Friday, March 8, 2013

Phillip F. Schewe’s "Maverick Genius"

Phillip F. Schewe works at the Joint Quantum Institute, located at the University of Maryland. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Scientific American, The Humanist, American Scientist, Physics Today, and Physical Review Letters. He is also a playwright. His previous book, The Grid, a history of how society uses and loses electricity, was named by NPR as one of the science books of the year for 2007.

Schewe’s present book, Maverick Genius, tells the story of the life of Freeman Dyson, a protean scientist-essayist who helped to reinvent quantum science, to design a best-selling nuclear reactor model, to design a nuclear-powered rocket ship used by Stanley Kubrick (at least at first) as the model for the spaceship in 2001, to launch the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (“Dyson Spheres”), to craft the limited nuclear testban treaty of 1963, to keep tactical nuclear weapons out of Vietnam, to invent adaptive optics (now used on most large optical telescopes), to prove the chemical stability of matter, and to introduce field theory into condensed matter physics. Dyson has been a frequent writer for The New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. He won the million dollar Templeton Prize for writing on religion and science.

Here Schewe dreamcasts an adaptation of Maverick Genius:
Most readers will form their own cinematic equivalent of a book--imaginatively casting actors and filming scenes in their mind’s eyes. Left to me, the casting for this book would look like this: For the boy Dyson the young Daniel Radcliffe is natural--worried, brave, searching. For the Dyson as a young-man, I’d go with a somewhat smaller version of Benedict Cumberbatch--penetrating gaze, Sherlock Holmes’ lightning calculation ability. For the elderly Dyson, Ian McKellen--wry, visionary as wise as Gandalf but without the beard.

The women in Dyson’s life include his aristocratic, prim mother--played here by Maggie Smith; his first wife, Verena Huber, is beautiful, brilliant, and intense--who else but Claire Danes (forty years ago it would have been Ava Gardner or Katherine Hepburn); and his second wife, Imme Jung, supportive, wholesome--Laura Linney or Tina Fey.

Dyson’s scientist colleagues are often famous in their own right, and make repeated appearances in the story of Dyson’s life. These include Robert Oppenheimer (Patrick Stewart, with his bony face and pithy Capt. Picard comments); Edward Teller (already perfectly played once by actor David Suchet); Richard Feynman (George Clooney who possesses the needed puckish humor and generous gestures); and Ted Taylor, with whom Dyson designed the nuclear rocketship and whom Dyson thought of as the most moral great man he’d ever met (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Finally, I specify cameo appearances by some of the historical characters who--with their largeness of vision--have inspired and haunted Dyson’s career and lent an ethereal aspect to the book/movie. H.G. Wells (Jeremy Irons), for example, prompted Dyson’s interest in novels; the science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon (John Malkovich) helped Dyson think about the largeness of the universe and the future of the human race; philosopher William James (Sean Connery) taught Dyson to view other people’s views with empathy; and biologist/essayist J.B.S. Haldane (Christopher Hitchens), who was a model for Dyson’s effort to relate scientific and technological progress with ethical considerations.
Learn more about Maverick Genius at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue