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The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom

Graham Farmelo
Basic Books
Publication Date: 
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[Reviewed by
Frédéric Morneau-Guérin
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With The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom, physicist and scientific writer Graham Farmelo gives us — in accessible and precise prose — the poignant tale of the life of mathematician and physicist Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac (1902–1984). The fact that the man who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics 1933, at the young age of 31, for the “discovery of new and productive forms of atomic theory” and who was also the most prolific scientist to occupy the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics since Sir Isaac Newton remains largely unknown to the public at large is a glaring injustice that Farmelo brilliantly contributes to remedying. Dirac’s flashes of brilliance in physics (his prediction of the existence of antimatter, for example) were numerous and the author gives us a highly illuminating description in this book that is as detailed as it is captivating.

Although notoriously laconic, Paul Dirac confided that he had had a difficult childhood marked by an austere lifestyle and a rigorous educational regime imposed by his taskmaster father. Generally perceived as strange by his classmates and teachers, the young Dirac was a serious, silent, and thoughtful boy. He was also said to be cold, narrow-minded, inhibited, egocentric and indifferent to others. Graham Farmelo raises the hypothesis that Paul Dirac’s apparent emotional blindness, his marked incapacity to sympathize with other humans, his propensity to commit social gaffes, his unusually narrow repertory of centres of interest, his relatively undeveloped social and verbal abilities, could be attributable to an autism spectrum disorder.

A remarkably brilliant student, Dirac studied electrical engineering and then mathematics. In 1923, with two bachelor’s degrees with first-class honours in hand, Dirac obtained a scholarship to study physics at the University of Cambridge. While there, he lived a monk-like existence, devoting his waking hours to studying and only allowing himself to break for food, sleep and visiting the library. Dirac’s instinct, his exceptional centration abilities and his devotion to work soon drew the attention of the dons, who rightfully viewed him as a “first-rate man”.

When Dirac launched his research career, the quantum egg had already hatched. But a great deal of work was still needed in order to ensure the viability of the creature being born. It took several years for a group of around 50 physicists — mostly extremely competitive young men aspiring to glory and honours — to allow the quantic mechanics to crystallize into a complete theory. In this effervescent environment, in which quarrels to have the paternity of ideas recognized were numerous, the taciturn physicist wound up second in the race to publish more often than he should have. Dirac was nevertheless able to stand out through his capacity to expose his vision eloquently and clearly. Farmelo stresses that Paul Dirac’s three kinds of scientific training shone through in his work: he had the passion of a physicist for discovering the laws of nature, the mathematician’s passion for abstracting and the engineer’s practical sense in insisting that theories lead to useful results.

The final chapters of the work are imbued with melancholy. Farmelo recounts the slow but inescapable dulling of Dirac’s intellectual acuity; the strangest man went to join “Einstein in the wings of theoretical physics while the next generation took centre stage”. However, it was only at the very end of the 1960s that Dirac agreed to shift into the slow lane of the academic world as his spouse urged him to do. The couple left Cambridge to settle in Florida, where their elder daughter lived.

For those who, like Paul Dirac, had devoted decades to attempting to force nature to reveal its deepest secrets and who believed that they had mostly managed to do so, standing by powerless as numerous sub-atomic particles were discovered and seeing fundamental physics plunged into a level of unparalleled disorder not seen since the early 1920s was an unbearable torture. It is also painful to read that in his twilight years, one of the greatest minds of the 20th century was seething with disillusion and was haunted by a profound feeling of failure.

Frédéric Morneau-Guérin is a professor in the Department of Education at Université TÉLUQ. He holds a Ph.D. in abstract harmonic analysis.

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