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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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Title:The Strangest Man: The Life of Paul Dirac
Authors:Dr Graham Farmelo
Info:Faber and Faber (2010), Paperback, 560 pages
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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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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 |
Paul Dirac, along with Schrödinger and Heisenberg, was one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics. His "Dirac equation" was a particularly elegant description of fundamental particles (originally focusing on the electron), capturing both their special relativity and quantum mechanical natures. Dirac also predicted antimatter - initially the anti-electron, or positron - out of the implications of his equations. This fantastic, towering gift of a biography of the shy English physicist, is a fantastic, comprehensive description of his life, work and legacy.

Dirac the subtitle, "The Strangest Man" is from a quote of Dirac's friend and father-figure, Neils Bohr, and it forms one of the central themes of the book. The main way that Dirac was strange was his apparently exceptional shyness and social ineptitude. Dirac blamed his emotional problems on his bullying, self-centred father, but the book explores other options too, most obviously his autistic traits, suggesting that his father might not have made too much difference to his adult personality. Most exceptionally bright people are not normal - it perhaps goes with the territory. But it also makes them more impenetrable. Dirac might well have had a high functioning form of autism, known as Asperger's Syndrome. He hated loud noises, was virtually monosyllable when he wasn't silent, and appeared most of the time to be entirely emotionally flat. But he also had a large group of lifelong friends (including many gregarious characters), disliked his own company, married a very extrovert lady, had two children by her, was at times very emotionally warm and perceptive, and liked literature, cartoons, some pop music, practical jokes and other traits one would never associate with a Rain Man figure. Perhaps this highlights the difficulty of capturing a complex, troubled man with a box of a diagnosis, and issues with the definitions of Asperger's Syndrome itself, but I never quite felt that Farmelo got fully into the head of Dirac, and regularly felt frustrated by this - though perhaps that is an impossible task.

What was clear was that Dirac, after his staggering breakthroughs in his 20's, became less driven by physics, less up on the literature, and almost certainly less able to generate profound imaginative insights. Even more dramatically than Einstein, Dirac's academic decline came early and was rather steep, such that some of his later own ideas and criticisms of others were either obsolete or outright wrong. But, almost as if he felt he had earned an easier life after his monumental early achievements (and stifling upbringing), Dirac's humanity grew steadily from his mid 30's and he had a fun, fascinating life, at the expense of a work ethic.

Although I was gripped by the book from start to finish, and loved to hear of this fascinating man's life and work, the only minor let-down I had was in the explanation of the physics he pioneered. The main comparison I made while reading was with Isaacson's biography of Dirac. Isaacson was a journalist, while Farmelo has been a theoretical physicist, so I should have criticised Isaacson for his science, and found Farmelo's descriptions crystal clear. In the main, I had the opposite impression: Isaacson did a brilliant job of describing the science of the day, along with its historical context, while Farmelo's descriptions were, in the main, too terse to be useful. Perhaps quantum mechanics, like Dirac's personality, is just too difficult to describe properly to a lay audience, but having read other books that seemed to make these areas far more clear, I wished, Farmelo had devoted just a few more pages to describing the science that Dirac was pioneering.

These minor gripes aside, Farmelos' book is a tour de force of scientific biography, and anyone interested in the history of science, and the main players in the 20th century revolutions of physics, should grab this book immediately and gratefully devour it. ( )
  RachDan | Feb 2, 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
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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 Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:51:41 -0400)

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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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