It is not particularly unusual for a world-renowned scientist, an Internet thought leader and a respected historian to share the stage at DLD, a European digital conference known for bringing together an eclectic mix of people. But this year will mark a first. Three people scheduled to be on such a panel at DLD2012 belong to the same family: Freeman, Esther and George Dyson are all expected to speak.
The accomplishments of each Dyson are extraordinary. Freeman, a British-born American theoretical physicist and mathematician, is famous for his work in quantum field theory, solid-state physics, astronomy and nuclear engineering, and is the author of eight books, on topics ranging from artificial life to disarmament.
Esther, who was awarded the Aenne Burda Creative Leadership award at the 2009 DLD conference, has long been synonymous with everything digital. She is the founding chairman of ICANN, the Internet governing group, an early investor in Russian and Eastern European start-ups and an active investor in Internet companies everywhere. Known for her prescient views on emerging technologies, she calls herself the Internet’s court jester because, like a jester, she has no connection to any institution but has the ear of the court because she tells it like it is. Restless and inquisitive and a die-hard road warrior, she has worked as a proofreader, journalist, securities analyst, conference organizer, book author, back-up cosmonaut and philanthropist.
While it was not easy being the son of “the great Freeman Dyson, it was much harder to grow up as Esther’s brother,” says George, the younger sibling. “She was just so phenomenally successful in school that teachers expected the same of me and were disappointed,” he says. While Esther went off to Harvard at age 16, George dropped out of high school and moved to Canada to learn boat building and live in a tree house for three years. He became interested in how Russians colonists in the 18th century adopted the kayak-building knowledge of the Aleuts in Alaska and began building his own copies of the boat, then wrote a book about it. It was a success and led to other non-fiction book contracts, earning him a reputation as a respected author and historian.
So what is it like having famous parents? “Some of our neighbors were Nobel Prize Winners,” recalls Esther, who was born in Switzerland and grew up in Princeton, New Jersey. “We didn’t think this was special or weird; we just took it all for granted.”
There was the normal sibling rivalry but it took somewhat unusual forms. As a girl, Esther kept a secret diary in French. “When I started to learn French in school she had to find another language, so she ended up learning Russian and reading Russian literature,” says George.
Although the family does not have any roots in Russia, the Dysons share an affinity for that country and its people. “We were exposed to Russia and its great physicists and mathematicians through our father,” says George. “There is a lot to learn from Russia and it turns out that later in life that is where Esther’s and my worlds crossed.”
Not surprisingly, there are some other shared traits between family members. Esther admits to inheriting her fathes contrarian streak: “He was a good role model,” she says. “He has never been interested in convention.” Neither has Esther, who turned up at her first meeting as a member of advertising giant WPP’s board wearing jeans.
But Freeman is hesitant to claim credit for any of Esther’s and George’s qualities. “They both benefited from benign neglect, since I brought them up in a family with four younger daughters,” says Freeman, who started a second family after a divorce from Esther and George’s mother, mathematician Verena Huber- Dyson. Esther and George both learned when they were young to be independent and to manage their own lives. “As teen-agers they were strikingly different: Esther the quiet super-achiever and George the flamboyant rebel,” says Freeman. “To me it has been a great joy and a great surprise to see them cometogether and become close friends in the last twenty years.”
Freeman says it has been exciting to see his children move into areas that were completely different from his: Esther into the world of business and George into the Canadian wilderness. “The joke now is to see them growing more like me as they grow older,” he says. “It has also been a surprise to see both of them share my passionate interest in space. I never pushed this enthusiasm onto them or expected them to catch it.”
Freeman was one of the creators of Project Orion, a secret mission carried out to build an atomic spaceship between 1957 and 1965. George would later choose to spend years researching a critically acclaimed book about the project. Esther has runthree annual workshops called Flight School focused on next-generation aviation and private space travel. “We need a back-up planet,” she says. Her interest in space prompted her to take a six-month sabbatical in 2009 to train in Star City, Russia’s cosmonaut training center near Moscow, as a back-up for Hungarian-American space tourist Charles Simonyi, who oversaw the development of Microsoft’s Word.
Although Esther ultimately did not get to go into space, George, Freeman and his wife Imme joined her in Kazakhstan for the launch.
The visit to Baikonur was a great occasion for a family reunion and gave Freeman an illuminating glimpse of Russian space culture. “The Russian space culture is very different from ours,” says Freeman. “We think in decades while they think in centuries. The whole town of Baikonur participated in the launch, which was a civic ceremony as well as a practical mission. “The Russians know that they are on their way to the stars, and do not much care how long it takes,” observes Freeman. “As a consequence of this difference in culture, the USA does better with unmanned missions and Russia does better with manned missions. Unmanned missions can do great exploring in a decade, but a manned program needs to be sustained for centuries.”
George’s thoughts while standing in front of the Soyuz launch vehicle in Kazakhstan were more down to earth. “Here we are, 52 years after Sputnik and 41 years after Project Orion was scheduled to leave with a crew of fifty for Saturn, and the only way for an American to get to low Earth orbit is to pay $40 million for a seat on a Soviet-era rocket.”
The Dysons’ interests are by no means limited to space.
George has just written a new book, which is due to by published by Random House in March, entitled Turing’s Cathedral, which he describes as “a story about the origins of the digital universe in the numerical sense.”
For her part, Esther is investing in companies that have an impact on human health, such as 23andMe, a genomics company, Healthloop, which specializes in healthcare IT, and consumer health data companies Keas, Healthtap, Health Rally, Voxiva and many others. And she is always on the hunt for the next big thing. Esther was an early investor in social networks but now finds them “not challenging,” she says. “Once there is general understanding of something I move on.”
Freeman also loves a challenge. He has just solved a numbers-theory problem he and others have been working on for 65 years. And in early January he was in California, working with a group called Jason which advises the U.S. government on technical problems. “We listen to government people describing their needs and then get together and try to help,” says Freeman. “I think our work is useful because it gives the people in the government some contact with the world outside. The military people need our help especially. They live in a little secret world isolated from the fresh air outside. We give them some fresh air.”
Even if he is proud of his scientific work – such as a nuclear reactor he helped build in 1956 which is still used in hospitals today to produce short-lived radio isotopes for diagnosis — Freeman regards his writings for the general public as being more important. “Certainly my writing has affected a larger number of people and brought me into a wider community,” he says.
But he is not planning on writing any more books. “I am now 88, which means that life is more than usually unpredictable,” says Freeman. “I have been lucky to keep my health and my wits until now. I will continue in the future as I did in the past, to make no plans but grab unexpected opportunities when they arise.”
Spoken like a true Dyson.