Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Maverick Genius

The Pioneering Odyssey of Freeman Dyson

Phillip F. Schewe

Thomas Dunne Books


1. Killing Time

Dyson Bombs Berlin

Increasingly his thoughts turned to death. Freeman Dyson was sure he would die young. The violence had been breaking out in stages—Spain, Czechoslovakia, and China. Now in 1939 Hitler's invasion of Poland made it official. Britain was at war.
Every day on the way to class he passed the monument to the young men of his school who had died in the Great War of 1914–1918. Presently it was his turn, and this time it would be worse. Technology had improved, had become more deadly. The aerial bombardment, experts said, would play a larger role.1 His Uncle Oliver, a doctor in charge of the ambulance brigade for London, expected 100,000 fatalities.2
As they approached manhood in the late 1930s, Dyson and his friends needed to rally around a principle. It was fashionable to proclaim Communist sympathies. But Dyson never liked being with the majority. He became a pacifist and despised the warmonger Winston Churchill the way many American teenagers would later despise Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon.3 Dyson refused to participate in the standby-officers training program. Training for what? Useless killing. Mahatma Gandhi was his hero. Only peaceful methods could save the world. But time was running out.
Till then Dyson was having a pretty good life. He had grown up in Winchester, an hour's train ride southwest of London. Filled with Roman walls, medieval churches, and blocks of Tudor dwellings, the town was a museum. History dwelt down most streets. When the Danes pressed in upon the Saxons in the ninth century, the capital of England transferred temporarily to Winchester. The Gothic cathedral there, the longest in Britain, contains the bones of several kings and of Jane Austen.
The Dyson household was upper-middle-class. His father, George Dyson, was a composer and conductor. His mother, Mildred Dyson, was a lawyer and ran a birth-control clinic. He ran music schools; she helped run a birth control clinic. They had two children, Alice and Freeman. Four servants smoothed difficulties: a cook, housekeeper, gardener, and nursemaid. A cottage on the southern coast near the Isle of Wight provided relief in warm weather. They made trips to Wales and France. The extended family was perfectly suited for a BBC or PBS docudrama: Aunt Dulcibella was one of the first women to pilot an aeroplane. Aunt Margaret was a nurse. Aunt Ruth won an Olympic silver medal in figure skating.4
Freeman's mother was forty-three at the time of his birth in 1923 and he came to view her more as a grandmother; his sister, Alice, seemed to be the mother. Mildred looked formidable but actually was kind. His father, though friendly, was a bit distant. For George Dyson, little Freeman was something to boast about: reading by the age of four and already doing mathematical puzzles. When the father was at a podium conducting an orchestra, the son could follow along in a musical score.
With piercing eyes and aquiline nose, Freeman looked like a little wizard, and so he was, always doing or saying something clever. At the age of seven he was observed reading one of his father's books, Arthur Eddington's Space, Time and Gravitation. The son, who himself would later have professional things to say on these subjects, was drawn to a diagram depicting space along the horizontal axis and time along the vertical. Two additional crossed diagonal lines depicted the trajectory of light shooting forward and backward. These lines served to divide the universe into four quadrants: the "absolute future," the "absolute past," and two other parts called merely "elsewhere." One day, as he was absorbing Eddington, the boy's nanny asked the youngster the whereabouts of his sister. "Somewhere in the absolute elsewhere," was his reply. Overhearing this, George sent a description of the encounter to Punch, the humor magazine, which later illustrated the affair in the form of a cartoon.5 The lad was already famous. When shown the cartoon, he didn't think it was funny.
At the age of eight Freeman was sent a few miles south to board at a school called Twyford. It was a common practice for children of his class to be farmed out like this, but he bitterly resented it. These were the worst years of his life, he later said.6 The headmaster was brutal, and the older boys loved to torture the younger ones. To make matters worse, because of academic overachievement Freeman had been advanced into classes with boys who were much older and bigger. His classmates were severe. The punishment for being smart was sandpaper scraped across skin. His refuge was the school library, where he encountered the adventure stories of Jules Verne and the novels of H. G. Wells.7 Besides serving as a retreat from the unpleasantness outside, these tales helped Freeman visualize the regions of outer space hinted at in Eddington's diagrams. He began reading the encyclopedia, so his mental inventory extended to the mundane parts of the cosmos also.
