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The Prophet, the Physicist, and Activism
Elegant Connections in Physics
The Prophet, the Physicist, and Activism
Dwight E. Neuenschwander, Southern Nazarene University
A young man asked Frederick Douglass, “What should I do with my life?” Douglass replied, “Agitate, agitate, agitate.”
When Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, I was attending high school in Wichita, Kansas. Back then, Wichita was sharply segregated. My school sat on the boundary between the White and Black neighborhoods. The morning after Dr. King’s murder, the halls of the high school were filled with simmering frustration. My typing teacher closed the door to block the noise. Going to lunch, I suddenly found myself surrounded by an angry mob. Someone had me around the neck, but he suddenly dropped his grip as 7-ft.-tall Coach Wessel approached us, the mob parting before him like the Red Sea before Moses. Shortly thereafter the hallways were lined with helmeted police. I had had enough school for that day and went home. That evening I talked by telephone with a Black classmate named Marvin. He helped me, a White student, understand the enormous despair that had just crashed down onto the Black community. I am grateful to Marvin for his friendship and our conversation at that moment. On a day when his family needed solace, Brother Marvin was there for me, replacing potential resentment with the desire to understand. That day Marvin practiced a calming and effective form of personal activism.
Forty years later I visited the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the site of the assassination. The Lorraine is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum. I was moved and mourned the sins of my country, the sufferings of the oppressed, and the foolish arrogance that keeps us from seeing everyone as brothers and sisters in the human family. What can one person do?
The 2020 March on Washington commemorated the 57th anniversary of the August 28, 1963, civil rights March on Washington. On that day in 1963, Freeman Dyson took a half-day off from his work at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency to join the marchers:
Black people from all over the United States were marching. A quarter of a million people were marching. It was quiet... I walked to the end of the avenue where the marchers were assembling and marched with them to the Lincoln Memorial... They sang their freedom songs... and they looked like the hope of the future as they danced and sang with their bright faces and sparkling eyes.
From two til four, the leaders of the black people spoke at the memorial, with the huge figure of Lincoln towering over their heads... Martin Luther King spoke like an Old Testament prophet. I was quite close to him, and I was not the only one listening who was in tears. “I have a dream,” he said, over and over again, as he described to us his visions of peace and justice. In my letter to my family that night I wrote, “I would be ready to go to jail for him any time.” I did not know then that I had heard one of the most famous speeches in the history of mankind. I only knew that I had heard one of the greatest.1
The 1963 march was followed by the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the 1968 Fair Housing Act. But these promises on paper remain unfulfilled in practice. Fifty-seven years later, drawing strength from more tragedy2, the Black Lives Matter movement has gained long-overdue traction. But voting rights for people of color are still suppressed. They still endure unequal access to education, health care, jobs, and secure housing. The arc of history bends toward justice with excruciating slowness. In his letter to fellow clergy from the Birmingham jail, Dr. King wrote, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed” 3.
In his final Sunday morning sermon, delivered at Washington National Cathedral on March 31, 1968, Dr. King proclaimed,
Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet... we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood... We must all learn to live together as brothers. Or we will all perish together as fools...Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. 4
From quantum electrodynamics to adaptive optics, Freeman Dyson greatly advanced mankind’s scientific and technological genius. He spoke out for making our world a brotherhood. Thirty-two years after Dr. King’s final Sunday sermon, Professor Dyson stood in the same cathedral to deliver another powerful sermon, his acceptance speech for the 2000 Templeton Award:
The great question of our time is, how to make sure that the continuing scientific revolution brings benefits to everybody, rather than widening the gap between rich and poor...
