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Dirac was one of the founders of quantum theory and one of the most profound and original minds of the twentieth century. But, as the title of this book says, he was also a very strange man, austere in his personal relations, sometimes to the point of perversity, and unable to communicate, either emotionally or verbally, except with only a few very close friends. The origin of his behaviour may have been a form of autism, but was undoubtedly also influenced by his early family life and the relationship with his parents, particularly his father. The book thoroughly and sensitively weaves the story of the development of Dirac the theoretical physicist and his discoveries with the psychology of his personal life, and explores how the influence of his family was important in shaping his interaction with the world.

Dirac's achievements, grounded as they are in advanced mathematics, are difficult to explain to non-scientists, but the author succeeds admirably and his clear explanations enable the general reader to appreciate even the most abstract concepts. Anecdotes about Dirac are part of the folklore of physics, but this book contains a wealth of documented facts and information that I for one was unaware of. The most surprising (for me) was Dirac's experimental work on isotope separation. Above all there emerges from the book a strong impression of what drove Dirac in his endless search for perfection as he saw it. Needless to say, he was not satisfied that he had achieved this (even towards the end of his life saying to one person that his life had been a failure!), but his ideas remain as important as ever. Suggestions he made, long overlooked, are still proving to be fruitful today.

The author obviously has great admiration for his subject, but this does not prevent him honestly evaluating Dirac, both his towering scientific achievements and where he had lack of vision; as well as his deficiencies as a human being. Farmelo has produced a superb book, beautifully written and meticulously researched. It is writing of a very high order, which is surely destined to be the definitive biography of Dirac for the foreseeable future.
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on 22 December 2010
I attended Dirac's lectures on quantum mechanics in the last year (1966) they were given at Cambridge. Dirac was a careful lecturer. I met him only once, on High Table at St John's College, where he passively ignored my light weight comments. Graham Farmelo has done amazingly well to write such a captivating biography of this enigmatic physicist who was one of the greatest intellects of the twentieth century. I am the biographer of the Cambridge cosmologist Fred Hoyle, Fred Hoyle: A Life in Science whose Ph D in quantumelectrodynamics was supervised by Dirac. There was a curious symmetry about this because Hoyle was always self-propelled and felt he did not want a thesis superviser and Dirac had a dislike for supervising Ph D students, so they got on very well together by not interacting. Dirac must have been influential in getting Hoyle a research Fellowship at St John's. I deeply admire this biography because it has so much to tell us about Dirac, Cambridge, and quantum mechanics. In biographies of 20th century scientists the stage can get very crowded because the biographer must relate how his subject is influenced by discoveries and discoverers elsewhere. Farmelo has a rather good approach to this tricky task. What I got out of this biography was some lessons for myself on how to write a page-turner. I thank the author for that. A small incident is missing. Dirac's textbook The Principles of Quantum Mechanics (International Series of Monographs on Physics), first published in 1930, was rejected by the Syndics of Cambridge University Press on the grounds that the Dirac approach was not generally accepted. So he offered it to the Delegates of Oxford University Press who published it as the first title in their Monographs on Physics. First editions now sell for £500+ I am an enthusiast about this book
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on 1 March 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.
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Dirac was one of the most original thinkers in the loftiest realms of theoretical physics. He discovered some of the central equations in quantum mechanics and, convinced of their mathematical beauty, believed in their prediction of a new particle which had the same mass as an electron but the opposite charge. This was the positron; when it was discovered in experiments soon after Dirac's prediction, it turned out to be merely the harbinger of a whole zoo of antiparticles which are known collectively as antimatter. It was this feat for which Dirac was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics at the age of thirty-one, becoming the youngest theoretician ever to recieve this singular honour. The importance of this discovery is underlined towards the end (p423) of this excellent biography, with a casual mention of positron emission tomography (PET) as a medical imaging technique which has become so widespread that we take it for granted.

