In 1989 I moved to Princeton for the first time, crossing the wide ocean from Amsterdam. During our farewells at the airport, my father gave me a box filled with airmail stationery; my mother presented a fountain pen. I knew what to do. I still remember how, in my new apartment, I let the thin blue sheets slide through my fingers. The fountain pen had leaked during the flight. “I am writing my first letter on my newly purchased kitchen table!” I announced. “The house feels hollow, our stuff has not yet arrived. I miss my teapot.”
The recently published autobiography, “Maker of Patterns,” by the physicist Freeman Dyson, who has been a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study for 70 years, consists solely of the many letters he sent to his family over the years. He wrote the first one when he started studying at the age of seventeen at Cambridge University.
On October 19, 1941, Dyson writes about his new home at Trinity College: “I feel that I can begin doing things now because I want to and not because I have to.” He tells us that he has met the famous mathematician G. H. Hardy, who teaches him to look for patterns. “A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns,” Hardy says. “If his patterns are more permanent than theirs, it is because they are made with ideas.”
What Dyson does not mention is that at the time in England the war is raging in all its intensity. His parents have been bombed out of their London home. The only way to deal with the horrors, he writes in an explanation, is to ignore it completely. “We understood that the best way to show our contempt for Hitler was to continue making music and to continue studying Latin and Greek, as if Hitler did not exist.” So the war is hardly mentioned. “The way to defend England was to make sure there would be something in England worth defending.”
The letters are so special because Dyson has led a long and interesting life. He is now 94. As a Forrest Gump, he always seems to be in the right place at the right time. In his 20s, he quickly makes friends with all the great figures of physics: Einstein, Feynman, Oppenheimer, Bohr. But he is also in Moscow after the death of Stalin, in Washington for the famous speech of Martin Luther King in1963. He advises Stanley Kubrick on his film, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Letter by letter we walk through world history: the bombing of Germany, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb, the Cold War, Vietnam, space travel, disarmament negotiations, the structure of DNA and all major scientific discoveries, and in the foreground the smaller dramas of his personal life. Dyson is a living link to much of the history of twentieth century. What makes the letters arresting is that they are contemporary and spontaneous, written without the benefit of hindsight. They are not written at a pipe-smoking scholarly remove, when all the outcomes are clear, but in the confusions and chaos of the here and now, when it is difficult to distinguish important events from the hurly-burly of everyday life. That makes them valuable records of life as it was actually lived.
During the compilation of his book, Dyson received a message from his 12-year-old granddaughter, who said, “We are all metaphors in this dark and lonely world.” Dyson reflects that his granddaughter is now emerging into a world “strikingly similar to the world of 1936 into which I came as a twelve-year-old. Both of our worlds were struggling with gross economic inequality, stubbornly persistent poverty, brutal dictators on the rise, and small wars presaging worse horrors to come. I too was a metaphor for a new generation of young people without illusions. I escaped into the abstract world of mathematics.”
His words sound alarming, but they also give us hope. As long as there are people who see the beauty in electrons dancing around an atom, seek perfect patterns, and who can feel friendship and love and take the time at the moment to write it down with care.
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her memoir, “Saving Charlotte,” was published by W.W. Norton in 2017. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Richard K. Rein is on assignment.
Freeman Dyson’s “Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters” is available at Labyrinth Books on Nassau Street and on Amazon.com. List price: $27.95.