Technology must be guided and driven by ethics if it is to do more than provide new toys for the rich...Science and religion should work together to abolish the gross inequalities that prevail in the modern world. 5
The prophet and the physicist desired similar ends: justice for the oppressed and redemption of the entire society, because oppression also dehumanizes the oppressors. Dr. King sought the moral high ground, as he explained in a 1956 speech at the end of the year-long Montgomery bus boycott: “We must remember...that a boycott is not an end within itself ... The end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the beloved community”8. Dr. King’s principle of nonviolent resistance was effective. John Griffin, a White man who in 1959 medically darkened his skin to experience life as a Black man in the Jim Crow South, recorded,
In Montgomery... I encountered a new atmosphere. The Negro’s feeling of utter hopelessness is here replaced by a determined spirit of passive resistance. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.’s influence, like an echo of Gandhi’s, prevails . . . Here the Negro has committed himself to a definite stand. He will go to jail, suffer any humiliation, but he will not back down... The white race is bewildered and angered by such an attitude, because the dignity of the Negro’s course of action emphasizes the indignity of his own.9
Professor Dyson shared with my students his personal experience of this principle. Our class quoted in a letter to him his statement about how you fight makes your cause good or bad, and we asked his thoughts on the 9/11 terrorists who hijacked passenger-laden airliners. His answer recalled his teenage emotions during the Blitz—hearing in the crash of buildings the collapse of the British Empire, which had ransacked other cultures. Many young people abroad might have been thinking similar thoughts about the United States during 9/11:
The only wisdom that I can extract from this memory is that the problem of terrorism is not a military problem. It is a problem of people’s hearts and minds. Attempts to solve it by military means will only make it worse.... We must treat our enemies with respect so that we do not appear to be trampling on their cultures and traditions. The ultimate goal must always be not to destroy our enemies but to convert them into friends.10
In his 1991 Oersted Medal speech, Professor Dyson described “subversion of authority” as one of the “beautiful faces of science”11. Physicists have an obligation to activism12,13, which we have expressed collectively through professional societies by showing whom we honor, causes we support, and stands we articulate. Whom we honor finds illustration in the Andrei Sakharov Prize, which recognizes “outstanding leadership and/or achievements of scientists in upholding human rights”14. Causes we support are expressed in organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists15 and APS Forums on Physics & Society16 and Diversity & Inclusion 17. Our public stands are articulated through official statements such as the APS Statements on Nuclear Testing18.
But ultimately, activism must be personal. Recall the exemplary activism of Albert Einstein19–21, from his first political manifesto in 1915 urging intellectuals to transcend nationalism, to the 1955 Einstein–Russell Manifesto urging nations to eschew hydrogen bombs; from renouncing ties with Hitler’s Germany in 1933, to cochairing with Paul Robeson the American Crusade to End Lynching; from publicly defending in 1931 Heidelberg professor E.J. Gumbel, who had exposed political assassinations by Nazis, to offering himself, during the McCarthyism hysteria, as a character witness for NAACP founder W.E.B. du Bois 20; from helping Jewish refugees find wartime sanctuary in America, to taking walks in Princeton’s Black neighborhoods that included lingering conversations on family porches, a quiet defiance of the town’s segregation.
While living in America, Einstein accepted only one honorary doctorate, from Lincoln University, America’s oldest Black university 20. There, on May 3, 1946, Einstein declared, “Segregation is a disease not of colored people but of White people, and I do not intend to remain quiet about it.” He had published four months earlier an article condemning racism in America21. Recalling the mythology that “In the United States everyone feels assured of his worth as an individual,” Einstein pointed out an inconsistency:
There is, however, a somber point in the social outlook of Americans. Their sense of equality and human dignity is mainly limited to men of white skins... The more I feel an American, the more this situation pains me. I can escape the feeling of complicity only by speaking out.
In the Birmingham jail letter, Dr. King wrote, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability”22. Professor Dyson affirmed, “We are scientists second, human beings first. We become politically involved because knowledge implies responsibility”23. In the presence of injustice, silence is complicity. I am proud to be a member of the community of physicist agitators who respect reality and speak truth to power. The arc of history urgently needs further bending toward justice for all. Let us not be quiet about it.
Professor Dyson passed away on February 28, 2020. Everyone knows of his accomplishments in physics, mathematics, engineering, and writing. My students and I also came to know him as a wise grandfather figure. He put other people first24.
- When a theologian said Professor Dyson was “trying to impose his set of rules on God,” Professor Dyson responded, “Maybe I impose my rules on God, but that is not as bad as imposing them on my neighbors”25.
- In a hand-written letter Professor Dyson wrote, “Now I am a busy grandfather with our three little grandsons living here in Princeton. . . . I spend more time babysitting and less time writing books. You never know which job will turn out to be more important!” 26.
- When asking about energy sustainability, we quoted his comment, “Sanity is, in its essence, nothing more than the ability to live within nature’s laws”27. We suggested that by plundering our planet, society is insane. Professor Dyson’s response surprised us: “I disagree particularly with your last sentence, where you say our society is insane. On the contrary, I think we are handling the energy problem much better than we are handling other problems such as poverty and inequality and gun violence and education and public health. The obsession with energy is distracting attention from these more serious problems”28. Here was food for thought. In a peaceful, healthy, just society, energy problems would be easy to solve.
- At the 2012 Sigma Pi Sigma Congress in Orlando, attended mostly by students, Professor Dyson was scheduled to speak on Saturday morning, but he arrived Thursday evening as the conference began. He was immediately surrounded by a crowd, students and Nobel Laureates together. He participated in every activity of the Congress. During every break, long lines formed about Professor Dyson. He turned no one away. The meeting ended on Saturday evening. Near midnight, as the staff disassembled the registration booth in the deserted convention center, Professor Dyson still patiently conversed with lingering students who had waited for a word with him. He was a wise, beloved grandfather to us all. We are blessed to call him mentor and friend.
