Freeman Dyson on innovation in physics

For the last 10 years it has been clear to most physicists that a basic conceptual innovation will be needed in order to come to grips with the properties of elementary particles. A great part of our present effort in experimental physics is devoted to the study of these particles. The justification for studying them so intensively is the belief that here more than elsewhere in physics we have a situation ripe for radical innovations. It is worthwhile, then, to look at the historical perspectives and to inquire how and when a radical innovation is likely to occur.

A few months ago Werner Heisenberg and Wolfgang Pauli believed that they had made an essential step forward in the direction of a theory of elementary particles. Pauli happened to be passing through New York, and was prevailed upon to give a lecture explaining the new ideas to an audience which included Niels Bohr. Pauli spoke for an hour, and then there was a general discussion during which he was criticized rather sharply by the younger generation. Finally Bohr was called on to make a speech summing up the argument. “We are all agreed,” he said, “that your theory is crazy. The question which divides us is whether it is crazy enough to have a chance of being correct. My own feeling is that it is not crazy enough.”

The objection that they are not crazy enough applies to all the attempts which have so far been launched at a radically new theory of elementary particles. It applies especially to crackpots. Most of the crackpot papers which are submitted to The Physical Review are rejected, not because it is impossible to understand them, but because it is possible. Those which are impossible to understand are usually published. When the great innovation appears, it will almost certainly be in a muddled, incomplete and confusing form. To the discoverer himself it will be only half-understood; to everybody else it will be a mystery. For any speculation which does not at first glace look crazy, there is no hope.
Freeman Dyson in his essay “Innovation in Physics” published in Scientific American, Vol. 199, No. 3, (September 1958), pp. 74-82. Available in JingShin Theoretical Physics Symposium in Honor of Professor Ta-You Wu, edited by Jong-Ping Hsu & Leonardo Hsu, (Singapore: World Scientific, 1998), p. 84.

Freeman Dyson Niels Bohr Posted on behalf of and on Sunday, February 21st, 2010 under Quotations.


  1. Freeman Dyson is indeed an interesting man. Here’s an I read a while back, I think worth browsing if you haven’t yet.

  2. Nice read! Thanks for that 🙂

  3. i love the line that only those papers impossible to understand get published….

    this was a charming find!

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