Freeman Dyson’s PhD

The physicist, thinker and writer Freeman Dyson passed away on February 28, 2020, at the age of 96. I wrote his obituary for The Wire Science; excerpt:

The 1965 Nobel Prize for the development of [quantum electrodynamics] excluded Dyson. … If this troubled Dyson, it didn’t show; indeed, anyone who knew him wouldn’t have expected differently. Dyson’s life, work, thought and writing is a testament to a philosophy of doing science that has rapidly faded through the 20th century, although this was due to an unlikely combination of privileges. For one, in 1986, he said of PhDs, “I think it’s a thoroughly bad system, so it’s not quite accidental that I didn’t get one, but it was convenient.” But he also admitted it was easier for him to get by without a PhD.

His QED paper, together with a clutch of others in mathematical physics, gave him a free-pass to more than just dabble in a variety of other interests, not all of them related to theoretical physics and quite a few wandering into science fiction. … In 1951, he was offered a position to teach at Cornell even though he didn’t have a doctorate.

Since his passing, many people have latched on to the idea that Dyson didn’t care for awards and that “he didn’t even bother getting a PhD” as if it were a difficult but inspiring personal choice, and celebrate it. It’s certainly an unlikely position to assume and makes for the sort of historical moment that those displeased with the status quo can anchor themselves to and swing from for reform, considering the greater centrality of PhDs to the research ecosystem together with the declining quality of PhD theses produced at ‘less elite’ institutions.

This said, I’m uncomfortable with such utterances when they don’t simultaneously acknowledge the privileges that secured for Dyson his undoubtedly deserved place in history. Even a casual reading of Dyson’s circumstances suggests he didn’t have to complete his doctoral thesis (under Hans Bethe at Cornell University) because he’d been offered a teaching position on the back of his contributions to the theory of quantum electrodynamics, and was hired by the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton a year later.

It’s important to mention – and thus remember – which privileges were at play so that a) we don’t end up unduly eulogising Dyson, or anyone else, and b) we don’t attribute Dyson’s choice to his individual personality alone instead of also admitting the circumstances Dyson was able to take for granted and which shielded him from adverse consequences. He “didn’t bother getting a PhD” because he wasn’t the worse for it; in one interview, he says he feels himself “very lucky” he “didn’t have to go through it”. On the other hand, even those who don’t care for awards today are better off with one or two because:

  • The nature of research has changed
  • Physics has become much more specialised than it was in 1948-1952
  • Degrees, grants, publications and awards have become proxies for excellence when sifting through increasingly overcrowded applicants’ pools
  • Guided by business decisions, journals definition of ‘good science’ has changed
  • Vannevar Bush’s “free play of free intellects” paradigm of administering research is much less in currency
  • Funding for science has dropped, partly because The War ended, and took a chunk of administrative freedom with it

The expectations of scientists have also changed. IIRC Dyson didn’t take on any PhD students, perhaps as a result of his dislike for the system (among other reasons because he believed it penalises students not interested in working on a single problem for many years at a time). But considering how the burdens on national education systems have shifted, his decision would be much harder to sustain today even if all of the other problems didn’t exist. Moreover, he has referred to his decision as a personal choice – that it wasn’t his “style” – so treating it as a prescription for others may mischaracterise the scope and nature of his disagreement.

However, questions about whether Dyson might have acted differently if he’d had to really fight the PhD system, which he certainly had problems with, are moot. I’m not discussing his stomach for a struggle nor am I trying to find fault with Dyson’s stance; the former is a pointless consideration and the latter would be misguided.

Instead, it seems to me to be a question of what we do know: Dyson didn’t get a PhD because he didn’t have to. His privileges were a part of his decision and cemented its consequences, and a proper telling of the account should accommodate them even if only to suggest a “Dysonian pride” in doing science requires a strong personality as well as a conspiracy of conditions lying beyond the individual’s control, and to ensure reform is directed against the right challenges.

Featured image: Freeman Dyson, October 2005. Credit: ioerror/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0.