The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom

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Overview

Paul Dirac was among the great scientific geniuses of the modern age. One of the discoverers of quantum mechanics, the most revolutionary theory of the past century, his contributions had a unique insight, eloquence, clarity, and mathematical power. His prediction of antimatter was one of the greatest triumphs in the history of physics. One of Einstein's most admired colleagues, Dirac was in 1933 the youngest theoretician ever to win the Nobel Prize in physics.

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The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom

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Overview

Paul Dirac was among the great scientific geniuses of the modern age. One of the discoverers of quantum mechanics, the most revolutionary theory of the past century, his contributions had a unique insight, eloquence, clarity, and mathematical power. His prediction of antimatter was one of the greatest triumphs in the history of physics. One of Einstein's most admired colleagues, Dirac was in 1933 the youngest theoretician ever to win the Nobel Prize in physics.

Dirac's personality is legendary. He was an extraordinarily reserved loner, relentlessly literal-minded and appeared to have no empathy with most people. Yet he was a family man and was intensely loyal to his friends. His tastes in the arts ranged from Beethoven to Cher, from Rembrandt to Mickey Mouse.

Based on previously undiscovered archives, The Strangest Man reveals the many facets of Dirac's brilliantly original mind. A compelling human story, The Strangest Man also depicts a spectacularly exciting era in scientific history.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Theoretical physicist Paul Dirac (1902-84) was "the British Einstein," the youngest man to ever win the Nobel Prize for Physics, the gifted scientist who predicted the existence of antimatter, and a man so taciturn and strange that he seemed to reside in a separate universe. At times, his literal-minded rigidity could seem severe: He once scolded Niels Bohr, "I was taught at school never to start a sentence without knowing the end of it," and it is said that he cried only once in his life, the day Einstein died. Graham Fermelo's compassionate biography uses previously undiscovered family archives to rescue Dirac from facile caricature. He explores the origins of this seminal thinker's autistic behavior and explains how his remorseless pursuit of research ultimately rested on his absolute belief in the beauty of mathematics.
From the Publisher
Kirkus *Starred Review*
“Paul Dirac was a giant of 20th-century physics, and this rich, satisfying biography does him justice…. [A] nuanced portrayal of an introverted eccentric who held his own in a small clique of revolutionary scientific geniuses.”

Peter Higgs, Times (UK)
“Fascinating reading… Graham Farmelo has done a splendid job of portraying Dirac and his world. The biography is a major achievement.”

Telegraph
“If Newton was the Shakespeare of British physics, Dirac was its Milton, the most fascinating and enigmatic of all our great scientists. And he now has a biography to match his talents: a wonderful book by Graham Farmelo. The story it tells is moving, sometimes comic, sometimes infinitely sad, and goes to the roots of what we mean by truth in science.”

New Statesman
“A marvelously rich and intimate study.”

Sunday Herald
“Farmelo’s splendid biography has enough scientific exposition for the biggest science fan and enough human interest for the rest of us. It creates a picture of a man who was a great theoretical scientist but also an awkward but oddly endearing human being…. This is a fine book: a fitting tribute to a significant and intriguing scientific figure.”

The Economist
“[A] sympathetic portrait….Of the small group of young men who developed quantum mechanics and revolutionized physics almost a century ago, he truly stands out. Paul Dirac was a strange man in a strange world. This biography, long overdue, is most welcome.”

Times Higher Education Supplement (UK)
“A page-turner about Dirac and quantum physics seems a contradiction in terms, but Graham Farmelo's new book, The Strangest Man, is an eminently readable account of the developments in physics throughout the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s and the life of one of the discipline's key scientists.”

New Scientist
“Enthralling… Regardless of whether Dirac was autistic or simply unpleasant, he is an icon of modern thought and Farmelo's book gives us a genuine insight into his life and times.”

John Gribbin, Literary Review
“Fascinating …[A] suberb book.”

Tom Stoppard
“In the group portrait of genius in 20th century physics, Paul Dirac is the stick figure. Who was he, and what did he do? For all non-physicists who have followed the greatest intellectual adventure of modern times, this is the missing book.”

