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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Atomic Dream


ATOMIC DREAM explores the the life of 89 year-old physicist Freeman Dyson. We learn about Dyson the man through a period in his life that he calls his happiest -- working on Project Orion to design a nuclear-bomb propelled, interplanetary spaceship. He became a lead member of a team that venturedto launch a 5,000-ton spaceship to Mars almost a decade before man had walked on the moon. Dyson believed that he himself would be space bound, heading through the Milky Way, by 1970.

Since the age of three, Dyson knew he was a mathematician. He came of age during the great depression in London, and as a statistician in Britain’s bomber command during WWII, he had a front row seat to the horrors of war. To distract himself from the brutality, Dyson turned his attention to advanced mathematics. He moved to the United States, after helping to revolutionize quantum electrodynamics, to work under Robert Oppenheimer at theInstitute for Advanced Study, which has been home to some of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century, including T.S. Eliot and Albert Einstein.

Dyson’s childhood dreams of exploring outer space compelled him to move to La Jolla, California to begin working on Project Orion in 1958. Yet Dyson’s wartime experiences created a deep conflict within him --  a yearning to harness nuclear bombs for peaceful application coupled with a worry about the increasing problem of nuclear fallout. In 1962, with the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty quickly advancing, Dyson had to decide if he would testify for a treaty that would terminate Project Orion, effectively ending his dreams of traveling around the solar system.

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