The Strangest Man

Since getting rid of my telly a few weeks ago I’ve reverted to a previous incarnation as a bookworm, and have been tackling the backlog of unread volumes sitting on my coffee table at home. Over the last couple of days I’ve spent the evenings reading The Strangest Man by Graham Farmelo, a biography of the great theoretical physicist Paul Dirac.

I’m actually quite ashamed that it has taken me so long to get around to reading this. I’ve had it for two years or more and really should have found time to do it before now. Dirac has long been one of my intellectual heroes, for his unique combination of imagination and mathematical rigour; the Dirac equation is one of the topics I most enjoy lecturing about to physics students. I am also immensely flattered to be one of his academic descendants: Paul Dirac was the PhD supervisor of Dennis Sciama, who supervised my supervisor John Barrow, making me (in a sense) his great-grandson. Not that I’ll ever achieve anything of the magnitude he did.

The book is pretty long, and I suppose one of the factors putting me off reading it was that I thought it might be heavy going. That turned out to be far from the case. It’s wonderfully well written, never getting bogged down in details, and cleverly interweaving Dirac’s life and scientific career together against a vivid historical backdrop dominated by the rise of Nazism in Germany and the tragedy of World War 2. It also beautifully conveys the breathless sense of excitement as the new theory of quantum mechanics gradually fell into place. Altogether it’s a gripping story that had me hooked from the start, and I devoured the 400+ pages in just a couple of evenings (which is quick by my standards). I’ve never read a scientific biography so pacey and engaging before, so it’s definitely hats off to Graham Farmelo!

Among the book’s highlights for me were the little thumbnail sketches of famous physicists I knew beforehand mostly only as names. Niels Bohr comes across as a splendidly warm and avuncular fellow, Werner Heisenberg as a very slippery customer of questionable political allegiance (likewise Erwin Schrödinger), Ernest Rutherford as blunt and irascible. I was already aware of the reputation of Wolfgang Pauli had for being an absolute git; this book does nothing to dispel that opinion. We tend to forget that the names we came to know through their association with physics also belonged to real people, with all that entails.

I was also interested to learn that Dirac and his wife Manci spent their honeymoon in 1937, as the clouds of war gathered on the horizon, in Brighton, which Farmelo describes as

..a peculiarly raffish town., famous for its two Victorian piers jutting imperiously out to sea, for the pale green domes of its faux-oriential pavilions, its future-robot and a host of other tacky attractions.

So in most respects it hasn’t changed much, although one of the two piers  has since gone for a Burton.

So what of Dirac himself? Most of what you’re likely to hear about him concerns his apparently cold and notoriously uncommunicative nature. I never met Dirac. He died in 1984. I was an undergraduate at Cambridge at the time, but he had moved to Florida many years before that. I have, however, over the years had occasion to talk to quite a few people who knew Dirac personally, including Dennis Sciama. All of them told me that he wasn’t really anything like the caricature that is usually drawn of him. While it’s true that he had no time for small talk and was deeply uncomfortable in many social settings, especially formal college occasions and the like, he very much enjoyed the company of people more extrovert than himself and was more than willing to talk if he felt he had anything to contribute. He got on rather well with Richard Feynman, for example, although they couldn’t have had more different personalities. This gives me the excuse to include this wonderful picture of Dirac and Feynman together, taken in 1962 – the body language tells you everything there is to know about these two remarkable characters:


Feynman is also an intellectual hero of mine, because he was outrageously gifted not only at doing science but also at communicating it. On the other hand, I suspect (although I’ll obviously never know) that I might not have liked him very much at a personal level. He strikes me as the sort of chap who’s a lot of fun in small doses, but by all accounts he could be prickly and wearingly egotistical.

On the other hand, the more I read The Strangest Man the more I came to think that I would have liked Dirac. He may have been taciturn, but at least that meant he was free from guile and artifice. It’s not true that he lacked empathy for other people, either. Perhaps he didn’t show it outwardly very much, but he held a great many people in very deep affection. It’s also clear from the quotations peppered throughout the book that people who worked closely with him didn’t just admire him for his scientific work; they also loved him as a person. A strange person, perhaps, but also a rather wonderful one.

In the last Chapter, Farmelo touches on the question of whether Dirac may have displayed the symptoms of autism. I don’t know enough about autism to comment usefully on this possibility. I don’t even know whether the term autistic is defined with sufficient precision to be useful. There is such a wide and multidimensional spectrum of human personality that it’s inevitable that there will be some individuals who appear to be extreme in some aspect or other. Must everyone who is a bit different from the norm be labelled as having some form of disorder?