Dirac occupied a central position in the group of around fifty physicists who were working on the development of quantum theory in the first half of the twentieth century but, being an unemotional, literal-minded person of very few words, his interaction with his colleagues (and the rest of humankind) was famously eccentric. Several stories which illustrate this point are scattered throughout the book, of which probably the best-known comes from a one-sided conversation between Dirac and Niels Bohr. The latter was a similarly distinguished member of the quantum physics community but, famously sociable and loquacious, actively encouraged collaboration through his Institute for Theoretical Physics. During his first visit there, Dirac was called into Bohr's office to begin collaborating on a paper (p111). Dirac listened to the half-formed ideas tumbling from Bohr's lips as they were amended, qualified and deleted on the fly before commenting, "At school, I was taught not to start a sentence until I knew how to finish it" and walking out. For me however, an even better story was Dirac's complaint following his encounter at Cambridge with the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: "Awful fellow. Never stopped talking" (p220). This seems ironic, given Wittgenstein's famous aphorism: "Whereof one cannot speak, one must remain silent" (which could be aptly applied to Dirac).

This is a well-written account of Dirac's life which combines a careful explanation about his scientific contributions with a description of contemporary world history. For example, beginning in 1928, Dirac visited Moscow several times to see his friend Peter Kapitza - yet another Nobel laureate - who'd been recalled from Cambridge by Stalin. In addition, he spent time in Gottingen, and saw at first hand how the university's world-famous physics department was decimated by the Third Reich. There is also a sensitive description of Dirac's personal life, including his unhappy Bristolian childhood and fractured family, and his surprising marriage. This part of the book is filled with pathos: there's a story about how his father (who apparently bullied his wife and coldly dominated his children) enrolled on a night-school course in quantum theory in a (dogged, but fruitless) attempt to try and understand the accomplishments of his son (who refused to speak to him, let alone try and explain the abstruse heights to which he'd ascended).

A remarkable biography, that provides deep insights into an extraordinary man - highly recommended.
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on 29 January 2009
I'm a Physics student, and love to read things not directly related to my course; this book fits the bill perfectly, and, although not a big fan of biographies, this book unfolds like a well written story, where all the characters that come and go just happen to be Nobel Prize winners, or, more likely, have things that we use every day named after them.

I could not reccomend this book more for people with even a passing interest in Physics, there's not too much hardcore maths here at all, but the story and the way he is portrayed is magical.
Farmelo, I salute you.
And everyone, but this!

Jess
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on 22 December 2011
When, by chance, I saw this book for sale, I recalled reading the eulogy by Stephen Hawking when a plaque, commemorating Dirac, was placed in Westminster Abbey. I couldn't believe that I knew nothing about him; so I bought the book. It is a biography of the highest order. I found it gripping and detailed and at the end I came to the conclusion that he may have had Asperger's Syndrome and perhaps focused on his maths rather than communicating with the wider public through the media as we have become used to the likes of Hawking, Richard Dawkins and Brian Cox doing.But that is just my opinion. Whatever his motivation, he helped to change our world and we are indebted to Graham Farmelo for the care that he has taken in writing this biography. I think it is superb.

I might add that rather than loan it to friends, I have bought two further copies as Christmas presents!
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on 18 April 2010
This is one of those rare biographies of a scientist that leaves the reader feeling satisfied that they have been given a flavour of both the subject's work and life. Considering that Dirac was one of the leaders of the the early development of quantum mechanics, this is some achievement.

