Freeman Dyson, who has died at the age of 96, wouldn’t have liked being called doctor. Many other sites will well cover his life and achievements. He contributed to our understandings of mathematics and physics in a way very few ever have, ever can, or ever will. He did so at a time of great tumult in the world. He did contribute so much so quickly that he never got a PhD. Certainly, he could’ve gotten a PhD. However, he truly had philosophical differences with the system of getting a PhD.
Dysons “only” academic degree was a BA. Back at a time when standards were so much higher getting that BA was likely as hard as getting a MS is now. Only perhaps Satyendra Nath Bose, whose physics describes particles with integer spin such as photons and gravitons, would do quite as much without a PhD.
Those were different times. Those were times when if one could get on the project and did great work as part of the team one got credit. That is very rare now. Science has industrialized, credentialized, then experienced credential inflation. A BA/BS isn’t what it used to be. It is not impossible today to be a freeman like Dyson and contribute even without the formal post-nomial letters PhD. The system just isn’t set up to allow for the possibility. Now a days for a researcher the standard path is to get on a project as a post doc. The very concept of a researcher without a PhD, within the established institutions, is almost unheard of.
Today a Freeman Dyson type would perhaps focus his energy on building internet companies, electric cars, and inexpensive rockets.
Professor Dyson was singularly talented, and singularly accomplished in ways that show the limits of our current system. With him dies a sterling reminder to academia that our system is not without flaw. Not just as the low end but also at the very high end.
So, call him Professor Dyson, not Doctor Dyson. The man who was truly too smart for a PhD.
One more thing
Thanks to a certain episode of Star Trek one idea of his is popularly famous. That of a Dyson Sphere. A shell built around a star which could allow the harvesting of all the energy the star produces. A solid sphere would not be practical. Here is a fun video which explains how we could start to build such a megastructure. We could begin the project NOW if humanity had the will to do so.