“Dr. Dyson’s Mind Burned Until the End”

(p. B12) Freeman J. Dyson, a mathematical prodigy who left his mark on subatomic physics before turning to messier subjects like Earth’s environmental future and the morality of war, died on Friday [February 28, 2020] at a hospital near Princeton, N.J. He was 96.

. . .

As a young graduate student at Cornell University in 1949, Dr. Dyson wrote a landmark paper — worthy, some colleagues thought, of a Nobel Prize — that deepened the understanding of how light interacts with matter to produce the palpable world. The theory the paper advanced, called quantum electrodynamics, or QED, ranks among the great achievements of modern science.

. . .

Dr. Dyson called himself a scientific heretic and warned against the temptation of confusing mathematical abstractions with ultimate truth.

. . .

Relishing the role of iconoclast, he confounded the scientific establishment by dismissing the consensus about the perils of man-made climate change as “tribal group-thinking.” He doubted the veracity of the climate models, and he exasperated experts with sanguine predictions they found rooted less in science than in wishfulness: Excess carbon in the air is good for plants, and global warming might forestall another ice age.

In a profile of Dr. Dyson in 2009 in The New York Times Magazine, his colleague Steven Weinberg, a Nobel laureate, observed, “I have the sense that when consensus is forming like ice hardening on a lake, Dyson will do his best to chip at the ice.”

Dr. Dyson’s distrust of mathematical models had earlier led him to challenge predictions that the debris from atomic warfare could blot out the sun and bring on a devastating nuclear winter. He said he wished that were true — because it would add to the psychological deterrents to nuclear war — but found the theory wanting.

For all his doubts about the ability of mortals to calculate anything so complex as the effects of climate change, he was confident enough in our toolmaking to propose a technological fix: If carbon dioxide levels became too high, forests of genetically altered trees could be planted to strip the excess molecules from the air. That would free scientists to confront problems he found more immediate, like the alleviation of poverty and the avoidance of war.

He considered himself an environmentalist. “I am a tree-hugger, in love with frogs and forests,” he wrote in 2015 in The Boston Globe. “More urgent and more real problems, such as the overfishing of the oceans and the destruction of wildlife habitat on land, are neglected, while the environmental activists waste their time and energy ranting about climate change.” That was, to say the least, a minority position.

. . .

Richard Feynman, a young professor at Cornell, had invented a novel method to describe the behavior of electrons and photons (and their antimatter equivalent, positrons). But two other physicists, Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, had each independently devised a very different way. Each of these seemed to satisfy the requirements of both quantum mechanics and special relativity — two of nature’s acid tests. But which one was correct?

While crossing Nebraska on a Greyhound bus, Dr. Dyson was struck by an epiphany: The theories were mathematically equivalent — different ways of saying the same thing. The result was QED. Feynman called it “the jewel of physics — our proudest possession.”

. . .

Dr. Dyson’s mind burned until the end. In 2012, when he was 88, he collaborated with William H. Press on a paper about the prisoner’s dilemma, a mathematical concept important to understanding human behavior and the nature of evolution.

In his 90s, Dr. Dyson was still consulting for the government — on nuclear reactor design and the new gene-editing technology called CRISPR. In 2018, the year he turned 95, his book “Maker of Patterns: An Autobiography Through Letters” was published.

For the full obituary, see:

George Johnson. “Freeman Dyson, 96, Math Genius, Tech Visionary and Writer, Is Dead.” The New York Times (Saturday, February 29, 2020): B12.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date Feb. 28, 2020, and has the title “Freeman Dyson, Math Genius Turned Visionary Technologist, Dies at 96.”)

Free Speech Is Violated on Many Campuses

(p. A15) Most Americans know that higher education has for several decades been in the grip of a deeply intolerant, fanatical and uncompromising strain of progressive activism. Students and sometimes even faculty members regularly chase heterodox speakers off campus, demand complete fealty from terrified campus bureaucracies, and denounce and destroy each other over the slightest and most inconsequential ideological deviations.

. . .

. . . evidence of ideological intransigence can be found in the “bias response teams” that are now regular features at many universities. One Michigan State student had a bias report filed against him for watching a Ben Shapiro video in a dorm. A faculty member at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was reported for having a Trump sticker in his office window. Another professor was hit with a bias report after discussing the infamous Janet Jackson “nipplegate” controversy. The offended student said the professor had not couched the discussion with enough moral qualifiers.

These incidents don’t represent the normal campus hysterics to which we’ve become accustomed. A growing and strident sect of campus activism is coming to oppose not merely differing opinions but even talking about differing opinions.

For the full commentary, see:

Daniel Payne. “There’s No Safe Space for Ideas on Campus ‘Animal Farms’.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, November 26, 2019): A15.

(Note: ellipses added; bolded word is italicized in original.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Nov. 25, 2019, and has the same title as the print version.)

“Proud” Entrepreneurs’ “Joy Was Palpable”

(p. A13) People of all backgrounds are starting to see how they can participate in our wonderful free-market system. They’re innovating, creating jobs and lifting themselves and others up.

I was fortunate to come to that same realization as a young man. Although I had always aspired to be financially successful, my role models in Nebraska City, Neb., of the 1940s and ’50s were mainly doctors, dentists and attorneys in town. There was nothing to point me toward founding a discount brokerage firm, as I ultimately did with Ameritrade. Luckily, on my father’s advice, I took a job as a credit reporter for Dun & Bradstreet.

It wasn’t a high-paying or respected job, but it meant I spent my days driving from business to business in Nebraska and Iowa, interviewing entrepreneurs about their balance sheets. Those business owners shared proud stories of how they built their companies. Their joy was palpable. Had I not received that education in the field, I might never have become an entrepreneur.

