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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Strangeness and charm, 27 July 2011
This review is from: The Strangest Man: The hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius (Paperback)
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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Jeremy Walton
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