The book opens with the following quote from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, which says it all.

Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.

Another thought occurred to me after I’d finished reading the book. Dirac’s heyday as a theoretical physicist was the period 1928-1932 or thereabouts. Comparatively speaking, his productivity declined significantly in later years; he produced fewer original results and became increasingly isolated from the mainstream. Eddington’s career followed a similar pattern: he did brilliant work when young, but subsequently retreated into the cul-de-sac of his Fundamental Theory. Fred Hoyle is another example – touched by greatness early in his career, but cantankerous and blinded by his own dogma later on. Even Albert Einstein, genius-of-geniuses, spent his later scientific life chasing shadows.

I think there’s a tragic inevitability about the mid-life decline of these geniuses of theoretical physics, because the very same determination and intellectual courage that allowed them to break new ground also rendered them unwilling to be deflected by subsequent innovations elsewhere. And break new ground Dirac certainly did. The word genius is perhaps over-used, but it certainly applies to Paul Dirac. We need more like him.

28 Responses to “The Strangest Man”

  1. Thanks a lot – just purchased the Kindle version!
    I think I agree with your assessment of Feynman, in particular after having read the Feynman biography by James Gleick.
    Re Heisenberg: I have once read in an article on the history of quantum mechanism that he was ruthless in pursuing his goals (probably we would say ‘competitive’ today), so I am very interested to read about him, too.

  2. Reblogged this on Theory and Practice of Trying to Combine Just Anything and commented:
    So this is a book I dare to recommend before having read it myself (but purchased it immediately).
    I am very interested in the history of physics, in particular in the history of early quantum mechanics dominated by Europeans, probably because I had the chance to learn Theoretical Physics from one of Heisenberg’s PhD students, Wilhelm Macke.

  3. I think Dirac is credited with the following doggerel:

    Age is of course a fever chill
    That every physicist must fear
    He is better dead than living still
    When past his thirtieth year.

    Many physicists of that era did suffer a decline after a glorious youth. But Feynman is a bit of an exception, having made important contributions in each of four separate decades …

  4. George Jones Says:

    Very nice summary. I, too, loved this biography.

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    You (and the above commentators) have basically convinced me to get this book. I want a biog of Dirac and was disappointed by Krage’s.

    Count me in as another to share your view of Feynman.

  6. I think you have succinctly and eloquently encapsulated both the pragmatic side of a life of scientific renown, and the major challenge of being able to sustain relevant contributory value. Thank you.

  7. Kia ora
    On the ‘autism’ spectrum would be how Dirac’s ‘diagnosis’ would be expressed. very high-functioning individuals often display aspects, most likely ‘Asperger’s’ which is a condition of our family – intelligent, focussed people but not necessarily interactive socially or aware of conventions of nicety. Also not particularly keen on – really averse to human contact (physical) unless choosing themselves to ‘go there’. One in four persons is ‘diagnosed’ as having a Mental ealth disorder – meaning anyhting from mild depression to PTSD, to Autism spectrum, to other Schizophrenia etc., no shame involved. It’s brain chemicals.

  8. That’s a curious coincidence; someone in another of my Internet social circles was speaking (approvingly) of this biography just a few days ago. I think that I can take the universe’s hint and to go looking for a copy myself.

  9. One of my favourite reads of last year. Farmello must also be commended on the amount of research he undertook (the end notes leaves almost no stone unturned) and his rather objective style of trying to portray his subject.

  10. I became a Paul Dirac fan early just reading some of the stories about him in the many physics books I’ve read. I read The Strangest Man when it was published. Really enjoyed It. Clearly Paul Dirac is one of the giants.

  11. Erwin Schrodinger, not Ernest

  12. Chris Brunt Says:

    I was just recommending this book just a few days ago too!

    Some of the stories about Dirac made it into comic strip form, entitled “Oh, that Dirac!”. A few are reprinted here in Ottaviani’s Suspended in Language. [ SPOILERS! … ]

  13. John Peacock Says:

    I very much second this recommendation, for all the diverse reasons you mention.

    But regarding specifically the strangeness of Dirac, I found that the title is not really fair, and the book actually made him much more human than the anecdotes. The impression I was left with was that he wasn’t all that different from quite a few scientists I know in terms of ability to interact with other people. And it was interesting to read that he was capable of being competitive and secretive about his work for fear of being scooped.

    I found this reassuring, since I don’t really like the “unique genius” stereotype. Einstein was really rather good at physics, but we’d have had relativity at about the same time even if he’d never lived: even the best people are influenced by a climate of ideas. I wonder if the same is true of Dirac? When I first saw his equation, I thought it was like something from another planet, and I wondered how long we’d have had to wait before someone else could have invented it. But my bet is that others were close to getting there, just as Poincare and Hilbert nearly scooped Einstein. I wonder who they were? Maybe Pauli: another interesting thing I learned from the book is that he did indeed scoop Dirac on other occasions.

    • telescoper Says:

      I also found that the more I read the more I found myself warming to Dirac the person. One example that doesn’t fit the stereotypical image is his affection and concern for his friend Paul Ehrenfest, and his obvious devastation when the latter committed suicide.

    • True of SR, but what about GR? It wasn’t “in the air” in the same way that SR was. If Einstein hadn’t discovered it, when would it have been discovered?

      • John Peacock Says:

        I agree to an extent about SR vs GR. Einstein probably won the SR race only by a rather short head, and was further ahead on GR. But I’ve also read statements that Riemann was well on the way to a view of gravity as curved spacetime, and might have anticipated Einstein had he lived longer. Plus Hilbert did scoop Einstein to the final field equations, albeit as a result of Einstein raising his interest. I think relativistic gravity *was* in the air (look at failed 1912 attempts by Abraham and by Nordstrom, for example). So it was only a matter of time before a physicist of that sort met a mathematician who had the Riemannian tools. It might have taken a few years extra without Einstein, but not something that would have had to wait a generation.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I agree with Phillip’s point.

  14. One of my sons (at least one—maybe another as well) has (a mild form of) autism, so I know a bit more about this than I did a couple of years ago. (By the way, this book is also on my list. The only negative criticism I have read about it is that the author introduces the subject of autism as what would be described in a film as a “twist” near the end of the book, tying together clues he had dropped throughout the book, in other words a bit melodramatic, especially since the author isn’t the first to suggest this.) From the various descriptions of Dirac, Asperger’s syndrome fits well. As far as I know, no form of autism can be diagnosed conclusively by finding some genetic mutation or whatever, so one can probably never say definitively one way or the other in the case of Dirac or, indeed, in the case of many others. (Note: Some no longer regard Asperger’s syndrome as part of the autism spectrum, but rather as a separate disorder.) My favourite anecdote about Dirac is his practice of introducing his wife as “Wigner’s sister”.

    Another good biography of one of Dirac’s colleagues is Moore’s biography of Schrödinger.

    • And, of course, Gamow’s Thirty Years that Shook Physics”.

      Most of the founders of QM fizzled out later on, having produced their best work when younger: Einstein, Planck, Sommerfeld, Schrödinger, Heisenberg, Jordan, Born, Hund and to a lesser extent Bohr. Fermi and Pauli stayed more or less at the leading edge until they died.

      Why did Dirac move to Florida?

      • telescoper Says:

        He had to retire at 67 from the Lucasian chair and was in any case very isolated in Cambridge. Many US universities courted him, and he found Florida made the most generous offer. Manci also liked it there.

  15. “future-robot”

    What is the “future-robot”?

    “So in most respects it hasn’t changed much, although one of the two piers has since gone for a Burton.”

    Cockney rhyming slang? (I know someone who can never suppress a grin when I mentioned I used to work at Jodrell Bank.)

  16. Also Julian schwinger is another genius who did non-mainstream work last 20 or so years

  17. Anton Garrett Says:

    Just bought and read the book as a result of this column. It is excellent (and the author is, as I suspected, English despite his affiliation). Particularly good is to see Dirac painted as a human being at last, if a highly reticent and retiring one.

    Autism, Aspergers, bipolar… with diseases like measles, chickenpox, typhoid, anthrax the medical profession can point to specific bacteria or viruses, but no such underlying ontology has been identified in psychology, and non-medics should not suppose that these things are understood merely because a name has been given to them. But I do not doubt that there is a correlation between how Dirac’s father behaved toward him and his perceived strangeness.

  18. […] The Strangest Man ( […]

  19. […] this year I posted a review of a book about the great theoretical physicist Paul Dirac. Presumably by a complete coincidence, on the very […]

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