The Strangest Man

I am reading Graham Farmelo’s excellent biography of the 20th century quantum physicist Paul Dirac. I was fascinated by Dirac as I kept getting glimpses of him in other material I was reading over the years, but never had the chance to read more about him. It’s amazing that a physicist on a par with Newton, Maxwell, and Einstein is relatively unknown even in his own country (England!).

What were his major contributions in science? Several, but the standout one is the Dirac Equation one of the great achievements of theoretical physics. As well as describing the electron in a way consistent with then recently discovered principles of quantum mechanics and Einstein’s theory of special relativity, this great achievement pointed to the possibility of the existence of antimatter.

The book strikes a fine balance between describing cutting edge early 20th century physics and a human interest story. Dirac struggled with human interactions all his life, being incredibly literal-minded whilst struggling to interpret the feelings and motivations of his co-workers, family, and other significant people in his life. His behaviour was considered legendary and strange even by the rarified standards of particle physicists.

Personally, I thought the book worth the price for sentences like these alone, not describing Dirac himself, but two of his closest friends:

In the previous June, he [Ehrenfest] had brought along a Ceylonese parrot trained to say, ‘But, gentlemen, that’s not physics‘ and recommended that it should chair all forthcoming seminars on quantum mechanics.

Halpern was a homeopath and a certified African medicine man, a twenty-four carat eccentric who slept outdoors all year round, sliced baked potatoes with karate chops and refused to wash with soap.