Theoretical physicist, mathematician and writer Freeman Dyson, who explored the subatomic workings of the universe and the prospect of colonizing space, died Friday in New Jersey, his family confirmed. He was 96.
Over his extensive career, Dyson applied elegant mathematics to aspects of nuclear engineering, biology, astrophysics and solid state physics — the study of solid matter.
Dyson advanced the theory of quantum electrodynamics in a landmark paper that built upon the work of his contemporary and Manhattan Project scientist, Richard Feynman. Quantum electrodynamics, which describes how light and matter interact, is considered a milestone of modern science.
In popular culture, Dyson is most famous for his thought experiments on space travel and future civilizations. The Dyson Sphere, the concept of building a megastructure around a star to harness its energy, is one of his best-known ideas, hailed by other futurists and speculative fiction writers.
Despite wide acclaim for many of his contributions, members of the science community have criticized his views on climate change.
Dyson believed that humans are causing global warming but has said increased carbon dioxide could be beneficial for the environment. He was a member of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a climate skeptic think tank.
Dyson was born in 1923 at Crowthorne in Berkshire, England. He received his bachelor’s degree in mathematics at Trinity College in 1945 after taking time to help the Royal Air Force develop calculations for bomber formations during World War II.<
He became a professor at Cornell University, despite never receiving a Ph.D. In 1953, he joined the faculty at Princeton University, where he worked until his retirement.
Dyson wrote numerous books on a wide range of subjects, from the origin of life on Earth to the development of space colonies.
In his 1984 book “Weapons and Hope,” Dyson explored the dangers of atomic weapons — and humanity.
“I am convinced that to avoid nuclear war it is not sufficient to be afraid of it,” Dyson wrote. “It is necessary to be afraid, but it is equally necessary to understand. And the first step in understanding is to recognize that the problem of nuclear war is basically not technical but human and historical.”
Dyson is survived by his second wife, Imme Jung, and six children, including his daughter, Mia, and his oldest son, George, a historian of science who has written about his father’s career.