Michael Frayn
“Graham Farmelo has found the subject he was born to write about, and brought it off triumphantly. Dirac was one of the great founding fathers of modern physics, a theoretician who explored the sub-atomic world through the power of pure mathematics. He was also a most extraordinary man - an extreme introvert, and perhaps autistic. Farmelo traces the outward events as authoritatively as the inward. His book is a monumental achievement – one of the great scientific biographies.”

Roger Highfield, Editor,New Scientist
“A must-read for anyone interested in the extraordinary power of pure thought. With this revelatory, moving and definitive biography, Graham Farmelo provides the first real glimpse inside the bizarre mind of Paul Dirac.”

Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society, Master of Trinity College, Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge and Astronomer Royal
“Paul Dirac, though a quiet and withdrawn character, made towering contributions to the greatest scientific revolution of the 20th century. In this sensitive and meticulously researched biography, Graham Farmelo does Dirac proud, and offers a wonderful insight into the European academic environment in which his creativity flourished."

Barnes & Noble Review
“Farmelo explains all the science relevant to understanding Dirac, and does it well; equally good is his careful and copious account of a personal life that was dogged by a sense of tragedy…. [I]f [Dirac] could read Farmelo’s absorbing and accessible account of his life he would see that it had magic in it, and triumph: the magic of revelations about the deep nature of reality, and the triumph of having moved human understanding several steps further towards the light.”

Newark Star-Ledger
“[An] excellently researched biography…. [T]his book is a major step toward making a staggeringly brilliant, remote man seem likeable.”

Los Angeles Times
“Graham Farmelo has managed to haul Dirac onstage in an affectionate and meticulously researched book that illuminates both his era and his science…. Farmelo is very good at portraying this locked-in, asocial creature, often with an eerie use of the future-perfect tense…, which has the virtue of putting the reader in the same room with people who are long gone.”

SeedMagazine.com
“[A] tour de force filled with insight and revelation. The Strangest Man offers an unprecedented and gripping view of Dirac not only as a scientist, but also as a human being.”

New York Times Book Review
“This biography is a gift. It is both wonderfully written (certainly not a given in the category Accessible Biographies of Mathematical Physicists) and a thought-provoking meditation on human achievement, limitations and the relations between the two…. [T]he most satisfying and memorable biography I have read in years.”

Time Magazine
“Paul Dirac won a Nobel Prize for Physics at 31. He was one of quantum mechanics’ founding fathers, an Einstein-level genius. He was also virtually incapable of having normal social interactions. Graham Farmelo’s biography explains Dirac’s mysterious life and work.”

Library Journal
“Farmelo did not pick the easiest biography to write – its subject lived a largely solitary life in deep thought. But Dirac was also beset with tragedy… and in that respect, the author proposes some novel insights into what shaped the man. This would be a strong addition to a bibliography of magnificent 20th-century physicist biographies, including Walter Issacson’s Einstein, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and James Gleick’s Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman.”

American Journal of Physics
“[A] very moving biography…. It would have been easy to simply fill the biography with Dirac stories of which there is a cornucopia, many of which are actually true. But Farmelo does much more than that. He has met and spoken with people who knew Dirac including the surviving members of his family. He has been to where Dirac lived and worked and he understands the physics. What has emerged is a 558 page biography, which is a model of the genre. Dirac was so private and emotionally self-contained that one wonders if anyone really knew him. Farmelo’s book is as close as we are likely to come."

American Scientist
“[A] highly readable and sympathetic biography of the taciturn British physicist who can be said, with little exaggeration, to have invented modern theoretical physics. The book is a real achievement, alternately gripping and illuminating.”

Natural History
“Farmelo’s eloquent and empathetic examination of Dirac’s life raises this book above the level of workmanlike popularization. Using personal interviews, scientific archives, and newly released documents and letters, he’s managed – as much as anyone could – to dispel the impression of the physicist as a real-life Mr. Spock, the half Vulcan of Star Trek.”

Science
“[A] consummate and seamless biography…. Farmelo has succeeded masterfully in the difficult genre of writing a great scientist’s life for a general audience.”

