By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by B.J. Harrison
The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac
By Graham Farmelo
Graham Farmelo (Author, biographer, science writer, and an Adjunct Professor of Physics)
Paul Dirac (1902-1984, English theoretical physicist born in Bristol, UK)
After listening to Farmelo’s biography of Paul Dirac, one begins to understand why so few outside of Science know of this “brainiac”. Paul Dirac’s history of communication is Spartan; i.e. rife with “yes” and “no” answers, long pauses, or abrupt departures, Dirac fails to become a household name like Einstein or Bohr.
Considered by some to be the second Einstein of Physics’, Paul Dirac is practically unknown to most of the non scientific community. At the age of 31, Dirac shares the Nobel Prize with Erwin Schrodinger for discovery of new forms of atomic theory.
In the span of Dirac’s life, he manages to astound the Physics community with his independent research, and taciturn analysis of quantum mechanics.
From Dirac’s top down theoretical formulation of quantum mechanics, he manages to reveal the spin of electrons and an early stage belief about string theory. His formulations were solitary revelations born of a superior perception of reality that kept Dirac at the cutting edge of Physics well beyond his 30th year of life.
One of the revealing parts of Farmelo’s biography is Dirac’s remembrance of childhood and his parent’s treatment of him and his two siblings. Dirac believes his father destroyed his children’s lives while Farmelo’s biography seems to show Charles Dirac deeply loved his two sons and daughter.
Farmelo is not suggesting that Charles Dirac was a good father or husband but he is saying an offspring’s memory of what happens in their childhood is a distortion of reality.
Charles Dirac may have been a martinet, though he did not strike his children. He may have been a philanderer, but he remained with his wife until she died. He may have been a cheap skate, but he left what he had to his wife when he died. Ironically, Paul Dirac is genetically predisposed to be a genius but he seems to see a distorted truth of his childhood.
The Chinese curse of “may you live in interesting times” is a hallmark of Paul Dirac’s life. Born in 1902 Dirac lives through WWI, WWII, The Korean War, The 1950’s Red Scare, the reign of Joseph Stalin, Sputnik, the Cuban missile crisis, and Vietnam. He dies in Tallahassee, Florida in 1984. In the course of his life he met. competed with, and mostly surpassed the
crème de la crème of the Physics community.
Dirac’s life is a journey through 20th century history. He falls for Russian communism as many intellectuals of the 1920s did. He lives through and understands the potential of the atomic bomb and chooses not to participate in its creation. He lives through Germany’s bombing of England, deplores German dehumanization of Jewish scientists, but accepts post war rationalizations of German scientists (e.g. Werner Heisenberg) who supported Hitler. Dirac is denied a visa to immigrate to the United States in the 1950s because of McCarthyism. He leaves Cambridge in the 1970s to become Florida State University’s most famous professor.
Though Dirac made monumental theoretical contributions in the field of Physics, he fails to acquire the same cosmological gravitas as Albert Einstein or Niels Bohr. It seems largely because of his lack of charisma.
Farmelo’s biography shows Dirac as a human being working through life, burdened by perceptions of childhood, blessed with a superior perception of reality, and subject to the exigencies of living any life in this world; the difference being that Dirac was a genius among geniuses.