On Meeting Your Heroes

Freeman Dyson died on Friday. He was a giant in science, possibly the most accomplished and foundational living physicist without a Nobel Prize. He was 96.

Tania/Contrasto, via Redux

He had a big influence on my turn to SETI. I’ve written about him several times on this blog, including about his “First Law of SETI Investigations”, his role in the development of adaptive optics, how that intersected with Project Orion and General Atomic, and of course his eponymous spheres that I’ve spent some time looking for.

I got to meet him twice. Once was when Franck Marchis invited him, Jill Tarter, Matt Povich, and me to talk about Dyson spheres on a Google Hangout for the SETI Institute:

The second time was a at UC San Diego. I was there to give a talk, and walking down the hallway of the astronomy part of the physics department I saw “F. Dyson” on one of the doors. I asked, and was surprised to learn that he spent his winters in San Diego where his grandchildren lived, and that he had an office in the department.

And he was there that day.

And he’d be at my talk.

About Dyson spheres.

Indeed, his face was on the second slide.

The talk went well and afterwords he invited me to lunch to discuss it. He asked if I was free. I looked at my schedule: of course I had a lunch appointment. “Yes, it looks like I’m free!” I said, then briefly excused myself to explain the change to my host.

Freeman Dyson and me after my talk at UCSD

Freeman Dyson and me after my talk at UCSD

I asked where we should go and he said “I like Burger King.” So he walked me to the student union where he got a hotdog, and we sat at a table for four, next to a slightly annoyed undergraduate looking at his phone.  We talked about Dyson spheres and SETI, I’m sure. I also could not resist and asked embarrassingly naïve questions about experimental tests of the vacuum energy and the like. “I don’t think that’s a promising line of research” he politely deflected.

I have a list of bands I’ll see if they come to town, and a shorter list of bands I’ll see if they come within driving distance. It’s not a list of my favorite bands, it’s a list of bands that might be on their last tour that I want to have seen at least once. I’ve seen Dylan (twice!), Springsteen (twice!), The Who (Quandrophenia in Philadelphia), Bob Seeger, Rod Stewart, Elton John, Metallica (twice!), the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, and more. Cher caught a cold and so they canceled the State College show (I really bought the tickets for Pat Benitar’s opening act, though).

I missed Prince. You never know.

I’ve twice missed talking to my heroes because they were old and I dallied. I invited Nikolai Kardashev to this summer’s SETI Symposium, but I got a decline from someone managing his email account, and then we learned last August that he had passed away at 87.

When I was organizing the letter writing campaign for a prize from the AAS for Frank Kameny, I got his contact information (the phone number at his house). I wanted to call him to tell him what we were doing, but I decided to wait until the prize was official so I could tell him the good news. On August 1, 2011 I learned the AAS was officially going to consider the prize. On October 12, Kameny passed away at 86. On October 15, the AAS announced the prize, which had to be posthumous.

I never called. I’m not sure Frank knew about the effort at all, that his old professional society was finally honoring him.

I’m glad I met Freeman. I’m sad I won’t get his feedback on the big review article on Dyson Spheres that I’ve written that will be published this summer. I probably should have sent it to him earlier.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *