Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The strangest man (P.A.M. Dirac)

I just finished reading the biography of Paul Dirac, "The strangest man: The hidden life of a quantum genius". And the title does justice to the content, he seemed indeed to be a very strange man. Emotionally crippled, socially handicapped, he was not easy to work or live with. Talking to him often involved a question followed by either "Yes", "No" or a long pause. Many times he even did not respond at all. In the book is mentioned one typical example, about a discussion/fight between his wife and him, in which she asked him: "What would you do if I left you?". After a pause of half a minute, his response was: "I'd say: 'Goodbye dear'".

After from his contributions to science, the book deals with the possible origin of his strangeness (autism), describes his background (family life), digestive problems (only solved at the end of his life), and his many friends/colleagues (e.g. Bohr, Kapitza, Einstein). Many are the "Dirac quotes", which can be found online at several places (e.g. here), including quotes about him ("There is no God, and Dirac is his prophet"). All in all, it is an interesting read, sometimes it is obvious that the writer (Graham Farmelo) is really a big fan, but overall an objective picture about the man and his work.
(it was also interesting to read about the Cavendish etc. and see returning many of the names, such as Bernal and Rutherford, that were also present in the biography of Rosalind Franklin; note this previous entry)

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