Then came Winchester College, one of England's oldest boarding schools, what in the United States are called prep schools. Winchester School is sometimes deemed to be the best academic school in Britain (at least by those at Winchester itself). And since in the year of his entrance Freeman's test scores had been at the top of the list, you might argue that he was something like the best schoolboy in Britain. Twyford School, proud of its star student, declared a holiday.8 The distinction and burden of being the smartest guy in the room began here.
He spent the years from 1936 to 1941 at Winchester College. Since his father was head of the music staff, Freeman had really grown up there. He knew the hallways and grassy fields beyond. The central quadrangle and many of the buildings date to the fourteenth century when the institution was founded, and so it looks a lot like Harry Potter's fictional Hogwarts School. Freeman had earned a "Scholar" designation, which allowed him to eat in a special dining hall where cutlery was laid out—Hogwarts style—on plain wooden tables dating from the 1600s.
Freeman was helped along by an older boy, Frank Thompson. Frank relished poetry as much as he did. Frank loved medieval history, so Freeman did too. Frank studied Russian, so Freeman studied Russian.9 He also studied Latin, which was mandatory, and Greek. He dabbled in biology and considered a possible medical career. Because there was no course in physics, Freeman taught himself this subject using a textbook by Georg Joos. As a protest against compulsory Latin and soccer, he helped organize a science club.10
Where did Freeman obtain his lifelong love of literature? In his chemistry class. Like the Robin Williams character in the movie Dead Poets Society, Freeman's teacher, Eric James, oddly preferred to recite and passionately discuss poetry with the boys rather than stick to the accepted chemical curriculum.11 Thus, to Freeman's everlasting delight, Wells's and Verne's adventurism was supplemented with the works of William Blake and T. S. Eliot.
Winchester was particularly strong in mathematics under the direction of Clement Durell, and by the end of his stay Freeman was the regular prize winner. Best of the best. He spent his available prize money on math books, occupied his vacations solving math problems, and worshipped math heroes.
Over one Christmas break, at the age of fifteen, he contented himself each day from morning to night with forging through the difficult textbook on differential calculus by Henry Piaggio, solving all 700 problems supplied by the author. Another book catching his fancy happened to be in Russian, so he (by then taking private tutoring in that language) made his own translation. Instead of going outside and playing like other boys, he practiced Russian verbs in order to learn equations, and to make a little money doing translations.12 He piled on additional mathematical tutoring from Daniel Pedoe, a teacher at Southampton University who weekly came up to Winchester.13
For those that have it, an addiction to mathematics can be as difficult to overcome as an addiction to tobacco or alcohol. The logic of mathematics is different from most habits of mind. Few things in life are as pure and self-consistent. To many teenagers life appears messy and hopeless even without the onset of world war around the corner. The chesslike rigor of mathematics kept chaos at bay, at least temporarily.
Freeman's parents were worried. Mathematics was fine but there are other things in life. The world is a big place. His mother stressed the importance of friendship. Nothing in life is more important, she said, than sympathy for other people. He should keep that in mind.14 She much admired Goethe and commended Goethe's large outlook on life—he was artist, scientist, diplomat.15 She told him Goethe's story of Faust, the man who always had his nose in a book. Faust not only became bored with life but was cut off from all human companionship.
