Freeman Dyson (b. 1923) was born at Crowthorne in Berkshire, England, the son of George Dyson, an English composer and Mildred Atkey Dyson, a lawyer. After World War II Dyson earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Trinity College, Cambridge. Although he never got a PhD, he is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Freeman Dyson is the author of seven books, among them Disturbing the Universe, Weapons and Hope, Origins of Life, and From Eros to Gaia.
The following is an excerpt from Disturbing the Universe
“When I was eight years old somebody gave me The Magic City by Edith Nesbit. Nesbit wrote a number of other children’s books, which are more famous and better written. But this was the one which I loved and have never forgotten. I did not at the age of eight read deep meanings into it, but I knew that it was somehow special. The story has a coherent architectural plan, covered with a surface frosting of crazy logic.
“There are three themes in The Magic City. The first is the main theme. The hero is an orphan called Philip who is left alone in a big house and builds a toy city out of the ambient Victorian bric-a-brac. One night he suddenly finds his city grown to full size, inhabited by full-size mythical people and animals, and himself obliged to live in it. After escaping from the city, he wanders through the surrounding country, where every toy house or castle that he ever built is faithfully enlarged and preserved. The book records his adventures as he stumbles through this world of blown-up products of his own imagination.
“The second theme is concerned explicitly with technology. It is a law of life in the magic city that if you wish for anything you can have it. But with this law goes a special rule about machines. If anyone wishes for a piece of machinery, he is compelled to keep it and go on using it for the rest of his life. Philip fortunately escapes from the operation of this rule when he has the choice of wishing for a horse or a bicycle and chooses the horse.
“The third theme of the book is the existence of certain ancient prophecies foretelling the appearance of a Deliverer and a Destroyer. Various evil forces are at large in the land, and it is the destiny of the Deliverer to overcome them. But it is also foreordained that a Destroyer will come to oppose the Deliverer and give aid to the forces of darkness. At the beginning Philip is suspected of being the Destroyer. He is only able to vindicate himself by a succession of increasingly noble deeds, which ultimately result in his being acclaimed as the Deliverer. Meanwhile the Destroyer is unmasked and turns out to the children’s nursemaid, a woman of the lower classes whom Philip has always hated. Only once, at the end of the book, Nesbit steps out of character and shows where her real sympathies lie.
“’I’ll speak my mind if I die for it,’ says the Destroyer as she stands awaiting sentence. ‘You don’t understand. You’ve never been a servant, to see other people get all the fat and you all the bones. What you think it’s like to know if you’d just been born in a gentleman’s mansion instead of in a model workman’s dwelling you’d have been brought up as a young lady and had the openwork silk stockings?’”
“Even an eight-year-old understands at this point that Philip’s heroic virtue is phony and the nursemaid’s heroic defiance is real. In an unjust world, the roles of Deliverer and Destroyer become ambiguous.
“I do not know how far Nesbit consciously intended The Magic City to be an allegory of the human condition. It was only after I tasted the joys and sorrows of becoming a scientist, that I began to meditate upon the magic city and to see in it a mirror of the big world I was entering. The big world, wherever I looked, was full of human tragedy. I came upon the scene and found myself playing roles that were half serious and half preposterous. And that is the way it has continued to be ever since.”