The biography covers the whole of Dirac's life, from school in Bristol through his time in Cambridge to retirement in Florida, highlighting his achievements in the early years of quantum theory and some of the challenges to his thinking in later years. The author covers his friendhsips, the (often strained) relationships with others in the physics community, and links this to his family background. The difficult subjects (death of his brother and relationship with his father) are treated with great sympathy.
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on 11 September 2009
I bought this book because the Amazon website told me to. Well actually I had just finished Manjit Kumar's "Quantum" and thoroughly enjoyed its exploration of the quantum world and was ready for more and the Amazon website told me "People who liked this also bought..." ! I am delighted with the recommendation! This excellent book more than met my expectations and I found it thoroughly enjoyable. Having already read "Quantum" some of the concepts were by now familiar to me so I was able to read it with a better understanding. Mind you, after finishing both books, I now know that I will never really understand particle physics, and in fact have come to an acceptance of this, but it was nonetheless a fantastic journey! I comment you to do the same!
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on 13 January 2015
Farmelo's book on Dirac is absolutely first rate: full of important detail about the man and his times. As a quantum theorist, I was always trying to guess how Dirac did what he did. This book gives really fine details (in all senses of the word 'fine') and resolved some long standing questions I had about Dirac. Now I understand just how close he was to the supernova heat of the intellectual furnaces in which the theories were created that marked the transition from Old Quantum Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics. It is really astounding also to read about the other brilliant people orbiting Dirac at the time. Now they mean more to me than names attached to particular equations or theories. This book also confirms in my mind that Einstein gets the prize for the most influential theorist of the 20 Century, with several very close runners-up, including Dirac.
I note there has been a quibble with Fermelo's science. OK, perhaps he should have said 'momentum' rather than 'speed' when discussing the uncertainty principle. But if you know about it already, you will understand what's meant, and if you are new to the ideas, 'speed' is good enough. I can always go read the actual original papers if I want more clarity.
This book should be given free to every research student in mathematical physics. Thank you author for a superb achievement of great importance. I would dearly love to see similar analysis of the lives of other great scientists such as Snyder, Schwinger and Feynman.
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on 17 October 2012
It is a modern day 'Curie-o' to read speculation about whether autism was the foundation stone for one or other of the Towering intellects of Yore. It has been done with Newton, with Wittgenstein and also Einstein, but perhaps the most convincing argument for the 'autistic genius' is this biography of Paul Dirac by Graham Farmelo.

Paul Dirac - as I remember from my long long time ago Physics lessons- was one of the Doyens of Quantum Physics. His findings were less 'sexier' than Heisenberg and his now-ubiquitous "Uncertainty Principle." While his equations were not as pretty (odd given his interest in mathematical beauty) as Schrodingers Wave equation - at least according to my memories of being an A level student. But such superficiality on my part aside, he was not well known because despite his truly grand achievements - the prediction of the Positron(!), founding Quantum mechanics, postulating the precursors to modern string theory- he was not a man who basked in the limelight. In fact he shunned it, much like he shunned many of the norms of social communication which have given rise to the stories of whether he could be autistic.

Lest you think - "quantum physics and autism- this book is a strange brew", the quantum physics is described quite simply, and I think I spotted perhaps just one equation in the entire book (the author has taken a leaf out of Hawkings 'Brief History of Time' in this regard. ) While the topic of autism is dealt with again quite simply over a few pages towards the end of the tome.

'Watt' makes this 'Joule' of a book from not 'Bohr'-ing you (sorry lots of physics in-jokes here) is the beautiful weaving of narrative: - Diracs own personal (and at times sad and tragic) story with the grand history of the 20th century which was unravelling like a ball of String about him. We start with him growing up in Bristol, see his schooling right through to Cambridge University and out the other end as the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. Conflict on the Grand Scale takes over with the rise of Nazism and Hitler and the story delves into the race for a Nuclear Weapon; but from the start the greater conflict is perhaps Dirac's battle with his father- who despite ostensibly being a very 'Feynman' was not a fine father-figure - although part of the conflict may have arisen because the two men were chips off the same 'Planck'.

I emerged from this book a lot wiser about the history of the twentieth century - albeit viewed through a Physics tinted lens- and the evidence for autism impregnates the entire book to an extent that the argument for a diagnosis seems compelling.
The author writes with a lot of warmth about his subject and this is a story that really deserves to be more widely known.
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