She needn't have worried. Freeman was shy but not a loner. Most boys liked him. His best friend was James Lighthill, who later became prominent in mathematics and aeronautics. They shared a love of advanced mathematics and together worked through the pages of a famous textbook, Cours d'Analyse, by Camille Jordan. They were less enthusiastic about a rival comprehensive classic, the Principia Mathematica, by Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell, which they felt to be pedantic.16 Freeman went so far as to write notes into the margin commenting upon or even "correcting" the text here and there. These juvenile scratchings were still there when, seventy years later, Dyson was handed the book off the shelf during a tour of Winchester College.17
A tradition at Winchester was the keeping of a logbook, "Chamber Annals," in which boys could write comments about other boys. In these pages are enshrined some of the earliest documentary evidence of Dyson's personality, and it is evident that much of what we see later in the man is present already in the boy. For example, Dyson (then aged fourteen) was said to be a musical genius. He despised authority. Even allowing for sarcasm, the comments about Dyson (aged fifteen) were respectful: "He has never been known to fail at anything." "His life is monotonously regulated." Dyson (aged sixteen) "works standing, sometimes for hours, deep in thought." "He will argue most opinionatedly, but without losing his temper." "He is a vigorous controversialist with a gift for opposing for the sake of opposing."18
Dyson played the violin in some school performances. He became prefect of libraries. He was scrawny of build but fast of foot. At one track meet in 1938 he won at several distances and took the steeplechase events. In 1941 he acted in Elmer Rice's play Judgment Day. In 1941 he also won an award for a scientific essay. His writing talent began to emerge here alongside his mathematical ability. In English literature he came in third in 1940 and second in 1941.19
The Second World War began in 1939, and Dyson's anxiety intensified. What good were mathematics and all the other acquirements if you were going to die? Young Dyson went on passing through the school's war memorial, with its 500 names of Winchester boys lost in the First World War.20 The graduates of 1914, 1915, and 1916—eighty boys each year—had largely perished in the mud in France or Flanders or at Gallipoli.
Dyson was haunted by the case of the mathematician Evariste Galois (1811–1832). Galois founded group theory and proved that you cannot trisect an angle or square a circle with a compass and ruler alone. He did all this before he died in a duel at the age of twenty. The night before the duel, as if sensing his coming annihilation, Galois crammed a notebook with mathematical insights. The young Dyson, imagining his own early death in the war, saw himself as a new Galois. Would he, Dyson, make a name for himself? Would there be time?
Grappling with the conundrum of human relations—why nations went to war, why the strong tyrannized the weak, why the rich had so much more than the poor—the teenage Dyson suddenly saw the solution. As he approached a notice board to see whether he'd been chosen for a sporting team (he had not) it came to him as a jolt of recognition. He perceived a fundamental kinship among people. We were all related. Indeed we were all one person. When we hurt our neighbor we are hurting ourselves. To inflict violence on others is really to injure oneself. The young man thought about his scheme day after day. He gave it a name: Cosmic Unity. The fundamental truth of his proposition seemed to offer a basis for ethics and much else. It could, to say the least, address the problems blazing forth in Europe and Asia.
He tried to convert his friends to the cause, but his "moral earnestness" was off-putting, a reality many prophets must grapple with.21 His mother, at least, was sympathetic to his vision, but mostly Dyson remained a party of one. "I always feel uneasy if I have to join a majority," he said later.22
But war came. Instead of Cosmic Unity there was widespread killing. Dyson's pacifism waned. He finally joined the officer's training program at Winchester College. He also clung to mathematics.
In September 1941, a few months shy of eighteen and still not required for military duty, Dyson went up to the University of Cambridge, a powerhouse in mathematics. He quickly reestablished himself there as an academic all-star. It was almost too easy: "After two years in Durell's mathematics class [at Winchester] I found the life of a student at Cambridge University quite relaxing."23
At Trinity College Cambridge under wartime conditions his studies were to be compressed into two years. Classroom activity was held to a minimum, which is the way Dyson liked it. He tended to learn best on his own or in the company of one or two friends. With most of the faculty and graduate students off to fight in the war, only the oldest professors remained.
The most notable of these was G. H. Hardy, who is famous for two things. The first is his collaborative series of papers written with two of the other great mathematicians of the twentieth century, John Littlewood and Srinivasa Ramanujan. The second is his expressed dislike for any kind of applied mathematics. In his book A Mathematician's Apology, Hardy grumbled about the very fact that he was writing a book rather than practicing his craft. He regarded pure mathematics as something joyful. It was closer to being art than science. "The mathematician's patterns," he said, "like the painter's or the poet's must be beautiful; the ideas, like the colours or the words, must fit together in a harmonious way. Beauty is the first test; there is no permanent place in the world for ugly mathematics."24
Hardy, hoping to exemplify pure mathematics, boasted that none of his research had ever been useful. None of his work would contribute to the benefit of the world and certainly not to the cause of warfare. Some would consider this attitude admirable. Others might view it as an expensive or even arrogant form of self-indulgence in a time of war. German armies were filling Europe, and the Japanese navy was fanning out across the West Pacific.
Dyson, while not so dogmatic himself about the glories of mathematics, was in love with the subject and had, since he was a young boy, read Hardy's books with enjoyment. Now at Cambridge Dyson took mathematics classes appropriate for a graduate student and had a chance to sit near Hardy several times a week.
Cambridge was depressing. Dyson had few friends and was afraid of girls. He continued to worry about war. It was evident that his mathematical studies would soon end and he would be thrust into the fighting. He kept feeling that the Cambridge class of 1943 would follow the young men of the class of 1915 into an early grave. There would be no mathematics career, only a long residence in the Absolute Elsewhere. Perhaps he should do what so many other young men he knew were doing: enlist straightaway. This was the proposition that lay before him every day.
One of Dyson's few pleasures was "night climbing," making nocturnal scurries across the towers, roofs, and upright walls of Cambridge buildings. He had done some building climbs during his Winchester years, but here at Cambridge the tradition of ascending drainpipes and spires to the highest places in town was practically a club sport. It was like rock climbing but in the middle of a town. Why couldn't you think of an enclosed quadrangle of medieval buildings, including dining hall, chapel, lecture rooms, and living quarters, as a miniature mountain range? The rock had been quarried, cut into slate tiles, and lapped down the roof of an apse. Was this not a minor Matterhorn? A guidebook written by some former undergraduates offered advice on how to avoid injury and detection, along with assessments of the more challenging climbs. The spire at King's College, for example, was considered to be practically impossible.
Night climbing was illegal, which only increased its allure. Even if you made an inadvertent noise up above you wouldn't attract attention, since after dark it was difficult for pedestrians at street level to see you at rooftop. High up you were anonymous. There, among Gothic gargoyles and arches you could, at least for an hour, take refuge in the Middle Ages, far from the present agony. Dyson loved the evocative sound of chimes at midnight.
The long roll of Dyson's published papers begins with some mathematical efforts sent in 1943 to the university magazine, Eureka, and the Journal of the London Mathematical Society. Much of his work centered on number theory, which is to numbers what sociology is to people.
Dyson did not speak much to Professor Hardy but he did have thoughtful conversations with the mathematician Abram Besicovitch. Dyson and he took extended walks together. Speaking only in Russian, they would discuss poetry as well as mathematics. They played billiards.25 Dyson learned from Besicovitch how to write technical papers, how to build a formal argument in such a way that the conclusion would follow clearly from the foregoing groundwork.26 He also developed a love of Russian literature and a desire to know more about Russian culture.
Dyson attended some lectures by Paul Dirac, one of the founders of quantum mechanics. Dirac was famous for using few words. In class he didn't so much teach as recite, from his own textbook. Dyson found both book and man to be incomprehensible. Dirac did, however, carefully frame replies to Dyson's frequent questions. On one occasion the answer required so much reflection that Dirac was obliged to stop the lecture in order to consider the matter more seriously.27
Under ordinary circumstances Dyson would have gone on to obtain an advanced degree and take an academic post. But the war had not gone away. No amount of diplomacy, much less pacifist sentiment, had kept Adolf Hitler at bay. France was defeated and Britain was under dire threat. It was 1943 and Freeman Dyson, now nineteen years old, had to do his bit. He had to go off to war.
Enlistment as a uniformed serviceman was the only option for most men. But one of Hardy's friends was able to offer Dyson another route. C. P. Snow, the physicist and novelist, who would a dozen years later write a testy essay—published as a bestselling book, The Two Cultures—about the intellectual divide between the scientific and literary cultures in Britain, was searching for bright young men to do war work of a technical nature.
