Infinity and Beyond

Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study was a recent guest in a Baccalaureate Honors Program seminar, entitled The Universe and the Origin of Life.
Thursday, November 17, 2011

Students in BHP-215 Honors Seminar: The Universe and the Origin of Life welcomed Freeman Dyson, professor emeritus of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, to class on November 10 on the Westminster Choir College campus.

Dyson, a professor emeritus of Mathematical Physics and Astrophysics at the Institute’s School of Natural Sciences, was invited by Dr. Jonathan Yavelow, professor of Biology, who teaches the interdisciplinary course with Dr. Bryan Spiegelberg, assistant professor of Chemistry, to speak with the class.

The interdisciplinary course, offered to students in Rider’s Baccalaureate Honors Program, examines some far-reaching implications of present investigations into the numerous uncertainties surrounding human existence. The course explores current theories concerning the evolution of life, spanning biological, geological and cosmic time scales.

The students, with majors as varied as Voice Performance to Accounting, introduced themselves to Dyson, who remarked, “It’s marvelous to be surrounded by musicians. I grew up among musicians. It takes me back to my childhood.” Dyson’s father, George, was an English composer.

Then students had a chance to ask the theoretical physicist and mathematician, who received an honorary degree from Rider in 1989, questions. Topics included the expansion of the universe, the connection between science and humanities, the origin of life and the space program.

One student cited the research, conducted by three Americans who recently received a Nobel Prize in Physics, which revealed that the expansion of the universe is speeding up. She asked, “If our universe is constantly expanding, what is it expanding into?”

“The simple answer is we don’t know. That’s the beauty of science. When you finally have a result, it’s a gift of God,” said Dyson, who later added that these unexplainable mysteries give ideas for future research to pursue.

Dr. Arlene Wilner, director of BHP and professor of English, asked Dyson to discuss the connection between science and humanities. Dyson recommended Richard Holmes’ book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. The book examines the discoveries and inventions of the late 18th century, how age of exploration extended to scientists, writers and poets; and how religious faith and scientific truth collided. Wilner said one example is how Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, was influenced by the scientific discoveries of scientists such as William Hershel, who discovered Uranus.

Margaret O’Neill, a junior Music Education major, asked Dyson if he thought researchers were any closer to understanding the origin of life and if there is a value of knowing what happened first. Dyson said that “we are 100 years away from understanding” the origin of life, and there is value in understanding what happened first.

“Science is all about connections. It’s the connections that become useful,” Dyson explained. For example, he said, understanding the origin of life might lead to finding a plant that cures diabetes.

“These big mysteries are the driving force of science,” he added. “Understanding the origin of life is a big part of understanding life.”

Dyson, who worked on the Orion Project, which proposed the possibility of space-flight propelled by nuclear explosions 50 years ago, commented on the current state of the space program. He said while the unmanned program “has gone along beautifully,” the manned program has not been so successful. Dyson said this is a result of the 10-year, $1 billion “international sports event” created by the Kennedy administration as NASA raced the Russians to space. He predicted that the United States will have another such competitive situation with China in the near future.

Finally, Yavelow asked Dyson if there’s connection between science and music. While Dyson sees no connection between the two, he thinks the disciplines share similarities.

“There’s beauty in science. There’s beauty in music. You have these marvelous tools and it’s amazing what you can do once you use them,” Dyson said.

For more information about the Baccalaureate Honors Program, please contact Dr. Arlene Wilner, director of BHP and professor of English, at wilner@rider.edu.

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Freeman Dyson (center) with students and faculty from the Baccalaureate Honors Program