An excellent conversation with the mathematical physicist Freeman Dyson from Quanta Magazine, touching on everything from quantum electrodynamics to why getting kids into science might change the world.
Dyson is often contrarian, but always sharp and intelligent. From founding quantum electrodynamics alongside one of my heroes, Richard Feynman, to such science future fictions as the Dyson sphere, he has a particular way of approaching the known and unknown world that we’d all be well-served to consider.
On the value of math:
I was trained as a mathematician, and I remain a mathematician. That’s really my skill, just doing calculations and applying mathematics to all kinds of problems, and that led me into physics first and also other fields, such as engineering and even a bit of biology, sometimes a little bit of chemistry. Mathematics applies to all kinds of things. That’s one of the joys of being a mathematician.
I love that. No matter your field, you’ll do well to remember that you’re a problem-solver first and an applier-of-specific-skills second.
On the value (or not?) of the Ph.D.:
I’m very proud of not having a Ph.D. I think the Ph.D. system is an abomination. It was invented as a system for educating German professors in the 19th century, and it works well under those conditions. It’s good for a very small number of people who are going to spend their lives being professors. But it has become now a kind of union card that you have to have in order to have a job, whether it’s being a professor or other things, and it’s quite inappropriate for that. It forces people to waste years and years of their lives sort of pretending to do research for which they’re not at all well-suited. In the end, they have this piece of paper which says they’re qualified, but it really doesn’t mean anything. The Ph.D. takes far too long and discourages women from becoming scientists, which I consider a great tragedy.
I think he’s spot-on about many of the Ph.D.’s failings, but I think he simplifies the value of the “title” here, rather than the work one does to get the Ph.D. Therein lies the value, or lack thereof. The Ph.D. process (quite effectively) teaches a manner of thought and problem-solving that is tough (but not impossible) to replicate elsewhere. But a Ph.D. is most certainly not the only way (or even the best way?) to become a scientist, at least with respect to a scientist being not a vocation but being “someone with a generally scientific mindset”.
Finally, on why we need to get every child interested in science:
We should try to introduce our children to science today as a rebellion against poverty and ugliness and militarism and economic injustice.