The Strangest Man

Graham Farmelo. The Strangest Man: the Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom. New York: Basic Books, 2009. 539 pp. $29.95.  ISBN 978-465-01827-7.

Quick, who said “If you think you understand quantum theory, you don’t understand quantum theory”? Was it (a) Niels Bohr, (b) John Wheeler, (c) Richard Feynman?

Answer: All of the above, each in a slightly different way. It was not said by the English physicist Paul Dirac, 1902-1984, the subject of this superlative biography, although he should have said it.

Why? Because few of his contemporaries ever really understood Paul Dirac, either – not his parents, not his colleagues – and only professional scientists were capable of grasping the work for which he shared (with Erwin Schrödinger) the Nobel Prize in physics in 1933. For those reasons, this book is a must-read about the least-known of one of the handful of truly important physicists of the twentieth century.

Dirac was very important. The book’s dust jacket sums it up. Dirac was

one of the discoverers of quantum mechanics, the most revolutionary theory of the past century . . . his contributions had a unique insight, eloquence, clarity, and mathematical power. His prediction of antimatter was one of the greatest triumphs in the history of physics. One of Einstein’s most admired colleagues, Dirac was in 1933 the youngest theoretician ever to win the Nobel Prize in physics.

Dirac, the friend of Bohr and Heisenberg and a dozen other “big-name” physicists, was both very brilliant and very strange, which is why this book is such a joy to read. It will challenge you, while simultaneously rewarding you. Reviewers on both sides of the Atlantic agreed: anyone who reads it will end up deciding it’s one of the best biographies on any subject that he or she has read in years.

How strange was Dirac? Up until he left for the U.S. in 1970, Dirac held the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge, one of the most prestigious academic appointments in the world. Stephen Hawking was among recent Lucasian Professors, and Michael Green now holds the chair.

The most illustrious predecessor in this long line of distinguished Lucasian thinkers was Isaac Newton, and as time has gone by we have learned that Newton was a strange dude, indeed. But Dirac was far stranger, so much so that he makes Newton by comparison look like a Rotarian on a Carnival Cruise.

You’ll have to take my word for it. It’s not deviancy we’re talking about here, but flat-out strangeness. To be fair, much of Dirac’s terse speech and reclusive behavior seem to indicate, in retrospect, that he was to some degree autistic, although this does not appear to have been clinically confirmed during his lifetime. In any case, our modern understanding of the autism spectrum came long after Dirac’s childhood and early years.

Unfortunately, the book’s come-on of a subtitle – “the hidden life . . . mystic of the atom” – makes it sound as though Dirac was either some sort of cross-dresser or a monk who did Zen exercises before sitting down to his equations.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. He was a family man, a good father, and loyal to his friends. He climbed mountains in his spare time, went for long walks, loved to drive his car around recklessly, and was so taciturn he made “Silent Cal” Coolidge, Dirac’s older contemporary, look like an irrepressible babbler.

Heretofore Coolidge’s reputation as an extremely reticent individual has been unchallenged. Stories about him abound. Wikipedia has conveniently rounded up the best of them, and now that he’s been mentioned, we might as well examine a few.

A possibly apocryphal story has it that Dorothy Parker, seated next to him at a dinner, said to him, “Mr. Coolidge, I’ve made a bet against a fellow who said it was impossible to get more than two words out of you.” His famous reply: “You lose.” It was also Parker who, upon learning that Coolidge had died, reportedly remarked, “How can they tell?” Alice Roosevelt Longworth supposedly once commented that, “He looks as if he’d been weaned on a pickle.” Coolidge often seemed uncomfortable among fashionable Washington society; when asked why he continued to attend so many of their dinner parties, he replied, “Got to eat somewhere.”

It’s difficult to imagine, but when it comes to not saying much, Dirac was Coolidge cubed. Dirac’s colleagues at Cambridge proposed a unit of measurement called the dirac, which they defined as one word per hour. Dirac was enrolled at St. John’s College, founded by Henry VIII’s grandmother. Nightly the fellows, occasional guests, and students took their meals in Hall, which was where some of the stories about Dirac started.

“Dirac’s manner at the dinner table became the stuff of legend,” Farmelo writes. “He had no interest in small talk, and it was common for him to sit through several courses without saying a word or even acknowledging the students sitting next to him.”

The meals were quite sumptuous and the wine flowed freely. Dirac sat impassively through it all, barely eating anything and silently sipping from a glass of water. Someone asked how he liked the previous course of which he had eaten a small portion. “Why do you ask?” he replied. Someone else, trying to make small talk with him, said “It’s a bit rainy isn’t it?” Dirac rose, walked to the window, looked out, returned, and sat down. “It is not now raining,” he said.

Years later, after the war, the young Richard Feynman met Dirac, and was suitably awed. When he ran into Dirac at a conference in 1961, it was not clear if Dirac even remembered him. But two physicists standing nearby reported the following conversation:

Feynman: I am Feynman.

Dirac: I am Dirac. [Silence.]

Feynman (admiringly): It must have been wonderful to be the discoverer of that [electron] equation.

Dirac: That was a long time ago. [Pause]

Dirac: What are you working on?

Feynman: Mesons.

Dirac: Are you trying to discover an equation for them?

Feynman: It is very hard.

Dirac (concluding): One must try.

For more on this strange individual and this fascinating biography, consult this enthusiastic review by Tim Radford in the The Guardian, and this by Louisa Gilder in the Sunday Book Review of The New York Times. Carmelo’s book subsequently won the L.A. Times Book Prize and was selected as one of the best books of 2009 by The Economist, The New York Times Book Review, and Amazon.com. 

The book’s most recent accolade came not long ago in the Times Literary Supplement (December 3, 2010) in its annual “Books of the Year” roundup. The favorite book of 2010 for a great many TLS commentators was evidently Edmund De Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, which is mentioned several times.

But if you plow through the articles by sixty-five different authors, you come alphabetically to a brief contribution by George Steiner, certainly no slouch of a heavy thinker. Steiner gets right to the point:

This has been a banner year. Graham Farmelo’s The Strangest Man, a biography of Paul Dirac, is masterly. Some of the most complex but decisive concepts in modern physics and mathematics are set out with lucidity and concise elegance. An almost miraculous period in the history of science is brought to life against its human and political background.

Enough said. The legacy of Paul Dirac is a wonder, but then so is this book. Left to our own devices, few of us could ever approach the ideas and contributions of such an inventive mind, and most of us would have been baffled by the man himself, as so many of his contemporaries were. Yet Farmelo tackles both subjects simultaneously – the ideas, the individual – and illuminates them splendidly. It is a memorable presentation in a beautifully written book.

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