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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 greatest scientific geniuses of the modern age. One of Einstein's most admired colleagues, he helped discover quantum mechanics, and his prediction of antimatter was one of the greatest triumphs in the history of physics. In 1933 he became the youngest theoretician ever to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. Dirac's personality, like his

Overview


Paul Dirac was among the greatest scientific geniuses of the modern age. One of Einstein's most admired colleagues, he helped discover quantum mechanics, and his prediction of antimatter was one of the greatest triumphs in the history of physics. In 1933 he became the youngest theoretician ever to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. Dirac's personality, like his achievements, is legendary. The Strangest Man uses previously undiscovered archives to reveal the many facets of Dirac's brilliantly original mind.

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
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.”

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.”

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."

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780465022106
Publisher:
Basic Books
Publication date:
06/28/2011
Edition description:
First Trade Paper Edition
Pages:
560
Sales rank:
303,091
Product dimensions:
8.98(w) x 6.18(h) x 1.45(d)
Age Range:
13 - 18 Years

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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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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