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4.6 out of 5 stars
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4.6 out of 5 stars
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on 6 October 2011
Having never heard of Paul Dirac until I read the review in the paper I was intrigued to now more, fascinating insight into this brilliant and complicated man . We all know the name of Einstien and Eddington but not Paul Dirac yet his contribution to science is a great one. I do not profess to know anything of quantum physics and I am still none the wiser but this is a human story of brilliant man who possibly may have been autistic. A sometimes Humerous and touching story of someone we should know more about, he was considered one of the greatest theoretical physicists since Issac Newton.
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on 21 October 2015
One of the pioneers of quantum physics and it is a superb biography of the man and his work. I wonder where he would be now, given the most recent discoveries. For me this was just a bit too documentary and misses where I am at in my readings on QP.
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on 6 March 2017
Interesting read
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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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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 21 May 2017
This book is a must for anyone in the STEM sciences, incredible man he was. A book worth placing in your own library. It was an incredible price and was sent and packed very well. It is wonderful to read about some of our scientists and what they had to suffer for their love of science. Very well done.
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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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