Dyson was just the sort of chap Snow wanted. So off Dyson went into the war, but not to the places like Malta or Singapore where people were actually dying. Snow's fellows were mostly sent off to do radar work at Maldon, code breaking at Bletchley, or bombing logistics at High Wycombe.28 Instead of firing a gun Dyson would be practicing his well-cultivated training in logic. He would be performing exactly the kind of applied mathematics Hardy loathed. The work would be purposeful and poignant, involving as it did the saving and taking of lives.
Dyson's last days in Cambridge were pleasant. His best college friend, Oscar Hahn, was confined to a wheelchair owing to polio. Dyson was a guest at Hahn's home, where he was exposed to Jewish customs for the first time, including a Passover Seder.29 The young men decided to leave Cambridge in style, by walking. Having worked up to the feat, hiking ten miles each day before breakfast, on the final day the two friends departed Cambridge at 3 a.m., Dyson pushing Hahn. Covering fifty miles they reached London at 11 p.m. Part of the fun for Dyson was to refrain from telling his parents quite what he'd done. They thought he'd taken the train.30
As a prelude to seeing Freeman Dyson in action during the war, we will observe a different Dyson and a different Freeman fighting the previous war, the Great War of 1914–1918.
George Dyson and Freeman Atkey were good friends. Both taught at the Marlborough School, George in music and Freeman in classics. When the war came in 1914 both men went into the army. Freeman became a fine officer and seems to have thrived on army life. He regularly wrote his sister Mildred, known as Muff.31 So near the presence of death, Freeman never felt so much alive.
Meanwhile, young George, the musician, found himself inadvertently in charge of training men in the making and using of grenades. Good thing he was the son of a blacksmith. To help the men learn the skill he wrote a list of guidelines. This tract was exactly the thing required. It was so successful that the army turned it into the official manual for grenades. The text was sent to America, where (in book form) it became a minor bestseller, earning its author a fair bounty.
In due course both George Dyson and Freeman Atkey found themselves in the front lines. Both had become captains. Both the musician and the classicist had become well versed in bombardment. Both wrote letters home. One letter from Freeman to his father was practically merry: "We are sleeping entirely in the open, last in a field, the night before in a wood, as it has been lovely weather it has been very jolly and we have done our marching at night when it is cool."32 Two weeks later a telegram arrived announcing the death of Freeman Atkey. He'd been shot by a sniper.
George Dyson was luckier. One fine day the horse he was riding got blown out from under him by an exploding shell. He himself was not harmed, except to suffer thereafter from the mental condition that came to be called shell shock. Out of the war and back in Britain he met up with Muff and they consoled each other.
On November 17, 1917, George Dyson (1883–1964), son of John William Dyson (1859–1923) and Alice Greenwood (1854–1943), married Mildred Lucy Atkey (1880–1975), daughter of Frederick Walter Atkey (1844–1922) and Ellen Louise Haynes (1852–1908). Along came a daughter, Alice. Three years later, on December 15, 1923, their son, Freeman John Dyson, was born, the name Freeman coming from his deceased uncle and the name John coming from his father's father. His place of birth was the town of Crowthorne in the county of Berkshire, thirty miles southwest of London.
Almost twenty years later Freeman John Dyson found himself also in the bombardment business, and he too wrote home frequently. He was fighting in, but not exactly at, a war front. There had been several war fronts so far: the front against the Germans in Western Europe, which collapsed with the fall of France and the evacuation of British forces from Dunkirk in 1940. There was the Battle of Britain, named for the defensive air war over Britain, where RAF fighters grappled with German bombers and stalled a possible invasion. The Battle of the Atlantic consisted of the duel between Allied convoys bringing supplies to Britain and the aggressive German submarine force deployed across the ocean. Largest of all was the Eastern Front, featuring epic infantry and tank battles between colossal German and Russian armies.