Physics Today
“[An] excellent biography of a hero of physics…. [I]n The Strangest Man, we are treated to a fascinating, thoroughly researched, and well-written account of one of the most important figures of modern physics.”

Nature
“As this excellent biography by Graham Farmelo shows, Dirac’s contributions to science were profound and far-ranging; modern ideas that have their origins in quantum electrodynamics are inspired by his insight…. The effortless writing style shows that it is possible to describe profound ideas without compromising scientific integrity or readability."

Freeman Dyson, New York Review of Books
“In Farmelo’s book we see Dirac as a character in a human drama, carrying his full share of tragedy as well as triumph.”

American Journal of Physics
“Farmelo’s exhaustively researched biography…not only traces the life of its title figure but portrays the unfolding of quantum mechanics with cinematic scope…. He repeatedly zooms his storyteller’s lens in and out between intimate close-ups and grand scenes, all the while attempting to make the physics comprehensible to the general readership without trivializing it. In his telling, the front-line scientists are a competitive troupe of explorers, jockeying for renown – only the uncharted territory is in the mind and the map is mathematical…. We read works like Farmelo’s for enlightenment, for inspiration, and for the reminder that science is a quintessentially human endeavor, with all its blemishes and, yes, strangeness.”

Louisa Gilder
This biography is a gift. It is both wonderfully written…and a thought-provoking meditation on human achievement, limitations and the relations between the two. Here we find a man with an almost miraculous apprehension of the structure of the physical world, coupled with gentle incomprehension of that less logical, messier world, the world of other people…The science writing in The Strangest Man isn't glib, but neither does it require problem-solving on the part of the reader. In most cases, Farmelo presents the technical matter clearly and efficiently, and in all cases—one of the great joys of the book—Dirac's scientific insights are placed within the circumstances in which they were born…the most satisfying and memorable biography I have read in years.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Paul Dirac (1902–1984) shared the Nobel Prize for physics with Erwin Schrödinger in 1933, but whereas physicists regard Dirac as one of the giants of the 20th century, he isn't as well known outside the profession. This may be due to the lack of humorous quips attributed to Dirac, as compared with an Einstein or a Feynman. If he spoke at all, it was with one-word answers that made Calvin Coolidge look loquacious . Dirac adhered to Keats's admonition that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”: if an equation was “beautiful,” it was probably correct, and vice versa. His most famous equation predicted the positron (now used in PET scans), which is the antiparticle of the electron, and antimatter in general. In 1955, Dirac came up with a primitive version of string theory, which today is the rock star branch of physics. Physicist Farmelo (It Must Be Beautiful) speculates that Dirac suffered from undiagnosed autism because his character quirks resembled autism's symptoms. Farmelo proves himself a wizard at explaining the arcane aspects of particle physics. His great affection for his odd but brilliant subject shows on every page, giving Dirac the biography any great scientist deserves. (Sept.)
Library Journal
To be nominated "the strangest man" amid the quirky pantheon of early to mid-20th-century physicists is perhaps an honor, because in this group, strangeness often went hand in hand with brilliance. British scientist Dirac (1902–84) may not have been the most eccentric, but he certainly ranked among the most private, demure, and mysterious. In his own mathematical perception of reality, he conceived the "Dirac equation," which meshed relativity theory with the motion of electrons and led to the theoretical conception of antimatter. Farmelo (It Must Be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science) did not pick the easiest biography to write—its subject lived a largely solitary life in deep thought. But Dirac was also beset with tragedy (including being the victim of child abuse), and in that respect, the author proposes some novel insights into what shaped the man. VERDICT This would be a strong addition to a bibliography of magnificent 20th-century physicist biographies, including Walter Issacson's Einstein, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin's American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and James Gleick's Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman. What a reading list or discussion group topic these would provide!—Gregg Sapp, Evergreen State Coll., Olympia, WA
Kirkus Reviews
Along with Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli and Schrodinger, Paul Dirac (1902-1984) was a giant of 20th-century physics, and this rich, satisfying biography does him justice. During the 1920s, using dazzling mathematical skills, Dirac combined Einstein's theory of relativity with Schrodinger and Heisenberg's theories of quantum physics. This inspired work, which predicted the existence of antimatter, remains essential to physicists probing the frontiers of knowledge. Raised in a dysfunctional middle-class family in Bristol, England, Dirac's brilliance and oddity were apparent from adolescence. He studied engineering at a local college. Despite little mechanical ability, he quickly moved to the head of his class. He showed no interest in games, culture or socializing, made few friends and rarely spoke in class. When not in school, he preferred to study in the library. Fortunately, several teachers recognized his talents and used their influence to obtain a scholarship from Cambridge. Entering in 1923, he quickly displayed mathematical insights that laid the foundation of quantum mechanics. In 1933, he shared the Nobel Prize for physics with Schrodinger. Though he was not quite as prolific after winning the award, Dirac continued to produce original ideas and contributed modestly to atomic research during World War II. Physics instructor Farmelo (editor: It Must Be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science, 2002) works diligently and often successfully to explain Dirac's accomplishments, but readers who remain puzzled will still love the nuanced portrayal of an introverted eccentric who held his own in a small clique of revolutionary scientific geniuses.
The Barnes & Noble Review
In the pantheon of heroic thinkers who effected the scientific revolution of the first half of the 20th century, some are household names, at least in households with bookshelves: Einstein with his hair on end and his tongue sticking out, Heisenberg and Bohr at odds in Michael Frayne's play Copenhagen, and Schrödinger with his dead-and-alive cat. The other names of that revolution are less often on the general public's lips, among them Max Planck, Enrico Fermi, Wolfgang Pauli, Max Born, Paul Dirac.

