Although theoretical physicist Paul Dirac apparently showed his usual Trappist calm, he was jubilant. In a few squiggles of his pen, he had described the behavior of every single electron that had ever existed in the universe. The equation was ‘achingly beautiful’, as physicist Frank Wilczek later described it: like Einstein’s equations of general relativity, the Dirac equation was universal yet fundamentally simple; nothing in it could be changed without destroying its power.
Nearly seventy years later, stonemasons carved a succinct version of the Dirac equation on his commemorative stone in Westminister Abbey: iγ.∂ψ = mψ.
A wonderful, and thoroughly engaging biographical account of the life of one of the greatest scientific geniuses of the modern age. Based on previously undiscovered archives, The Strangest Man reveals the many facets of physicist Paul Dirac’s brilliantly original mind. Dirac is remembered as a unique individual who could conjure the laws of nature from pure thought. The Strangest Man is a gem in that it provides the benefit of having been written by an insider — Graham Farmelo is a physicist — but Graham’s detailed explanations of the intricacies of physics are easy to follow, and do not require a scientific background.
Paul A.M. (Adrien Maurice) Dirac was an English theoretical physicist. He was one of the discoverers of quantum mechanics and made fundamental contributions to the early development of electrodynamics. He was the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, a member of the Center for Theoretical Studies, University of Miami, and spent the last decade of his life at Florida State University.
Among other discoveries, he formulated the Dirac equation, which describes the behaviour of fermions and predicted the existence of antimatter. Dirac shared Prize in Physics for 1933 with Erwin Schrödinger, “for the discovery of new productive forms of atomic theory“. At age 31, Dirac was the youngest theoretician ever to win the Nobel Prize in Physics. He also did work that forms the basis of modern attempts to reconcile general relativity with quantum mechanics.
Dirac was regarded by his friends and colleagues as unusual in character. He was an extraordinarily reserved loner, relentlessly literal-minded and seemingly devoid of empathy. Nevertheless, Dirac was an intensely loyal family man. His tastes in the arts ranged from Beethoven to Cher, and from Rembrandt to Mickey Mouse.
Albert Einstein said of Dirac, “This balancing on the dizzying path between genius and madness is awful”. Nevertheless, by virtue to his mathematical brilliance, Dirac earned the distinction of being one of the most significant physicists of the 20th century.
Dirac married Margit Wigner in 1937. He adopted Margit’s two children, Judith and Gabriel. Paul and Margit Dirac had two children together, both daughters, Mary Elizabeth and Florence Monica.
Asked to explain his discoveries in quantum mechanics, Dirac responded that they “cannot be explained in words at all”.
Farmelo is a biographer and science writer, a By-Fellow at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, U.K., and an Adjunct Professor of Physics at Northeastern University, Boston, U.S.A. His research was in the field of particle physics (hadronic interactions) and chaos (scattering theory) Farmelo lives in London.
Ledgendary Physicist Paul Dirac