The Strangest man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius

There are scientists whom we revere. Like Newton or Einstein or Feynman, who seem to be extra-ordinarily intelligent and also at the same time, incredibly human. There are those who exist only as names, connected to equations and particle names etc. It is even difficult to imagine them as humans. Paul Dirac comes under the second category.

I came to know about the Dirac notations before I even realized that Dirac is the name of a person rather than an acronym. It was in one of those very interesting books on Quantum Physics written by George Gamow, the eminent Soviet Astronomer/physicist, that I came to know of someone named Dirac. 
Those books were published by the erstwhile Soviet publishers for a pittance in the good old days. I got my introduction into Quantum physics through them.

While Einstein is clearly the leader of the Physicists of the twentieth century, he was just instrumental in starting the movement that ended up creating a new branch of Physics and innumerable discoveries, both theoretically and experimentally, that the list of the Physicists of the first 30 years of the past century is a list of Nobel laureates who were awared the prize as late as the 1980s. 

No wonder,Gamow chose to name his book "Thirty years that shook physics".In the sixth chapter of that book, Gamow discusses Dirac and the way he integrated Quantum physics with the Theory of relativity. In that chapter Dirac emerges as the quintessential British professor, with enough eccentricity to earn Nobel prizes and also discover exciting things like anti-particles. Never thought Gamow could've been so misleading there.

'The Strangest man:The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius' by Graham Farmelo looks at the man behind the eccentric professor and tries to figure how an electrical engineer by training ended up being the youngest Physicist with a Nobel medal. It looks at the complexities of growing up in a dual-language household with a tyrannical father enforcing the rules and the effects it had on Paul Dirac.

Paul Dirac's life starts in pre-WW1 Bristol and ends in Reagan's morning in America. He studies hard, shows his intellect early to be recognized, gets the scholarships that are available and ends up in Cambridge at the right time to start a career in Physics. It was the late 1910s and the war has ended and Einstein has been proven right. The Quantum arm of the Physics was never better and there were exciting theories and experiments going all around. Ernest Rutherford in Cambridge and Neils Bohr in Copanhagen rule the Physics world like a couple of dictators. It was the best of times to be a scientist.

Dirac enters Cambridge with an unusual personality (even for Cambridge) with complete reservedness, a lack of empathy, a complete disdain for protocols and a complete literal-mindedness which is absolutely amusing. Beneath all that facade, Farmelo explores the human lurking inside Dirac. He tries to humanize Dirac from all that comic episodes and de-humanizing anecdotes and sees the little boy terrorized by his father's antics at the dining table that he developed a digestive problem which was not fixed until his last days.

Much of the biography is an effort to bring on this human side of Dirac, with sufficient emphasis on his eccentricities as well. This balancing creates an unlikely hero, who was considered the second-best physicist, only next to Einstein but was all at sea in negotiating the real world much like Einstein did.
Dirac, for all his faults (if they can be called so), developed life-long friendships with a multitude of scientists (Kapitsa, Gamow, Heisenberg) and also rivalries with Pauli. His marriage with Manci ("Wigner's sister") was stable and she provided the space he needed for developing his theories.

Dirac's achievements in Quantum physics are well known (his Positrons, Hole theory, monopoles, string theory etc) and if anything, he deserves more than one Nobel he was awarded. The book also explores his quirkiness by suggesting that it might've been indicative of him being an autistic. There is no proof for it either way. 

The book makes for interesting reading, although by reading about Dirac alone, we are only reading one side of the story of those exciting 30 years. All the names mentioned above, every one of them has won the Nobel for Physics for their work during these years. That just makes the list of books to buy that much longer.

A must-read book if you are remotely interested in science and physics. I would like to quote Pauli on Dirac - "Well, our friend Dirac has got a religion and its guiding principle is 'There is no God and Paul Dirac is His prophet.'"


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