For the full commentary, see:

Joe Ricketts. “In Praise of Today’s Entrepreneurs.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, November 5, 2019): A13.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Nov. 10, 2019, and has the title “Big Business Is Overcharging You $5,000 a Year.”)

Ricketts’s commentary is related to his book:

Ricketts, Joe. The Harder You Work, the Luckier You Get: An Entrepreneur’s Memoir. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2019.

UNO MBA Blog Highlights Diamond’s Openness to Creative Destruction

The blog for the MBA program at UNO’s College of Business ran a nice entry on my Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism book.

As of 10/11/19, the URL for the entry was: https://www.unomaha.edu/college-of-business-administration/mba/about-us/mba-blog.php

(My seminars on “Economics of Entrepreneurship” and “Economics of Technology” are electives in the MBA program, the economics masters program, and the undergraduate economics program.)

“Charging Scooters Is a Great Job for Independent-Minded Entrepreneurs”

(p. 1B) Downtown Omaha resident Rob Luhrs spends his early mornings and late nights hunting for scooters.

Luhrs, 41, is a “juicer” of Lime scooters (“Lime juicer” — get it?) who charges scooters and then sets them out again around town. He said he makes about $60 a day, seven days a week, doing the work. During the College World Series, he said, he was making between $80 and $90 a day.

Luhrs also is an instructor of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and a part-time real estate broker who works for a grocery delivery service. But he said he hopes to make charging scooters his primary source of income.

(p. 2B) “I want to work when I want to,” he said. “When I want to take a day off, I don’t want anybody complaining about it, and if I work extra hard, I want to get paid more. I can’t just go apply to somewhere and get that job.”

. . .

Luhrs said charging scooters is a great job for “independent-minded entrepreneurs.”

“For me personally, I’m willing to spend time during the day picking up scooters and make it a full-time gig,” he said. “I see other people out there, during the daytime, picking up scooters, so I know that they’re trying to make it a full-time gig, too.”

For the full story, see:

Adam Cole. “Lime ‘Juicer’ Doesn’t Feel Squeezed by Late Hours Charging Scooters.” Omaha World-Herald (Thursday, Jul 4, 2019): 1B-2B.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Jul 3, 2019, and has the title “Unorthodox working hours don’t steer Lime ‘juicer’ away from job charging scooters in Omaha.”)

New York Critic: “I Simply Don’t Care a Damn What Happens in Nebraska”

(p. C14) ‘I simply don’t care a damn what happens in Nebraska,” ranted a New York critic, “no matter who writes about it.”
Or so Willa Cather claimed. In the long leisure of the grave, the alleged scoffer may ponder how it is that a century after its September 1918 publication, Cather’s “My Ántonia,” its every page rooted in Nebraska, remains very much alive and in print–while he is neither.

For the full review, see:
Robert Garnett. “MASTERPIECE; Rooted in America’s Heartland.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018): C14.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Sept. 14, 2018.)

The book mentioned above, is:
Cather, Willa. My Antonia. New York: Collins Classics, 2019 [1st published 1918].

Uncredentialed Entrepreneur Innovated to Save Babies

(p. 1A) He showed up in Omaha 120 summers ago, another unknown showman hoping to make a name for himself at this city’s biggest-ever event, its world’s fair.

He gave his name as Martin Couney, or sometimes Martin Coney. It wasn’t, at least not yet.
He said he was a doctor, a European doctor, a protégé of the world’s finest doctors. He was none of these things.
And yet in Omaha, Dr. Couney set up shop in a little white building on the east midway, not far from the Wild West Show, the Middle Eastern dancers, the roaming fortune tellers and the Indian Congress starring a Native American chief named Geronimo.
The fair, officially known as the Trans-Mississippi and International (p. 2A) Exposition, showcased all manner of things seen as strange, exotic and otherworldly to the 2 million Nebraskans and visitors paying the 50-cent admission to have their minds blown in the summer of 1898.
Couney thought he had just the thing to blow their minds.

“Infant Incubators with Living Infants” read the sign above the entrance.

“A Wonderful Invention … Live Babies” said another.
. . .
Usually the experts are right. That’s why they are experts,” says Dawn Raffel, author of the “The Strange Case of Dr. Couney,” a new biography seeking to save this once-famed faux doctor from history’s trash bin. “But occasionally you get an outlier like this. Someone who is extraordinarily inventive. Who brings us something incredible.”
What Dr. Couney gave us, through decades of work and tireless promotion, was an understanding that we could save babies that since the beginning of time had died before they crawled. We could save them using a piece of equipment designed by a French engineer who realized that if an egg could be nurtured in an incubator, then so could a newborn.
. . .
Newspapers, including The World-Herald, largely ignored the exhibit, Raffel says. The public didn’t seem particularly bothered that a “doctor” had decided to house anonymous newborns on the fairgrounds and put them on public display.
They also didn’t seem particularly interested, either.
. . .
Raffel estimates that Couney and his doctors and nurses saved between 6,500 and 7,000 premature babies all on their own during decades of midway work. But they saved countless thousands more by raising the profile of premature babies. By raising the hope that they could grow into healthy, happy adults.
. . .
“I find him fascinating because he was such a complicated man,” Raffel says. “He deserves more credit.”

For the full story, see:
Hansen, Matthew. “Tech Costs Force Honda To Let Go of Engineering Legacy.” Omaha World-Herald (Friday, Aug. 3, 2018): 1A-2A.
(Note: ellipses between paragraphs, added; ellipsis internal to sentence, in original.)

The Raffel book on which the passages quoted are partially based, is:
Raffel, Dawn. The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies. New York: Blue Rider Press, 2018.