A short essay on Freeman Dyson, designer of the TRIGA reactor.
Written by guest writer Andrew Lo.
Freeman Dyson, a British-American nuclear engineer and physicist, was born in England on 15 December 1923, at Crowthorne in Berkshire. His career has spanned the last ninety years, starting with his childhood interest in physics in the mid-1930s, when he obtained a copy of Georg Joos’ Theoretical Physics from a book catalog (Aaserud, 1986). Dyson attended Winchester College at the age of 15, where his father was an instructor, and after two years, transferred to Cambridge as an undergraduate (Aaserud, 1986). His original interest in physics was diverted as the war effort called upon all the available physicists, and he spent several years with a focus on mathematics.
During this time, he was called away to serve in the Royal Air Force (Aaserud, 1986) for two years, and then returned to the study of mathematics following his service. After his discharge from the military, he transferred to Imperial College in London (Aaserud, 1986) to continue his studies, refocusing his attentions on physics in the late 1940’s. This change back to his original interest was sparked by the return of wartime physicists to academia, and the subsequent presence of “something exciting” (Aaserud, 1986) in the field.
“The fact that these physicists in Los Alamos had been opening up a new world was obviously very important, and I think that to a large extent was responsible for my going back into physics. It was clear that this was an exciting time to be in the game. I was feeling some envy for those people at Los Alamos, and thinking, well, after all, that’s something I might do, too” (Aaserud, 1986). This, among other reasons, lead to his eventual immigration to the United States; the opportunities offered in America were significantly greater than those offered in post-war England.
While he was a student at Cornell in 1947, he returned to England for several years despite a tempting job offer from Columbia University due to the requirements of his Harkness Fellowship (Aaserud, 1986). He worked with the fine theory group at Birmingham University, and eventually returned to the United States in the 1950’s, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1957. It was during his time at Cornell that he became involved in the Federation of American Scientists (Aaserud, 1986), and this lead to his involvement in America’s nuclear research efforts.
While he was heavily involved in nuclear weapons research, he was also a member of the design team under Edward Teller that produced the TRIGA reactor for university research and limited isotope production, the story of which he documented in his book, Disturbing the Universe (Fouquet, et al. 2003). The TRIGA design was a reactor designed such that it was “inherently safe,” in the sense that the laws of physics would provide a safety margin over that of any possible engineered safety system failure.
“Two of the younger members of the group, Freeman Dyson and Ted Taylor, were so inspired that, that night, they invented the uranium-zirconium hydride reactor” (Dyson, G. 2002). This reactor design was first operational in May of 1958, and less than five months later, General Atomics was being inundated with orders for the TRIGA design (Dyson, G. 2002). The TRIGA reactor design has been in use for the last 65 years, and continues to be one of the most reliable, inexpensive, and easy to operate designs ever produced in the history of nuclear power, providing thousands of students with access to safe nuclear technology for research purposes, as well as producing isotopes for various industrial, academic, and medical requirements.
He was likewise involved in Project Orion, which was the use of nuclear devices to explosively propel a spaceship. From 1957 to its shutdown in 1964, he was heavily invested in the use of nuclear weapons for peace, rather than for warfare; unfortunately, the supporters of the nuclear test ban treaty, including the Presidential Scientific Advisory Committee, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the State Department, large segments of Congress, and the White House staff itself (Dyson, F. 1965) only had marginal knowledge of the project, at best, and their concerns for preventing the expansion of the nuclear arms race into space (Dyson, F. 1965) lead them to oppose the project. “When a responsible public official thinks of Orion he inevitably envisions a shipload of atomic bombs all detonating simultaneously and wiping out half of Florida” (Dyson, F. 1965).
With a career spanning 90 years, Dyson’s achievements include more than his participation in the development of nuclear energy; he was one of the contributing founders of the field of quantum electrodynamics, as well as being a prolific supporter of space exploration and the inherent need for humanity to take a more appropriate level of control with regard to the use of natural resources (Dawidoff, 2009). He is also a noted antiwar activist, being explicitly called out as an “an Obama-loving, Bush-loathing liberal” (Dawidoff, 2009).
Most recently, his life has been marked with controversy, stemming from his claim that while “he doesn’t want his legacy to be defined by climate change” (Dawidoff, 2009), he dissents from the accepted consensus on global warming. This dissension is “significant because of his stature and his devotion to the integrity of science” (Dawidoff, 2009), as he claims that the extant models used to predict the causes and effects of global warming are not based in sufficient scientific rigor.
The conclusive definition of Freeman Dyson can, perhaps, be found in the New York Times article, The Civil Heretic, which calls him “the ultimate outsider-insider” (Dawidoff, 2009). Throughout his academic and professional career, he has never earned a PhD (Dawidoff, 2009), despite being one of the foremost nuclear scientists, physicists, and prolific writers in the breadth of the fields in which he’s performed research. While he describes himself as “a tinkerer, a clean-up man and a bridge builder who merely supplied the cantilevers linking other men’s ideas” (Dawidoff, 2009), his colleagues refer to Dyson as a man whom “the Nobel committee fleeced him by not awarding his work on quantum electrodynamics with the prize” (Dawidoff, 2009).
Aaserud, F. (Interviewer) & Dyson, F. (Interviewee). (1986). Interview with Freeman Dyson
Fouquet, F. M., Razvi, J., & Whittemore, W.L.. (2003). TRIGA research reactors: A Pathway to the Peaceful Applications of Nuclear Energy. Nuclear News, Atoms for Peace Special Section.
Dyson, G. (2002). Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship. New York, N.Y.: Henry Holt and Co..
Dyson, F. (1965). Death of a Project. Science, New Series, 149(3680), 141-144
Dawidoff, N. (2009, March 25). The Civil Heretic. The New York Times.