Of these the last named is perhaps the most obscure in the public eye, but he was far from the least important. The main reason for his anonymity to all but scientists is that his work was so abstract and technical, so mathematical, that its Nobel Prize-winning contribution to the formation of quantum mechanics in the 1920s and '30s is not easily explicable apart from a detailed telling of that discovery's story.

But it is also in part the result of Dirac's diffidence and taciturnity, his shunning of publicity, his introversion, which is, as Graham Farmelo shows in this copiously detailed and sympathetic biography, itself explainable by the fact that Dirac was probably to some degree autistic. Dirac himself attributed his marked social dysfunctionality to bullying by his Swiss-born father, who forced the young Dirac to dine alone with him and converse only in French (though they lived in the very English port city of Bristol, where Dirac was born in 1902). The father's angry responses to linguistic mistakes were so terrifying that Dirac lapsed into a frozen silence that only thawed later with a few special friends, or when he was enthusiastic about something, or when he lectured on quantum mechanics.

Illustrative examples of his manner occur in the many stories told about Dirac in physics circles, of which Farmelo makes good use in exploring his character. One relates how a visitor to his Cambridge college, sitting next to him at high table, attempted to engage him in conversation by asking whether he had seen any films recently. After considering this question for some time in his customary silence, Dirac replied, "Why do you want to know?"

Absence of small talk, intense focus on his work, an obsession with precision, and a remarkable degree of abstract mathematical genius, made the thin, otherworldly figure of Dirac stand apart even in the small and highly rarified world of early-20th-century physics. Yet his story, as Farmelo tells it, could be universally emblematic of creative genius in mathematics and science. It is a story of stunning achievements made when young, followed by long decades of fading powers and influence, increasing conservatism, dislike for the direction taken by the work of younger colleagues -- Dirac's story is Einstein's story, too, and the story of many lesser figures. Close to the end of his life Dirac said, in a sudden impassioned outburst to a visiting physicist whom he had not met before and who wished to discuss some ideas with him, "No! I have nothing to talk about! My life has been a failure!"

One of the best of many good things about Farmelo's account is the clarity with which, in describing Dirac's contributions to physics, it shows how his life was anything but a failure. To understand the story one needs a nodding acquaintance with quantum mechanics, as follows.

