A Reply From Freeman Dyson


Dyson LastWhen I was an undergrad at the University of Memphis the awe of physics and  mathematics held my interests firmly.   I would attend weekly seminars in physics that were furnished with nice refreshments.   Whether it would be a crisp cookie or a slice of pizza, hunger would cease and my listening turned to thoughts about mathematical applications in physics.

This is not readily intuitive when one sees abstract pure mathematics for the first time.  “How is this applied?” is the usual question.  After some time this inquiry may evaporate when one finds established applications in engineering, operations research, and the like.   However, in considering the applications of mathematics in physics there are few with as much insight as the theoretical and mathematical physicist Freeman Dyson.

A quick Google search will yield a glimpse of the enormity of Dyson’s accomplishments.  He was a friend of the Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman.  Consequently, Dyson showed the equivalence between Feynman Diagrams and quantum electrodynamics.   In essence, Dyson is one of the most brilliant minds in the history of theoretical and mathematical physics.  So I thought it would be neat to email him.  And I thought it was even neater when he replied.

In summary, I sent him an email explaining how one could follow a particular program by using Topology, Representation Theory, and Abstract Algebra to theoretically unify two of the four fundamental forces of nature, Gravity and Electromagnetism.  I called it a program and not a solution, because the actual implementation (if the program is a valid corridor of exploration) would have to come from a collaboration of specialists in those fields.

This was Dyson’s reply:

On Jan 17, 2013, at 3:43 PM, Freeman Dyson dyson@ias.edu

Dear Avery Carr,

I am sorry, I think your program is identical with the program that the great leaders of the past century, Einstein and Weyl and Eddington and others, followed in their unsuccessful attempts to unify gravity and electromagnetism.  All of them failed.  They failed because nature is cleverer than we are.  Nature always has special tricks that are not easy for abstract mathematicians to grasp.

I really appreciated that he took the time to answer my email.  His view definitely sparks one to think a little deeper about the problem.

In reading Dyson’s words “nature is cleverer than we are…not easy for abstract mathematicians to grasp”, what do they mean to you?

I think Dyson makes a strong point.  What do you think?

About Avery Carr

Avery Carr is a senior analyst and past senior editor for the American Mathematical Society Grad Blog. He and his wife, Alison, live in Olive Branch, MS.
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