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The Strangest Man: The Life of Paul Dirac by…

The Strangest Man: The Life of Paul Dirac (original 2009; edition 2010)

by Dr Graham Farmelo

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5751917,226 (4.11)19
Title:The Strangest Man: The Life of Paul Dirac
Authors:Dr Graham Farmelo
Info:Faber and Faber (2010), Paperback, 560 pages
Collections:Your library

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The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom by Graham Farmelo (2009)



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Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
'A monumental achievement - one of the great scientific biographies.' Michael Frayn The Strangest Man is the Costa Biography Award-winning account of Paul Dirac, the famous physicist sometimes called the British Einstein. He was one of the leading pioneers of the greatest revolution in twentieth-century science: quantum mechanics. The youngest theoretician ever to win the Nobel Prize for Physics, he was also pathologically reticent, strangely literal-minded and legendarily unable to communicate or empathize. Through his greatest period of productivity, his postcards home contained only remarks about the weather.Based on a previously undiscovered archive of family papers, Graham Farmelo celebrates Dirac's massive scientific achievement while drawing a compassionate portrait of his life and work. Farmelo shows a man who, while hopelessly socially inept, could manage to love and sustain close friendship.The Strangest Man is an extraordinary and moving human story, as well as a study of one of the most exciting times in scientific history. 'A wonderful book . . . Moving, sometimes comic, sometimes infinitely sad, and goes to the roots of what we mean by truth in science.' Lord Waldegrave, Daily Telegraph
  GalenWiley | Apr 12, 2015 |
Wonderfully written for the lay person, Farmelo's biography of Dirac is well worth the read. I am not a scientist, but my son is--why I picked up the book in the first place, probably--and some of the anecdotes were wonderful to share with him.

Dirac was the archetypical scientist. Taciturn, brilliant, and no candidate for a cover of GQ. But he saw beauty in the universe. As a mathematician, he was only interested in studying those equations which were beautiful.

I am sure there will be other reviews of this book which can relate the science behind his Nobel Prize. I can only attest to the readablity of the biographical picture that emerges from it. ( )
  kaulsu | Nov 4, 2014 |

Kindly bought for me by my in-laws as a Christmas present a few years back, this is a biography of the physicist Paul Dirac, and how he navigated the difficulty of being the smartest person in the room in almost every room he was ever in. As a former student of physics in Cambridge, I was of course familiar with his work, and in particular the bra-ket notation which I always found very elegant. There may even have been a time when I understood the Dirac equation.

Anyway. Dirac had a more interesting life than the average academic physicist; brought up in Bristol, as the child of a Swiss father and English mother (who did not get on but stuck it out with each other for decades), and ending up eventually in Cambridge and finally Florida, with spells elsewhere, notably Princeton, where he married the sister of the bloke whose office was between his and Einstein's. He is the chap bang in the middle of the 1927 Solvay Conference photograph, behind Einstein's right shoulder (left as we look at the group). He was 25, and the youngest participant.

I quite often pass the spot where this picture was taken (the building is now a school, just beside the European Parliament) and if I am with someone I tell them the story of how the universe was reshaped there, 87 years ago. (Incidentally I caught Farmelo out on a point of Brussels geography - he says that the conference delegates were staying at the Hotel Britannique "near the site of today's European Parliament", but in fact it was on the western corner of Place du Tr�ne, much further from the future European Parliament than the conference venue.)

Farmelo does his best to explain the inexplicable: how a chap from a fairly modest background, with no family history of contributions to science, was able to revolutionise how we think about the fundamentals of existence. It's an interesting effort: Dirac had several good ideas in his lifetime, some of which were timely and some only later recognised as such; his most implementable idea was separating out uranium isotopes by gas centrifuge, which is bizarrely practical in comparison with his theoretical innovations. Farmelo argues that Dirac was uniquely qualified to think of this because of his early training in engineering, but it seems more of an anomaly than part of a pattern in his account. Really the most interesting thing is that Dirac was driven by a concept of and commitment to mathematical beauty, and that gave him a lot more hits than misses. There's also quite a lot about the political connections of the nuclear physics community in mid-century; Dirac comes across as not particularly ideological, but fiercely loyal to his few friends, with little patience for political sectarianism, and generally more left than right in his sympathies.