The idea of the quantum was first proposed by Max Planck in the year 1900 as a merely heuristic device to solve the problem of why the glow emitted by a heating-up object changes from red through orange to blue. He suggested that we can give a systematic account of this phenomenon if we think of radiated energy as coming in discrete packages, to which he gave the name "quanta" (Latin for "amounts"). In the third of his three amazingly seminal papers of 1905, Einstein used Planck's idea to solve the puzzle of why metals produce electricity when light is shined on them, a phenomenon known as the photoelectric effect. This involved treating light as consisting of particles -- photons -- thus appearing to controvert the then prevailing and experimentally well-grounded view that light is a wave.

In 1912, Prince Louis de Broglie extended the idea of wave-particle duality from photons to other particles. The suggestion was greeted with scepticism until Niels Bohr conclusively showed that it explains why atoms are stable while yet being able to absorb and emit energy. If energy comes in lumps at discrete intervals on the energy gradient, so that the wavelength of an electron always has to have a whole-number value, then if it absorbs or emits energy it can only do so by jumping to another whole-number wavelength. When the mathematical basis of this picture was worked out, mainly by Heisenberg and Schrödinger, what resulted was an interpretation of electrons as in effect probability smears around the nuclei of atoms (these consisting of protons and neutrons), thus explaining why they seem to be both wave-like and particle-like. When electrons gain or lose energy they move instantaneously from one "position" around the nucleus to another, with no staging posts between.

It was for this reason that Heisenberg formulated the "Uncertainty Principle" stating that one cannot simultaneously measure both the position and momentum (the mass multiplied by velocity) of a subatomic particle. This has profound consequences for the notion of causality and the idea in classical physics that if you knew everything about a physical system at a given moment, including the laws governing it, you would be able to deduce its past and future states. Quantum mechanics showed that this cannot be done; the neat world of classical physics had been overturned.

And since a quantum state consists not in a definite set of values but in a range of probabilities -- for example: a particle does not have a definite path until it is calculated -- it further seems to imply that reality only has a determinate character when it is measured (thus making physicists indispensable to reality). This is the idea behind the "Schrödinger's Cat" example: the cat in the physics box in which a quantum event will settle whether a noxious gas is released or is not released, will be both dead and alive (both states will be in "superposition") until the box is opened and someone looks in, at which point it will become definitely either dead or alive.

The philosophical weirdness of this way of thinking about reality was happily accepted by Bohr and his colleagues at his institute in Copenhagen -- hence it is known as the "Copenhagen Interpretation" -- but Einstein and not a few others found it impossible to accept, and thought that it meant there is something fundamentally wrong with quantum mechanics. Dirac's response to the weirdness of the quantum world as revealed by the powerful mathematics in which it was expressed was to say, "Shut up and calculate!" -- that is, forget the philosophical angst, if the mathematics is beautiful, that is enough.

Indeed, mathematical beauty was Dirac's guiding principle, and it was what led him to the discoveries that earned him the Nobel Prize in 1933 and the placement of his portrait next to Einstein's portrait on a wall in Princeton's Institute of Advanced Studies. His chief discovery was the equation -- the Dirac Equation -- that describes the behaviour of matter particles, but he also both made and anticipated a number of further discoveries, showing what a remarkable scientific imagination he had.

The Dirac Equation describes the wave function of electrons relativistically, and it led to his prediction of the existence of positrons (the antiparticle of the electron) and by extension the concept of anti-matter. He is the founder of quantum electrodynamics (and the coiner of this name), the part of quantum theory that deals with the interaction of photons with electrons and positrons. Satisfyingly for Dirac's love of precision and mathematical beauty, the theory (described by Richard Feynman as "the jewel of physics") makes extremely accurate predictions of certain atomic quantities.

No account of Dirac's work -- and his work was his life -- is complete without mentioning that in it he joined Einstein's special theory of relativity to quantum mechanics, predicted the existence of magnetic monopoles, founded operator theory, and devised the notation (known as "bra-ket" notation) that became standard in the field. In addition he anticipated, in sketch form, certain ideas in cosmology, and even today's dominant theory of the fundamental structure of matter, string theory. One of his enduring services to science was his brilliant book The Principles of Quantum Mechanics, whose clarity, logic, lucidity, and innovations of formalism made it an essential text. His remark that his life had been a failure could therefore not be further from the truth.

