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

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

3.9 15
by Graham Farmelo
     
 

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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

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.

Editorial Reviews

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.
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.
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.”

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780465019922
Publisher:
Basic Books
Publication date:
08/25/2009
Sold by:
Hachette Digital, Inc.
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
560
Sales rank:
585,502
File size:
2 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

Meet the Author

Graham Farmelo is senior research fellow at the Science Museum, London, and adjunct professor of physics at Northeastern University. His previous books include It Must Be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science. He lives in Richmond, England.

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The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
GrumpyDoc More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Palle-Jorgensen More than 1 year ago
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.
pipeandslippers More than 1 year ago
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.
Maxbornagain More than 1 year ago
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."
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