FREEMAN DYSON, now retired, has spent most of his life as a professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, taking time off to advise the US government and write books for the general public. He was born in England and worked as a civilian scientist for the Royal Air Force during World War II. He came to Cornell University as a graduate student in 1947 and worked with Hans Bethe and Richard Feynman, producing a user-friendly way to calculate the behavior of atoms and radiation. He also worked on nuclear reactors, solid-state physics, ferromagnetism, astrophysics, and biology, looking for problems where elegant mathematics could be usefully applied.
Dyson’s books include Disturbing the Universe (1979), Weapons and Hope (1984), Infinite in All Directions (1988), Origins of Life (1986, second edition 1999), The Sun, the Genome and the Internet (1999), The Scientist as Rebel (2006, published by New York Review Books), A Many-Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe (2010), and Dreams of Earth and Sky (2015). He is a fellow of the American Physical Society, a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and a fellow of the Royal Society of London. In 2000 he was awarded the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.
CONVERSATIONS AT EDGE
I was talking about maps and feelings, and whether the brain is analog or digital. I’ll give you a little bit of what I wrote:
Brains use maps to process information. Information from the retina goes to several areas of the brain where the picture seen by the eye is converted into maps of various kinds. Information from sensory nerves in the skin goes to areas where the information is converted into maps of the body. The brain is full of maps. And a big part of the activity is transferring information from one map to another.
As we know from our own use of maps, mapping from one picture to another can be done either by digital or by analog processing. Because digital cameras are now cheap and film cameras are old fashioned and rapidly becoming obsolete, many people assume that the process of mapping in the brain must be digital. But the brain has been evolving over millions of years and does not follow our ephemeral fashions. A map is in its essence an analog device, using a picture to represent another picture. The imaging in the brain must be done by direct comparison of pictures rather than by translations of pictures into digital form.
FREEMAN DYSON, emeritus professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, has worked on nuclear reactors, solid-state physics, ferromagnetism, astrophysics, and biology, looking for problems where elegant mathematics could be usefully applied. His books include Disturbing the Universe, Weapons and Hope, Infinite in All Directions, and Maker of Patterns. Freeman Dyson’s Edge Bio Page