46 of 50 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars
A great biography of a great physicist, 1 Mar 2009
I had long wanted a biography of Paul Dirac, certainly one of the most elusive figures in 20th century science. The biographies prior to this one were typically just a brief collection of anecdotes -- stories which are by now so common in the literature that they have become cliches. Worse, discussions of his scientific work are typically done in such a manner as only to be of interest to specialists. This was frustrating for anyone who has read biographies of 20th century physicists, and I confess to having read a lot of them. There has got to be more to this man than anecdotes and equations, I told myself, but over the years nothing appeared. No one it seemed wanted to come close to the reality of Dirac, to create a sustained, coherent, and objective narrative of the man and his thinking. Until Farmelo. The wait was worth it. The result in an overwhelming book, all but impossible to put down.
I highly doubt you have ever read a scientific biography like this one. The hoary old cliche of "triumph and tragedy" should be retired after this book, the phrase doesn't begin to give Dirac's life justice. This is one grim, sad tale but it is also a remarkably balanced one. It is also a fascinating, brilliantly told, history of the times when Quantum Mechanics was born in the mid-twenties until the rise of of string theory six decades later. Highlights include the best description of the Kapitza affair I have ever read (when the great Russian physicist, after doing brilliant work at Cambridge, was forbidden by Stalin to leave Russia again, a state of affairs, despite the protests of his colleagues especially Dirac, that lasted for decades). The book also has the best description on Dirac's work and thinking for a non-specialist audience I have come across. And finally, most tellingly, it offers a close indeed painfully intimate understanding of the impact of his families (i.e., of origin and of marriage) on his life. This is a highly sympathetic and thoroughly readable account of what the man went through.
The only complaint I have is that writers who discuss the McCarthy Era really need to familiarize themselves with "Blacklisted by History," a book that by by dealing with original sources throughout clarifies greatly our understanding of the era.
Other than that, this book is unreservedly recommended. An outstanding job and one I think Dirac would have admired.