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As a young postgraduate student, Dyson devised – while taking a Greyhound bus ride in America – the answer to a conundrum in quantum electrodynamics that had stumped giants of physics such as Richard Feynman and Hans Bethe. As an author, guru and apostle for science, Dyson also cheerfully proposed that humans might genetically engineer trees that could grow on comets, to provide new habitats for genetically altered humans.
He had already proposed the ultimate solution to the energy crisis: a sufficiently advanced civilisation would, he argued, crunch up all the unused planets and asteroids to form a giant shell around its parent star, to reflect and exploit its radiation. Science fiction writers were delighted. The first suggestion became known as the Dyson tree. The second is called the Dyson sphere.
Dyson tackled complex problems in theoretical physics and mathematics – there is a mathematical tool called the Dyson series, and another called Dyson’s transform – and enjoyed the affection and respect of scientists everywhere. He took US citizenship, and worked on Project Orion, one of America’s oddest and most ambitious space ventures.
Dyson was a widely read man with a gift for memorable remarks and a great talent for presenting – with calm logic and bright language – ideas for which the term “outside the envelope” could only be the most feeble understatement.