Finally there was the Allied strategic bombing front against the Fascist enemy. The generals of this aerial combat viewed the campaign as more than an adjunct to the fighting on land and at sea. They hoped actually to end the war outright through bombing. They figured a land invasion of Europe from the west might not be needed. They wanted to ensure that another Battle of the Somme—the engagement in 1916 that had cost more than a million British, German, and French lives—would not have to be fought. In the new combined air war the Americans bombed during the day, the British after dark.
So night bombing rather than night climbing would now be Freeman Dyson's concern. He was employed as a civilian not directly by the air force but rather by the Ministry of Aircraft Production. He worked at the Bomber Command headquarters in the town of High Wycombe, halfway between London and Oxford. He had a desk job in the Operations Research Section, which examined facts surrounding bombing missions and supposedly rendered independent recommendations to General Sir Arthur Harris.
Dyson's office was located in a heavily wooded area where the layout of buildings presented no apparent target for German planes. This might have been what kept the bombs from falling his way; on the other hand, it was dark all the time. He lived in an underheated house in the town of Hughenden and went to work pedaling a bike five miles uphill. On the way up he was often passed by Sir Arthur's limousine.33 At the end of the day Dyson coasted back downhill, often thinking about mathematics.
Should he instead enlist and go up in the planes? He'd think more about this and decide again that it was better if he stayed on the ground. That's what his mother had said, and he was inclined to agree. Surely his intelligence and training were making a greater contribution to the war than if he were aloft as a crewman. Even if he wasn't using rigorous higher-level mathematics, his remarkable problem-solving ability would serve the air force well. That's also how it was explained to him by his superiors, and it was easy to concur. Still, staying back left very little for him to say to the other nineteen- or twenty-year-old men, men he saw every day at the airbase, young men who were going up on the night flights over Berlin.34 Many failed to return.
The main activity at Wycombe was the going and coming of bombers. Dyson could easily imagine them flying over their targets. The journey, 600 miles out to Germany and 600 miles back, was filled with peril, chiefly the German antiaircraft batteries firing from below and the Messerschmitts firing from above. Dyson's job did not require him actually to fly in the Lancaster bombers, but it did require him to visualize the experience. To be effective, he had to do some mental night climbing. He had to picture the odyssey into the hostile German airspace and back out. Only then could he effectively quantify risks, weigh alternative crew procedures or aircraft design, and recommend action. He was good at these things.
One of his early assignments was to evaluate MONICA, a radar system for collision avoidance among the bombers flying in formation. Unfortunately, MONICA's warning system, consisting of a squeal coming over the intercom when planes approached each other too closely, had a habit of going off at the wrong time. Crews often disabled the system. Dyson's elaborate mathematical treatment of MONICA—looking at the way it was used by a variety of aircraft for a variety of bombing missions—was an early version of meta-analysis, the process by which epidemiologists ponder the efficacy of drugs by running a variety of clinical trials.35
Indeed, this was applied mathematics of the highest order. Dyson's numerical figurings, instead of merely sitting on a page, now related to events unfolding in the sky at speeds of 300 miles per hour and involving hundreds of lives. For example, after tallying the statistical reports, he decided that the collision rate among bombers should be higher than it was. In raids over Germany the Royal Air Force was losing only about one bomber per thousand sorties because of wing-to-wing bang-ups. Dyson thought the number of collisions should be more like five.
Why would more collisions be better than fewer collisions? Where is the logic in that? Well, plane losses from midair collisions stood at one-tenth of a percent per mission, whereas losses from attacking German fighter planes stood at 4 percent. The solution? Convoy the bombers more closely, allowing the bombers' return fire to be more concentrated, thus making defense against the fighters more effective. This bit of provocative advice from a junior analyst, surprisingly, was accepted by Bomber Command. The result? Collisions went up, but losses from fighters went down even more. The crews who had to fly those planes didn't like the anxiety of the close-in flying, but they went along anyway.
Some findings could be sensible but impractical. That is, a particular modification in procedure might save lives and yet be bad for morale. Example: Dyson and his operations colleagues determined that the chances of a bomber surviving would improve by reducing the number of guns used to fend off German fighters. Improving aerodynamics and reducing weight resulted in higher speed and maneuverability, more than compensating for the loss of guns. Unlike the proposals addressing bomber bunching, however, this expedient of trading armament for speed was not tried, since middle-level officials felt that the commander-in-chief, or the crewmen themselves, could hardly be expected to accept a plan, even one that might save lives, that removed the chance, however ineffectual, of shooting back at the enemy.
Young as he was, Dyson knew more than most cabinet officials and even many operations officers about the general course of the air campaign.36 One of the things he knew and others did not was that as the war continued the loss rate for British crewmen was increasing (until very late in the war). Contrary to what the fliers were told, length of experience was not a major factor in enhancing survivability. The reason for this was an innovation called Schrage Musik, or "Crooked Music." The Germans had mounted upward-firing guns on some of their fighter planes, allowing them to fly underneath the British bombers without themselves being seen. Crooked Music, Dyson believed, was the German weapon that kept British bomber losses high. He argued later that if the head of operations research, a man named Basil Dickens, had advocated the alternatives (such as removing some gun turrets from Lancasters) pushed by Dyson and his colleagues, thousands of crewmen's lives would have been saved.37 But Dickens, and many like him, tended to tell commanding generals only what they wanted to hear.38
The survival rate for airmen was bad enough for a standard thirty-mission tour. But many pilots signed up for a second tour anyway. The resulting death rate for crewmen was about 40 percent, one of the highest for any major fighting force. Young servicemen think about numbers like this, even if the numbers aren't officially public. Without being told, they knew the odds.
Dyson better than anyone knew the odds. Should he put himself in harm's way by joining up? The question kept presenting itself. How could he go on looking these boys in the eye, boys his own age, who journeyed off after dark toward Berlin? Should he put on a uniform and ride with them? He did not. He would eventually own up to himself that he had been a coward.39
Actually, Dyson had been up in planes. He had been flown around, at various hours and various altitudes, to measure the brightness of the night sky. His plane was unheated and unpressurized, but he realized that he could breathe unassisted even at altitudes of 20,000 feet.40 But these were not combat missions. No German bullets were directed at him. Dyson was no Frank Thompson. Dyson had not volunteered, as Thompson had, for work behind enemy lines. Thompson was eventually caught and executed. Dyson's close Cambridge friend, Peter Sankey, also perished in the war.
Were things better because of Dyson's work? Had he saved any lives? Many of his calculations and recommendations had been ignored. With grim precision Dyson reviewed his own slide down a moral slope. First he had been a pacifist. When war came to Britain he joined the military without necessarily condoning the bombing. Then, when it was explained to him that this was total war and that Hitler had been the first to attack London, Dyson acquiesced to the bombing of German cities. He had become part of the killing machine. In effect, Dyson's exercise in applied mathematics had helped to kill women and children. The bombs falling on Berlin were partly his bombs. The specter of G. H. Hardy—who feared that mathematics could be used to kill people—haunted Dyson.
G. H. Hardy believed that the discoveries made by mathematicians actually constitute a reality separate from human minds, a sort of absolute reality. For example, when Pythagoras asserted, in the sixth century B.C.E., that the sum of the squares of the sides of a right-angled triangle equals the square of the third side, this was equivalent to finding a new chemical element or locating a new planet. No wonder Hardy loved mathematics so passionately. Whatever else society did to itself, it was comforting to know that the logic and integrity of mathematics was impervious to doubt or corruption.
Even if you accept this idea, it's not so easy to extend it to the rest of human experience. It can sometimes be difficult to tell right from wrong, especially during wartime. In established cultures it's wrong to take the life of another. During war, however, we encourage killing, at least certain kinds of killing. Moreover, in most circumstances we are careful with our bodies and discourage risky behavior. During war, however, this is turned upside down. Schoolboy things like steeplechase and Latin orations and differential equations are put aside and replaced by guns and tents. Military maneuvers are plotted by high-ranking authorities but carried out by ordinary folks.