Thanks to Doug Forsberg, colleague and activist, for reviewing a draft of this article.
1. Freeman J. Dyson, Disturbing the Universe (Basic Books, 1979), pp. 140–141.
2. The Black Lives Matter movement gained global momentum in 2020 after the brutal police murder of George Floyd. Recent events echo an essay by Dr. King: “Virtually every riot has begun from some police action. . . . Police must cease being occupation troops in the ghetto and start protecting its residents.” Ref. 3, p. 325.
3. Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., James Washington, Ed. (Harper One, 1986), p. 292.
4. Ibid., p. 269.
5. D.E. Neuenschwander, Ed., Dear Professor Dyson: Twenty Years of Correspondence Between Freeman Dyson and Undergraduate Students on Science, Technology, Society, and Life (World Scientific, 2016), p. 347.
6. Ref. 3, p. 255.
7. Ref. 1, pp. 40–41.
8. Ref. 3, p. 140.
9. John H. Griffin, Black Like Me (Signet, 1961), p. 116.
10. Ref. 5, pp. 130–131.
11. Freeman J. Dyson, “To Teach or Not to Teach,” Am. J. Phys., 59(6), June 1991, pp. 490–495.
12. Melba Phillips, “Dangers Confronting American Science,” Science, 116 (Oct. 24, 1952), pp. 439–443.
13. D.E. Neuenschwander, “Physicists and Dissent: The Obligation of Scientific Citizenship,” Radiations (Fall 2008), pp. 19–21.
14. Sakharov Prize: https://www.aps.org/programs/honors/prizes/sakharov.cfm.
15. Union of Concerned Scientists: https://www.ucsusa.org/.
16. APS FPS: https://www.aps.org/units/fps/index.cfm.
17. APS FDI: https://www.aps.org/units/fdi/index.cfm.
18. Statement on Nuclear Testing: https://www.aps.org/policy/statements/03_2.cfm.
19. Albert Einstein, The World As I See It, Citadel Press (undated); Out of My Later Years, Citadel Press (1974); Ideas and Opinions, Crown Publishers (1982); Abraham Pais, Subtle is the Lord: The Science and the Life of Albert Einstein (Oxford Univ. Press, 1982); Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe (Simon & Schuster, 2007); D.E. Neuenschwander, “Taking Einstein’s Ethics Into the Twenty-First Century,” SPS Observer, (http://www.spsobserver.org), (Summer 2006).
20. Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor, Einstein on Race and Racism (Rutgers University Press, 2006); “Einstein as Citizen: Addressing Race and Racism,” Radiations (Spring 2010), pp. 8–11 and SPS Observer (Spring/Summer 2009), pp. 2–4; D.E. Neuenschwander, “Some Glimpses of Albert Einstein’s Anti-Racism,” SPS Observer (Spring/Summer 2009), pp. 4–5.
21. A. Einstein, “The Negro Question,” Out of My Later Years, Citadel Press (1974), pp. 132–134; originally published in Pageant, January 1946.
22. Ref. 3, p. 296.
23. Ref. 1, p. 6.
24. “Freeman Dyson Remembered by People Who Knew Him: ‘An Unusual Visionary,’” MIT Technology Review (3/2/2020).
25. Ref. 5, pp. 361–362.
26. Ibid., p. 374.
27. Ref. 1, p. 237.
28. Ref. 5, p. 242.
The prophet and the physicist preached similar messages. They understood that the end never justifies the means. In a 1967 Christmas sermon, Dr. King emphasized, “We will never have peace in the world until men everywhere recognize that ends are not cut off from means …destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends”6. As an operations analyst studying the Allied bombing of German cities during World War II, Professor Dyson grimly concluded, “A good cause can become bad if we fight for it with means that are indiscriminately murderous… In the end it is how you fight, as much as why you fight, that makes your cause good or bad”7.
Remembering Freeman Dyson
Creative and passionate theorist, brilliant mathematician, prolific author. Physicist and polymath Freeman J. Dyson, who passed away in February at age 96, was as outspoken as he was gifted. Dyson made important scientific achievements, including in quantum electrodynamics, while being vocal about such issues as nuclear war and the environment. During his long career, he challenged conventional thinking with bold—and often controversial—ideas about the climate, humanity’s future in space, the role of science and technology in economic development, and other complex topics. After teaching briefly at Cornell, he became a scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and remained a fixture there for more than 60 years, despite never earning a PhD. Dyson was inducted as an honorary member of Sigma Pi Sigma in 2012 and spoke at that year’s Physics Congress about the four knowledge revolutions that changed history. Attendees especially appreciated his brutally honest take on the graduate school system. He will be greatly missed.
“When [Dyson] signed a PhysCon T-shirt for us, I felt like I was in the presence of a rock star.” ~ 2012 PhysCon student attendee