Dirac was famously difficult as a person. But she married him anyway, and they had two children together as well as bringing up her two from her previous marriage. She was Hungarian; Farmelo speculates toward the end that many autistic men form successful relationships with partners from different cultures, who go into it expecting to have to work harder at communicating than perhaps someone from the same background might do. I'm sure that, like me, you can immediately think of plenty of examples - and counter-examples - of this proposition. (The relevance of autism in discussing Dirac's personality goes without saying.)

This book won the Costa biography award in 2009, and I suspect was a worthy winner. Strongly recommended. ( )
1 vote nwhyte | Oct 27, 2014 |
It wasn't until very near the end of this book that I finally identified the niggling something that had seemed strange throughout it. Most biographies are driven by emotional narrative. To put it in Myers-Briggs terms, they're F books. This book is clearly at T. But what could be more appropriate for the biography of a man so emotionally reserved that many who knew him later speculated that he might have been autistic?

Unverified psychological speculation aside, The Strangest Man is the extremely well researched story of the life of Paul Dirac, one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, and arguably one of the most brilliant physicists of all time. His major contributions to science were made during a fascinating period in the world of physics, as well as in the world at large. Dirac's life is entwined with many of the legends of modern physics, all of whom were caught up to some degree in the rise of Hitler, WWII, and the Cold War.

While the book seems to sag a little at the end, as Dirac approaches retirement and then moves with his wife to Florida, it is otherwise a fascinating glimpse into the birth of quantum mechanics, through the life of a man who was at once one of the pillars of the community and yet still an outsider. By all rights, the name Dirac should ring with equal weight to names like Einstein and Newton. This book illustrates both why that is and why it didn't happen.

Recommended to those interested in modern physics and/or the lives of brilliant outsiders. ( )
  greeniezona | Sep 20, 2014 |
Biographies vary greatly, from the unimaginative hagiography via simple chronologies through to intellectually penetrating studies which bring their chosen subject alive, whatever previous knowledge the reader might have of the subject. Graham Farmelo's book about Paul Dirac – the undeservedly little-known Bristol-born theoretical physicist is a prime exemplar of the last of these. Farmelo expounds joyfully and perceptively on the life of this man, who surely ranks with the all-time greats in the understanding of the physical universe, names such as Einstein and Newton being almost household names in today's woefully science-ignorant society. The life of a ground-breaking scientist such as Dirac must necessarily be expressed using some understanding of his subject, but Farmelo positively delights in providing his readers with what is needed in this, enlightening the intelligent non-scientist without talking down to the expert. Dirac was, in his most productive years, an archetypal non-communicator – taken indeed to an extreme. Farmelo's researches are particularly meticulous, and he brings the various strands of testimony together in a considered way. Having been a research physicist, albeit an experimentalist with a pathetic grasp of mathematics, I found his exposition illuminating, and even an aid to exploring the inter-relationships between the scientists with whom I'd interacted. This is a superb book, even to its title, which derives from a (probably offhand) comment by Niels Bohr. ( )
3 vote CliffordDorset | Aug 27, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
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

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[T]he amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.

  JOHN STUART MILL, On Liberty, 1869

We are nothing without the work of others our predecessors, others our teachers, others our contemporaries. Even when, in the measure of our inadequacy and our fullness, new insight and new order are created, we are still nothing without others. Yet we are more.

   J. ROBERT OPPENHEIMER, Reith Lecture, 20 December 1953
To my mother and the memory of my late father
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Asked to explain his discoveries in quantum mechanics, Dirac responded that they 'cannot be explained in words at all'. Photograph: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

Here's a puzzle. Bristol boy – slightly older contemporary of Bristol's other boy Cary Grant – has an unhappy childhood, but doesn't mention it for 50 years; learns to speak French, German and Russian, but becomes famous for his long silences; embarks on the wrong career; gets interested in mathematics and ends up at Cambridge, where he becomes famous for his even longer silences; hears about Einstein and gets into advanced physics; and then goes to Copenhagen to meet Niels Bohr, who grumbles to Ernest Rutherford, "This Dirac, he seems to know a lot of physics, but he never says anything."

