FREEMAN DYSON, NOW 94 years old, might be the smartest man alive. Certainly he is among the most adept of our living theoretical physicists and public intellectuals. “Well, what fun to read his letters home to his family in England,” you may be thinking, “…not!”

You would be wrong. His letters home, which, thank god, his mother preserved, are delectable. They date from 1941 to 1978, spanning not just those bumpy decades for Western democracy but the Golden Age of theoretical physics, to which Dyson contributed mightily — most notably to quantum electrodynamics, when he published a paper in 1949 combining the approaches of Julian Schwinger and Richard Feynman. Many wish he could have been included in the Nobel Prize awarded to them and Schwinger’s collaborator Shin’ichirō Tomonaga in 1965 — but, alas, three people per Nobel is the max.

As an autobiography, Maker of Patterns (the title is G. H. Hardy’s description of his fellow mathematicians and men of ideas) is necessarily truncated, beginning with Dyson’s matriculation at Cambridge University and ending with his 25th year at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, a kind of Olympus for physicists, where he remains as professor emeritus. In the preface, he simply notes that “the second half of a life is usually less interesting than the first half.”

Since Dyson’s parents were not themselves physicists, he spared them the equations and instead offered candid portraits of the greats he encountered on his way to the top. At Cambridge, age 17, he was unimpressed by the impressive J. D. Bernal, who “knows nothing about mathematics, even in its most applied forms.” Among his teachers were Hardy, whose skill at billiards he admired, and the inscrutable P. A. M. Dirac, whose lectures on quantum mechanics he found “very slow and easy to follow.”

World War II was on, of course, but there’s not much in these letters about it. Throughout the book, the letters are interspersed with Dyson’s italic commentary, directing hindsight onto his early aperçus. About the war, he remembers that his family and his professors alike “knew that we were in it for the long haul, with no end in sight, with a high probability that little that we valued would survive. And yet in a paradoxical way, our response […] was to ignore it as far as possible,” since that was “the best way to show our contempt for Hitler.” After a two-year deferment, he would be assigned to a research job at the RAF Bomber Command, which left him “with a permanently bad conscience for having survived.”

No equations, but at 18, taking off from some ideas of Srinivasa Ramanujan’s, he produced his first paper in numbers theory (“Some Guesses in the Theory of Partitions”) and couldn’t help sharing his discovery with his family using just the numbers from one to five. It looks like arithmetic and it will make your head swim — see pages 19 and 20.

But mostly these are the plainspoken, unpretentious, observant letters of an affectionate son and don’t exactly convey Dyson’s contrarian side. He came to public attention of a sort in the 1960s, because of his odd notions about how we humans are to live after it becomes impossible to stay — mostly because of an expanding population — on this planet.

It’s a concern he returns to again and again in the letters (“I have strong opinions about space travel, and I give them to you for what they are worth”), although he doesn’t go into his invention of the Dyson Sphere, which in theory would make our future life in space possible. This is a shell, not necessarily continuous, of material to be mined from parts of the solar system and set in orbit around the sun (or another suitable star), providing on its interior surface(s) a habitat for our species with an inexhaustible source of energy from sunlight. Dyson modestly, or maybe defensively, has denied that the idea originated with him, citing science fiction by Olaf Stapledon and a proposal by the once haughtily dismissed J. D. Bernal.

Another eyebrow-raiser is his notion of Dyson Trees (also not mentioned), which can create a breathable atmosphere in the nooks and crannies of comets for wanderers in the solar system. Trees in general seem important to him, and not just for enabling life to breathe; according to his wife Imme, he was climbing them into his 80s.

One rambunctious project that does surface in his letters home is Orion, a spaceship he conceived with fellow physicist Ted Taylor at the General Atomic laboratory in La Jolla in the late 1950s. Orion would be powered by the serial explosion of 2,000 nuclear bombs. “We imagined ourselves cruising around the solar system with our ship and exploring the planets and moons, just as Charles Darwin cruised with the good ship Beagle around the earth exploring the continents and islands,” he recalls in his older and wiser italics. To his parents he exclaims, “The basic idea is absurdly simple. One is amazed that nobody thought of it before.” Research on the project was actually funded by the Department of Defense, but the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty effectively scotched Orion a few years later (“a great adventure for all of us who took part in it, and perhaps a model for future dreams that will one day come true”). A strong social conscience prompted Dyson to testify in Congress in favor of the treaty. He went on to advocate publicly for such unpopular measures as missile defense to avoid the outbreak of full-scale nuclear war (“[a]nybody who considers a preemptive strike to be preferable to missile defense has not understood what the Cuban missile crisis was all about”).

At his most contrarian, Dyson has offended many of his scientific colleagues by his stance on climate change. He is not a denier of manmade global warming, but his positive take on increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and his championing of coal as a fuel source are anathema to many. A New York Times profile in 2009 described his “withering aversion to scientific consensus” — and to the computer models on which climate scientists base their dystopian predictions. “Most of the evolution of life occurred on a planet substantially warmer than it is now, and substantially richer in carbon dioxide,” he noted at the time. Trees, as always, figured prominently in his thinking; planting billions and billions of them would help control a runaway CO2 warming effect. As for coal, its toxicity levels could be lowered by scrubbing; moreover, without it the poor of China and India would never be able to climb into the middle class.

In November 1958, while prepping Orion in La Jolla, Dyson married his second and current wife, Imme Jung. Imme was a kind and sensible au pair, whom his first wife, the mathematician Verena Huber, had hired two years earlier, shortly before leaving Freeman and their two children for another man. In announcing to his family in England the news of his abandonment, Dyson is characteristically stoic and gentle:

Now let me explain briefly what has happened. An old friend of mine from Cambridge days has been at the institute for the last year and a half. While I was away in La Jolla and Los Alamos, he and Verena have fallen in love and decided to run away together. Verena came […] to tell me this, and to make a harmonious and dignified end to our marriage […] Please do not offer me your sympathy or your pity. I have been happy in this marriage, and I have no regrets now it is over. It has enriched my life in many ways, and this enrichment is permanent.

Freeman kept the children and would father four more with Imme. There are grandchildren, and one of them, he reports in his preface and reminds us at his book’s conclusion, has a pink Afro. This seems, to him, a healthy sign of inherited contrarianism and a beacon of hope for the future.

Although a confirmed and optimistic futurist, Dyson admits to serious misgivings about humankind’s present state, given our virulent tribalism and our propensity for fighting with each other. “A world of turmoil and violence is our legacy to future generations,” he concludes.

They need […] to work out practical remedies. This is not a job for scientists to do alone. It will need a worldwide collaboration of scientists with economists, political activists, environmentalists, and religious leaders to lift science and society out of the swamp where we are stuck […] Our grandchildren will have a chance to make this happen.

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Sara Lippincott is a science book editor based in Los Angeles. She was formerly a nonfiction editor at The New Yorker.