Consider the July 1943 raid over Hamburg, code-named Operation Gomorrah, in which, in addition to the direct destructive effect of the bombs themselves, a firestorm was unleashed, a burning tornado. The devastation has been referred to as Germany's Hiroshima. Here is Dyson's succinct description, written many years after the event: "On the night of July 24 we killed forty thousand people and lost only twelve bombers, by far the best we had ever done." Killing forty thousand, many by asphyxiation, was the "best" we had done. Naturally, he was ambivalent about this. By not actually flying in the planes, by not taking the bombs to Germany, by not sharing the risk, Dyson was afraid he'd not done enough. But in his appointed job at Operations Research, in the act of helping kill all those civilians, he felt perhaps he'd done too much.41
Years later, Dyson would repeatedly return, in essays, to examine his wartime exploits and the organization for which he worked. It formed a baseline encounter with technology and the motivation behind it, its costs, its efficiency, and its consequences. Why, Dyson wanted to know, did it take three tons of bombs for the British to kill one German, whereas it took the Germans only one ton to kill a Briton? 42 The goals of strategic bombing were largely not met, Dyson argued. The threat of ruination from the air was supposed to deter Germany from starting a war in the first place. But the Germans were not deterred. Once war began, the goals of strategic bombing became more acute: sap German morale, curtail German war production, and (grandest of all aspirations) win the war. Indeed Bomber Command's motto was "Victory Through Air Power."
But German war production was not curtailed substantially; manufacturing often resumed in bombed factories within days. German morale did not fail, at least not until late in the war. Strategic bombing did not by itself win the war; it did not spare the Allies from having to thrust a million soldiers into France. Dyson estimates that strategic bombing consumed one-fourth of Britain's war budget. The cost of the British offense was far higher (in money and in crew—47,000 killed) than the corresponding cost of the German defense. Germany may have run out of oil but it never ran out of weapons. Spend less on dropping bombs into German cities and spend more for the navy to pursue German submarines, he suggested, and the war might have been shortened considerably, with a great saving of lives.43 Poor aiming or not, lots of people died because of British bombs. The number over five years of bombing Germans was 400,000, many women and children.
Dyson had learned mathematics from the best teachers at Winchester and Cambridge. Bomber Command was to be his school for morals. His job had been to make bombing more lethal and efficient. This was the applied mathematics that Hardy abhorred. After the war he read about the trials at Nuremberg, where officials who had helped to make the German war machine more efficient and lethal were being judged. Dyson wryly compares his situation with theirs:
The main difference was that they were sent to jail or hanged as war criminals, while I went free. I felt a certain sympathy for these men. Probably many of them loathed the SS as much as I loathed Bomber Command, but they, too, had not had the courage to speak out. Probably many of them, like me, lived through the whole six years of war without ever seeing a dead human being.44
Killing 40,000 was the "best" they had ever done? And that was one raid. Dyson again: "In war, there are few real criminals, just a lot of ordinary people who do disgusting things because they're told to."45
Kurt Vonnegut wrote Slaughterhouse-Five, a novel about the Allied bombing of Dresden. That book, Dyson thought, was so artful and truthful that another book no longer needed to be written. Dyson did, however, create a kind of internal horror story. He began to have a nightmare—repeated at various times over many years—in which he was a bystander to a plane crash. In the dream he was prevented by a paralyzing fear from going to the aid of those inside the burning airplane.
The Allies defeated the Germans without Freeman Dyson flying in a Lancaster. He did not enlist. Mathematics had gotten him through school and now it had gotten him through war. He'd been an analyst instead of a tail gunner. Freed from its commitments against Berlin, Bomber Command steered its aim toward obliterating the remaining Axis power in Tokyo. The British were to be part of an intensified air war in Asia, in preparation for what looked like an invasion of the Japanese home islands. The Royal Air Force, and Dyson along with it, prepared to go to Okinawa. His assignment would continue on the other side of the world.
In the First World War the chemists' most notorious contribution had been poison gas. In the Second World War the end-all technology was supplied by physicists. Things ended in a hurry because of two bombs dropped a few days apart, bombs of stupendous explosive power.
Freeman Dyson did not go to Japan because his services weren't needed. His killing days were over.

Copyright © 2013 by Phillip F. Schewe