Somehow this silent, solemn, young beanpole earns the enthusiastic friendship and admiration of vibrant and merrymaking geniuses such as Bohr himself, Robert Oppenheimer, Werner Heisenberg, George Gamow, Peter Kapitza and so on, without, apparently, initiating reciprocal entertainment or conversation. His discoveries are in quantum mechanics, a subject that remains opaque even after 80 years of continuous exposition.

These discoveries involve no experiment, no apparatus and no observation that ever spontaneously troubled a layman. When quizzed about his achievements and their significance, he declines to explain, saying that quantum theories are built up "from physical concepts which cannot be explained in words at all".

His responses to the most ordinary pleasures have a semi-detached air. He relaxes by climbing trees in a three-piece suit. Dirac once asked Heisenberg why he danced and got the unsurprising answer that it was a pleasure to dance with nice girls. Farmelo reports: "After about five minutes of silence, he said: 'Heisenberg, how do you know beforehand that the girls are nice?'"

Dirac sounds like an unlikely candidate for a biography, let alone a "hidden life". And yet this book races along. In the foreground, a lonely boy who becomes a lonely man driven by the concept of mathematical beauty (not an obsession you tend to volunteer in the pub). In the middle distance, there is university snobbery and economic privation, a difficult father, a smothering mother and a suicidal brother, along with the rise of the Nazi party in Europe, the repressions of Stalinist Russia, the second world war, the devastation of a continent, the atomic bomb, the McCarthy era, and the cold war.

Embracing both foreground and background is the intellectual ferment of physical theory that begins with puzzles about the electron, and comes to a climax with the debate about the nature of matter and the commencement of space and time.

The story is dizzying: the unlikely hero is widely declared the second greatest scientist of the 20th century, and most people have still never heard of him. He proposes anti-matter not on the basis of physical observation, but because his own mathematical logic tells him that it must exist. He shares a Nobel Prize and writes a textbook that becomes an instant and peerless classic (you can read a similar but differently accented response to the man, the discovery and the textbook in Frank Close's highly readable Antimatter, Oxford, £9.99, coincidentally published within a few weeks of The Strangest Man).

And then the mystery deepens. This apparently unfeeling, probably autistic man somehow learns to become politically opinionated, and even warmly responsive, at least to a few friends. He marries, becomes a good husband and father, takes up gardening, learns to tell jokes, develops lecturing skills that make him part of the landscape of scientific show business, and emigrates to America, all without becoming a whit less taciturn to most of his associates.

When I introduced this book club, I wondered if a biography counted as a science book. That is because life is what we make of it; but science goes its own sweet way. Farmelo makes the same point in chapter 31: "If Marie Curie and Alexander Fleming had never been born, radium and penicillin would have been discovered soon after the dates now in the textbooks." The science would have happened anyway: the story of the people who made the science tells us more about history than science.

Dirac might, however, be an exception. He addressed mysteries, and solved them mysteriously. "His discoveries were like exquisitely carved statues falling out of the sky, one after another," says Freeman Dyson in the same chapter. "He seemed to be able to conjure laws of nature from pure thought."

Books such as these tell us as much about the why, as about the how of science. Farmelo has already had enthusiastic reviews and quite rightly, too. This is a rich book: it pinpoints the moment, the milieu, the excitement of discovery and the mystery of matter, and it provides an alternative social history of the 20th century as well. And all of this is held together by a figure simultaneously touching and mysterious, capable of leaps of the imagination on the scale of Einstein and Newton and Darwin, but also capable, when his wife exploded "What would you do if I left you?" of thinking for a while and then answering "I'd say, 'Goodbye, dear.'
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0465018270, Hardcover)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:53 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

Paul Dirac was among the great scientific geniuses of the modern age. One of the discoverers of quantum mechanics, one of Einstein's most admired colleagues, Dirac was in 1933 the youngest theoretician ever to win the Nobel Prize in physics. Based on previously undiscovered archives, this biography reveals the many facets of Dirac's brilliantly original mind as well as the spectacularly exciting era of scientific discovery in which he lived.… (more)

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