In Maker of Patterns, Freeman Dyson weaves a quilt sewn from the colorful memories of the early years of his life. The Princeton physicist emeritus stitches together the ups and downs, the lessons learned, and the professional and personal triumphs and failures of his early life in this collection of letters, written mostly to his family from 1941-1978. He interweaves his later reflections between the letters, commenting on various events or figures he’s described in the letters.
In most of the letters, Dyson describes his day-to-day life, but he also reflects on his love of languages, literature and history and his evolving work in physics as he moves from Trinity College in Cambridge, England, to Cornell and eventually to Princeton. Zelig-like, Dyson witnesses many of the most momentous events of the 20th century, from the end of World War II and the hydrogen bomb to the civil rights movement and the Apollo moon landing. The most interesting aspects of his letters are his observations about figures such as Robert Oppenheimer—“unreceptive to new ideas in general”—theologian and social ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr—who had a “reputation for being gloomy”—and physicist Edward Teller—“he seems to do physics for fun rather than for glory”—among others. Dyson also chronicles his two marriages, admitting that he thinks he’s a better father than a husband, as well as his growing work in atomic physics as he tries to apply his theories to nuclear problems. His final reflection looks to the future, and he warns that pure science is best “driven by intellectual curiosity, but applied science needs also to be driven by ethics.” Dyson is hopeful that his granddaughter and her generation will have a chance to make this happen.
Maker of Patterns reveals a glimpse into the keenly curious mind and the passionate life of one of our greatest scientists and public figures.