Farmelo explains all the science relevant to understanding Dirac, and does it well; equally good is his careful and copious account of a personal life that was dogged by a sense of tragedy - his hatred for his father, his lifelong grief over his elder brother's suicide, and his complicated relationship with a demanding mother, lay at the centre of it. But Dirac bloomed in the all-male atmosphere of Cambridge, which Farmelo describes as perfect for someone with his degree of autism: he was fed, looked after, closeted, allowed to spend six days a week doing nothing but mathematics undisturbed, on the seventh taking solitary walks in the surrounding fenlands.

But then Dirac married someone whom Farmelo wittily describes as his anti-particle, an ebullient and warmhearted Hungarian divorcée, Manci, who had two children. This was perhaps the most astonishing thing Dirac ever did outside physics, but evidently it was a wise decision -- and not lightly taken, as Farmelo's quotations from several years' worth of Dirac's dry and unemotional letters shows. When Manci wrote, "Do you have any feelings for me?" Dirac replied, "Yes, some." The letters briefly ceased to be reticent after the honeymoon, during which Dirac seems to have fallen in love with his wife: sex unleashed passion for a while. He was very lucky to have married a divorcée; the idea of his marrying a virgin does not bear thinking about.

Despite being a Cambridge don in the years before 1939, and despite having much sympathy with communism and a great friend in the Russian physicist Peter Kapitsa whom he frequently visited in the Soviet Union, Dirac was not one of the Cambridge spies. Although he contributed to the war work of developing an atom bomb, he did so on the margins of the work, refusing to become more deeply engaged. He was in most ways apolitical, a disengaged theoretician, whose single political act was to join the campaign to persuade Stalin to let Kapitsa leave the Soviet Union.

At one point Dirac and Einstein had offices in the same corridor of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, but they scarcely interacted. Yet when news of Einstein's death reached Dirac years later, Farmelo tells us, he wept; the only time his wife ever saw him cry.

The long years of unproductivity and marginalization that Dirac experienced when his creative period was over -- its prime years occurred between the mid-1920s and the early 1930s, when he was in his 20s -- might have made Dirac feel a failure at last, not least because he never succeeded in solving his great puzzle concerning the interaction of electrons and photons; but if he could read Farmelo's absorbing and accessible account of his life he would see that it had magic in it, and triumph: the magic of revelations about the deep nature of reality, and the triumph of having moved human understanding several steps further toward the light. --A. C. Grayling

A. C. Grayling is an author, playwright, reviewer, cultural journalist, and professor of philosophy at London University. The most recent of his many books are Towards the Light of Liberty and The Choice of Hercules. His play Grace was recently performed in New York City.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465018277
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 8/25/2009
  • Pages: 560
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Graham Farmelo is a Senior Research Fellow at the Science Museum, London, and Adjunct Professor of Physics at Northeastern University. He lives in London, England.

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Table of Contents

Prologue 1

The Strangest Man 7

Abbreviations in Notes 439

Notes 441

Bibliography 495

List of Plates 507

Acknowledgements 509

Index 515

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 18 of 15 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 10, 2009

    A thoroughly enjoyable and enlightening biography of one of the greatest minds in physics

    While there are no equations and any theoretical concept is clearly explained in simple English, I don't think anyone who hasn't studied quantum mechanics will fully appreciate this book. This book brings to life and puts a human face on Dirac as well as Schroedinger, Bohr, Heissenberg, Einstein and the rest of the pantheon of 20th century theoretical physicists. For me, until I read this book, Dirac was only a name associated with a bunch of abstruse mathematical equations. I am indebted to Farmelo for introducing me to the Dirac who took long walks; who had trouble with his digestion; who was adored ( to excess ) by his mother; who was distant from his father and so on.

    From the vantage point of 2009, his predictions are taken for granted. While Farmelo writes of Dirac's worries and insecurities concerning some of the consequences of the equation that bears his name, I was screaming "positrons, gentlemen" at the book.

    The actions and concerns of Dirac before, during and immediately after WWII drove home the fact that Paul Dirac was a real human with worries about his friends and family as well as an unmatched theoretical physicist.

