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85 of 88 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dirac, the definitive biography, 19 Mar 2009
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This review is from: The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius (Hardcover)
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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Brian R. Martin
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