Freeman Dyson lets out a wry, snorting chuckle as he recalls his
work on the Orion Project in the late 1950s. "It was in a way
absurd, but I was quite happy developing this project," says the
physicist and author, whose career helped shape many landmarks -
minor and major - of the nuclear age.
That career often climbed into the stratosphere of mathematics
and physics. Mr. Dyson's colleagues included such nuclear pioneers
as J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, Hans Bethe, and others.
His interests, exhibited in his books on science and society, have
frequently stretched beyond physics to astronomy and biology. His
honors include this year's Enrico Fermi Award, given by the United
States government for lifetime achievement in science.
The Orion Project, which proposed the use of controlled nuclear
explosions to propel vehicles through space, in the end lost its
federal funding and failed. At the time, Dyson says, the project
made good technical sense. Chuckling again, he notes that the
bullet-shaped Orion spacecraft would have used up 1,000 nuclear
bombs per trip, and so might have been a great way for the US to
Disarmament is a recurrent theme in a course called "The
Nuclear Age" that Dyson teaches as a visiting fellow at Dartmouth
College, along with history professor Martin Sherwin. It's a theme
he knows by heart, having followed the issue for decades as a
scientist, an interested citizen, and, for a stint during the
1960s, as a staff member of the US Arms Control and Disarmament
For the moment, teaching is his work, the slight but dynamic
physicist says after the class adjourns. He recently retired after
40 years at Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Studies
and may soon devote himself again to writing. A string of books,
starting with "Disturbing the Universe" (1979), have become
classics of science writing for the general reader.
Returning to the disarmament theme, Dyson says efforts over the
past couple of years to reduce nuclear weaponry have heartened him.
"Considering what a vast apparatus it is, it's remarkable the
process has gone as quickly as it has," he says. He describes a
tour he took a few years ago of US nuclear-weapons installations as
"absolutely hair-raising." But the "quick alert" forces in use
then have receded as a result of post-cold-war arms agreements.
Dyson believes the most dangerous pieces of the the nuclear
arsenal were ship-based cruise missiles, which could have been
launched at the discretion of a vessel's captain. Those, too, are
Still, he estimates it will take at least 10 years to get rid of
even half of the weaponry stockpiled on both sides of the old Iron
Curtain. Meanwhile, he hopes politicians will not derail the
process. He worries that Americans could "brag too much about
being the only superpower" and play into the hands of Russians who
want to return to military glory days.
But Dyson is not worried that the recent seismic shift in US
politics will undermine nuclear disarmament. "Historically,
Republicans have been much better with arms control than the
Democrats," he says. He points to Richard Nixon's unilateral move
to jettison US biological weapons and George Bush's far-reaching
John F. Kennedy had the worst record in this area, Dyson
asserts. "What was so dangerous about Kennedy was that everybody
trusted him" even as he increased the nuclear Minuteman missile
force out of all proportion to need, he says, and played nuclear
brinkmanship in Cuba.
Dyson has long been involved in finding peaceful uses for atomic
power too, having developed a type of small reactor that is still
used for research. …