Acclaimed physicist Freeman Dyson, who pondered the origins of life, interstellar travel and many other topics, died Friday at the age of 96.
His daughter Mia Dyson told NPR that her father died after a short illness.
Freeman Dyson was known for groundbreaking work in physics and mathematics but his curiosity ranged far beyond those fields.
"He never got a Ph.D.," says Robbert Dijkgraaf, director for the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., where Dyson worked. "He felt he was an eternal graduate student, and so he had a license to be interested in everything."
Dyson was born in Crowthorne, England, in 1923. He studied physics and mathematics at Trinity College in Cambridge, where he worked with physicists including Paul Dirac and Arthur Eddington. During World War II, he was a civilian scientist with the Royal Air Force's Bomber Command.The greatest generation is failing fast.
After the war, he came to the U.S. to study physics. Together with physicist Richard Feynman, he was able to reconcile two competing theories of quantum electrodynamics, the study of how sub-atomic particles and light interact. "He was able to show that all these different points of view were one and the same thing," Dijkgraaf says. "He was a great unifier of physics."
The work is still considered fundamental to modern physics. "The current model of elementary particle physics is written in the language that Dyson helped develop," he says.
Dyson permanently joined the Institute for Advanced Study in 1953. From his perch there, he pursued many other topics of interest. He helped to design an inherently safe nuclear reactor that could be operated "even in the hands of an idiot." In 1958, he joined Project Orion, a plan to power a spacecraft with controlled nuclear explosions.
The spaceship was never built, but Dyson later described it as "the most exciting and in many ways happiest of my scientific life." Dijkgraaf says Dyson was probably one of the few people on Earth that felt let down by the 1969 moon landings: "This all looked very disappointing in Freeman's eyes," he says. Dyson wanted to go to Saturn with nuclear-fueled rockets. "[He] was kind of envisioning jet planes, and in the end we took a bicycle."