    For anyone with a scientific bent this book is a must read for experiencing the excitement of the development of quantum mechanics while learning to appreciate how much sweat was needed to write those equations.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted December 5, 2009

    If you know why Dirac is famous, you'll love this book

    A nicely written and surprisingly revealing biography of a notoriously uncommunicative man. Dirac's discoveries are particularly well-known among physicists for an uncanny originality, almost as though they had been communicated to Earth by a benificent extraterrestrial, and Dirac's reluctance to enter into conversation has always made the nature of his thought and personality particularly impenetrable. The author is particularly brave, and fair, in discussing the question of whether Dirac had Asperger's syndrome.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2010

    Who ever heard of Paul Dirac?

    Courageous writer to delve into the history of the most important Theorist in development of Quantum Mechanics. Very complex subject made understandable by tracing the life of this very unusual Physicist/Theorist/Mathematician from Birmingham, England to Tallahassee, Florida.

    Very perceptive analysis of the Theoretical World of very famous and bright people from Einstein to Bohr in face of few ever hearing about this most decorated and leader in the field.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 14, 2010

    A Life

    The biography of P. A. M. Dirac is compelling; beautifully written!
    Dirac was as contemporary of Albert Einstein, and his science and his life story share elements in common with that of Einstein.
    Yet there are hundreds of Einstein biographies, to my knowledge, this is a first for Dirac. While Einstein reveled in the glare of the press, Dirac shunned it.
    Both won the Nobel Prize in physics, Dirac for his pioneering role in quantum mechanics, his equation for the electron, his discovery of the positron, and his mathematics. His book Principles of Quantum Mechanics (1930) is still the bible in the subject.
    On top of this he pioneered quantum electrodynamics.
    While both protected their privacy, Dirac avoided statements to the press, and avoided the limelight going along with fame.
    His story is compelling: an abusive father, his reaction to a horrible childhood, a hate-filled home, the suicide of his brother. If anyone outside science knows anything about the private Paul Dirac, they are likely to know that he was a man of few words, answering questions with yes, no; or more likely "I don't know!"
    Perhaps Dirac felt that nature and science is expressed in the language of mathematics, and that words by comparison tend to be empty.
    And Dirac often argued that the more profound insight is more likely to be uncovered in a beautiful mathematical equation; as opposed to hard experiments!
    The author Farmelo (his earlier book It Must Be Beautiful) seems to be born to tell the story of Dirac. It is compelling, and the characters are brought to light, each in a portrait that makes them real: other scientists, Heisenberg, Bohr, and especially his lifelong friend and experimental physicist Peter Kapitza from the Soviet Union; later Nobel for his discovery of superfluidity of liquid helium.
    And his wife, the sister of the Princeton physicist Eugene Wigner; an extrovert, and in personality the opposite of Paul Dirac.
    At conferences Eugene Wigner, famous for his modesty, referred to his "famous brother-in law!"
    The periods of Dirac's life span his childhood in England, his career in Cambridge, his travels to the Soviet union before and during the Cold War, and his retirement in Florida, USA.
    I met him once at lunch when he was visiting his son in Aarhus where I was teaching at the time!
    There is some science in the book, but mostly it is about Dirac's life.
    It has become popular to speculate that geniuses might have suffered from some form of undiagnosed autism, to account for their character quirks. Personally I believe this is unlikely.
    Reviewed by Palle Jorgensen, February 2010.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 27, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Inside the Life of Paul Dirac

    Along with being an excellent character study of a man who grew up with a mentally abusive father and a victimized mother, this is a biography that draws the reader into the time and relationships of the ground breaking scientist of the 20th Century.Paul Dirac, a little known name outside of the scientific community, was one of the greatest minds in theoretical physics.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 11, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    The Strangest Man (Farmelo) Faintly disappointing

    Full marks for research and new material about Dirac's life, but not so good in attempting to give the reader a coherent background for the research that Dirac was doing. Anyone who is not already familiar with the history of the quantum theory may end up being quite confused. The writing is generally efficient, occasionally clumsy and lacks the kind of elan that one finds in Gino Segre's "Faust in Copenhagen."

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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