became the title of a visionary Museum of Modern Art exhibition by curator Paola Antonelli, making Oxman the first designer working in material science to have a major exhibition at a major New York art museum, a century and a half after Whitman envisioned museums as places to teach us “the infinite lessons of minerals… wood, plants, vegetation.” At the time of her Universe in Verse performance, she had just given birth to her first child — that supreme attunement of the body and the soul in the poetry of being, an embodied consecration of Whitman’s conviction, thoroughly countercultural in his day, that “it is as great to be a woman as to be a man” and that “there is nothing greater than the mother of men.”

I am the poet of the Body and I am the poet of the Soul,
The pleasures of heaven are with me and the pains of hell are with me,
The first I graft and increase upon myself, the latter I translate into new tongue.
I am the poet of the woman the same as the man,
And I say it is as great to be a woman as to be a man,
And I say there is nothing greater than the mother of men.
I chant the chant of dilation or pride,
We have had ducking and deprecating about enough,
I show that size is only development.
Have you outstript the rest? are you the President?
It is a trifle, they will more than arrive there every one, and still pass on.
I am he that walks with the tender and growing night,
I call to the earth and sea half-held by the night.
Press close bare-bosom’d night — press close magnetic nourishing night!
Night of south winds — night of the large few stars!
Still nodding night — mad naked summer night.
Smile O voluptuous cool-breath’d earth!
Earth of the slumbering and liquid trees!
Earth of departed sunset — earth of the mountains misty-topt!
Earth of the vitreous pour of the full moon just tinged with blue!
Earth of shine and dark mottling the tide of the river!
Earth of the limpid gray of clouds brighter and clearer for my sake!
Far-swooping elbow’d earth — rich apple-blossom’d earth!
Smile, for your lover comes.
Prodigal, you have given me love — therefore I to you give love!
O unspeakable passionate love.

Couple with poet Sarah Kay’s wondrous performance from the same show, then revisit other timeless treasures from the full-scale Universe in Verse: Amanda Palmer reading Neil Gaiman’s tribute to Rachel Carson and his feminist poem about the history of science, Marie Howe reading her tribute to Stephen Hawking, Krista Tippett reading “Figures of Thought” by Howard Nemerov, Regina Spektor reading “Theories of Everything” by the astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, and astrophysicist Janna Levin reading “A Brave and Startling Truth” by Maya Angelou, “Planetarium” by Adrienne Rich, and Whitman’s classic “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”

Whitman-era portrait of Neri Oxman by Brooklyn Tintype


Creativity as a Way of Being: Poet and Potter M.C. Richards on Wholeness, the Measure of Our Wisdom, and What It Really Means to Be an Artist

“The creative spirit creates with whatever materials are present. With food, with children, with building blocks, with speech, with thoughts, with pigment, with an umbrella, or a wineglass, or a torch.”

Creativity as a Way of Being: Poet and Potter M.C. Richards on Wholeness, the Measure of Our Wisdom, and What It Really Means to Be an Artist

“All paths lead to the same goal: to convey to others what we are,” Pablo Neruda observed in his gorgeous Nobel Prize acceptance speech a lifetime after the boyhood revelation that to be an artist, to be a vessel of the creative impulse conveying one human essence to another, is to be the hand through the fence.

Around the same time, another literary artist who made art with her hands — the poet and potter M.C. Richards (July 13, 1916–September 10, 1999) — shone her mind of immense brightness and penetration on the elusive, mysticism-cloaked reality of what it actually means to be an artist in her 1964 counterculture classic Centering: In Pottery, Poetry, and the Person (public library), exploring what the wheel teaches about inner wholeness and the poetry of personhood.

Mary Caroline Richards at Black Mountain College (Getty Research Institute. Photographer unknown.)

Richards — who relinquished a tenure-track position at a major university to join the faculty at the experimental Black Mountain College, becoming the school’s most beloved teacher — writes:

The creative spirit creates with whatever materials are present. With food, with children, with building blocks, with speech, with thoughts, with pigment, with an umbrella, or a wineglass, or a torch. We are not craftsmen only during studio hours. Any more than a man is wise only in his library. Or devout only in church. The material is not the sign of the creative feeling for life: of the warmth and sympathy and reverence which foster being; techniques are not the sign; “art” is not the sign. The sign is the light that dwells within the act, whatever its nature or its medium.

Half a century later, artist and MacArthur fellow Teresita Fernández would echo this sentiment in what remains one of the most insightful and inspiring commencement addresses ever given.

Solar System quilt by Ellen Harding Baker, 1876 — a labor of love seven years in the making, which she used to teach women astronomy in an era when they were barred from formal education. Available as a print.

In a splendid counterpart to John Muir’s insistence on the interconnectedness of the universe without, Richards draws on her potting metaphor of centering to consider the universe within:

As our personal universes expand, if we keep drawing ourselves into center again and again, everything seems to enhance everything else… The activity seems to spring out of the same source: poem or pot, loaf of bread, letter to a friend, a morning’s meditation, a walk in the woods, turning the compost pile, knitting a pair of shoes, weeping with pain, fainting with discouragement, burning with shame, trembling with indecision.

Two and a half millennia after Pythagoras weighed the meaning of wisdom, and in consonance with philosopher-of-forms Ann Hamilton’s lovely notion of creative work as “acts that amplify,” Richard places this creative integration at the heart of human wisdom:

Wisdom is a state of the total being, in which capacities for knowledge and for love, for survival and for death, for imagination, inspiration, intuition, for all the fabulous functioning of this human being who we are, come into a center with their forces, come into an experience of meaning that can voice itself as wise action.

Centering is a magnificent, inspiriting read in its entirety. Complement this small fragment with James Baldwin on what it means to be an artist, in an interview conducted while Richards was composing her book, and E.E. Cummings’s irreverently insightful take on the same slippery question from the same era, then revisit Kahlil Gibran on why we create and Franz Kafka on the point of making art.


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