cover image Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters

Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters

Freeman Dyson. Liveright, $27.95 (416p) ISBN 978-0-87140-386-5

“I had the good fortune to live through extraordinary times with an extraordinary collection of friends,” writes Dyson (Dreams of Earth and Sky), a mathematician and physicist. In an effective dual narrative, he shares his life through letters spanning 1941 to 1978 as well as present-day reflections. Earnest and delightfully casual, the book is concerned more with the man than his science, as “family came first, friends second, and work third.” Dyson’s scientific work surfaces anecdotally, from his light bulb moment during a Greyhound bus trip on how to combine the rival radiation theories of Schwinger and Feynman to working at the General Atomic Laboratory on a bomb-propelled spaceship capable of going to Mars. The letters abound in informed references to notable figures, such as a description of J. Robert Oppenheimer spending his spare time “reading St. Thomas Aquinas in Latin and writing poetry in the style of Eliot.” Candor and closeness are built into the narrative, as his letters address immediate family members on personal topics such as two rather unconventional marriages, child-rearing, and public service during the Kennedy administration. Covering a dizzying array of events, this long volume intimately chronicles both the sweet and bitter parts of “the daily life of an ordinary scientist doing ordinary work.” (Mar.)