by Ashutosh Jogalekar
In 1968, James Watson published “The Double Helix”, a personal account of the history of the race to discover the structure of DNA. The book was controversial and bracingly honest, a glimpse into the working style and personalities of great scientists like Francis Crick, Lawrence Bragg, Rosalind Franklin and Linus Pauling, warts and all. The vividness of Watson’s recollections and the sometimes almost minute-by-minute account make his memoirs a unique chronicle in the history of scientific autobiography.
After Watson’s book had been published, the physicist Freeman Dyson once asked him how he could possibly remember so many details about events that had transpired more than a decade ago. Easy, said Watson: he used to write to his family in America from Cambridge and had kept all those letters. Dyson who had been writing letters to his parents from the opposite direction, from America to Cambridge, asked his mother to keep all his letters from 1941 onwards.
The result is “Maker of Patterns”, a roadside view of the remarkable odyssey of one of the finest scientific and literary minds of the twentieth century. Letters are a unique form of communication, preserving the urgency and freshness of the moment without the benefit and bias of hindsight. They recall history as present rather than past. One wonders if the incessant barrage of email will preserve the selective highlights of life that letters once preserved. Dyson’s letter collection was initially titled “The Old One”. The allusion was to a famous letter from Einstein to Max Born in which Einstein noted his dissatisfaction with quantum theory: “Quantum mechanics demands serious attention. But an inner voice tells me that this is not the true Jacob. The theory accomplishes a lot, but it does not bring us closer to the secrets of the Old One. In any case, I am convinced that He does not play dice”.
Publishers sometimes change titles to suit their whim. Perhaps the publisher changed the title here because they thought it was presumptuous to compare Freeman Dyson to God. I would concede that Dyson is not God, but it’s the metaphor that counts; as these letters indicate, he is certainly full of observations and secrets of the universe. The letters contain relatively little science but lots of astute observations on people and places. Where the science does get explained one senses a keen mind taking everything in and reveling in the beauty of ideas.