Graham Farmelo

Science writer commentator consultant

Graham is an award-winning science writer and biographer, specializing in physics and physicists. Formerly an academic, museum professional and undercover restaurant critic, he is now a writer, speaker and consultant in science communication, especially in Europe and North America. Usually based in London, he is a Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge and is a regular visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. He is a keen consumer of books, theatre, exhibitions, music and film.

Life and Times

1. Backstory

Born

St Giles Hospital, London, UK 18 May 1953

Raised

Orpington, Kent, after the family moved there from Bermondsey, in London

Early education

Tubbenden Primary School, then Cray Valley Technical School, where he showed some talent in science and mathematics, rather less in the arts except as a critic. Still remembers being introduced to Shakespeare (‘Twelfth Night’ in classes for English Literature O-level), first seeing ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ in Washington DC, and the Sgt. Pepper summer of 1967. Cricketer manqué.

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Graham Farmelo, Age 9

University

Inspired by the achievement of Paul Dirac, studied theoretical physics at Liverpool (BSc in 1974, PhD in 1977) and began to appreciate classical music, good food and the challenge of making a worthwhile contribution to fundamental science.

Academic

Lecturer in physics at the Open University, 1977-1990. Briefly the youngest tenured academic in the UK. Quickly came to specialize as a teacher, chairing the team that produced the Science Foundation Course in the late 1980s and conceiving its inter-disciplinary science course ‘Science Matters’. First signs of addiction to Shakespeare, Tolstoy and their successors.

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Wellcome Wing, Science Museum, London
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University of Liverpool

‘I’m not sure whether the main reason I went to Liverpool University was the reputation of its physics department or the city’s association with The Beatles’.
Graham, September 2013

2. Writing the strangest man

Graham first heard about the subject of ‘The Strangest Man’ purely by chance, as a teenager. He was fifteen years old when – in the course of selling tickets for a weekly raffle – he met the government scientist John Bendall, from whom he learned about Paul Dirac and his contributions to theoretical physics. Bendall was (and is) a twenty-four carat Dirac fanatic, reading Dirac’s textbook ‘Principles of Quantum Mechanics’ every Christmas, and even naming one of his daughters after him (Paula). Twenty-seven years later, Graham wrote in the Times Higher Education about the experience of first reading the book. It was the purity and power of Dirac’s top-down mathematical approach to science that convinced Graham of what to do next – become a theoretical physicist. Or try to.

It was only as a post-graduate student that Graham began to appreciate properly the beauty and revolutionary brilliance of Dirac, often called ‘the theorist’s theorist’.

At first, Graham knew nothing of Dirac’s unusual personality – taciturnity, literal-mindedness, lack of empathy, relatively narrow interests – the source of ‘Dirac stories’. But, like most students of theoretical physics, Graham began to hear them, most of which were amusing if ill-substantiated.

He began to think seriously about writing a biography of Dirac on 8 August 2002, after he met the great scientist’s younger daughter Monica in Bristol, at its University’s celebration of the centenary of her father’s birth. Work on the book – Graham’s first as sole author – began in earnest in February 2003. In the course of his research, he had three strokes of beginner’s luck:

  • The existence of a rich – and largely unexplored – archive of Dirac’s papers at Florida State University
  • A cache of letters, dated from 1934 to around 1960, exchanged between Dirac and the woman who was to become his wife. In this wonderfully rich correspondence, the usually deeply-private Dirac is remarkably candid about his inability to form warm relationships with other human beings.
  • Testimonies of Dirac’s daughters and many of his close friends in old age. By the time the biography was complete, many of these witnesses were dead.
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Dirac’s notes on projective geometry (1972)

‘Projective geometry … provides you with methods, such as the method of one-to-one correspondences, which give you results apparently by magic’ – Dirac, 1972.

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Dirac, c. 1953

During the writing of his Dirac biography ‘The Strangest Man’, Graham decided to write mention only those stories that he could verify from the testimonies of Dirac’s family, close friends and colleagues. It turned out that the majority of the most famous anecdotes were correct, notably the one in which Dirac, having agreed to answer questions directly after he had given a talk, stood in silence after an audience member said he did not understand an equation that Dirac had written on the blackboard. When prompted by the chair of the session, Dirac responded: ‘that was a comment, not a question’. It turns out that Dirac gave similar responses on several other occasions. Decades later, even his close friend Leopold Halpern was surprised by this. In a private conversation, he asked ‘That didn’t happen, did it, Paul?’, whereupon Dirac replied ‘Yes. I don’t see why people find it funny.’

After ‘The Strangest Man’ was published, many people wrote to Graham with stories about Dirac and with additional information about him about him.

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Dirac met Marlon Brando in Tallahassee in 1978 – it did not last long
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Eugene Wigner, Paul Dirac’s brother-in-law, drawn by Bülent Atalay
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Dirac family in the garden of their home in Cambridge, c. 1946

3. Consultant and speaker

Graham speaks to many audiences on a wide variety of topics, most of them connected with the themes of his books – Dirac, Churchill and his scientists, and the importance of mathematical beauty in theoretical physics. Since the publication of ‘The Strangest Man’, he has given talks on Dirac and his work in dozens of institutions, including: MIT, University of Maryland, Rutgers University and Florida State University in the US; University of Oslo, Norway; the bi-annual meeting of Dutch theoretical physicists, near Amsterdam; at the Royal Society, and in Cambridge, Oxford and Durham universities in the UK.
His lecture ‘Paul Dirac and the religion of mathematical beauty’ at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada is here.

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Working in the Shelby White and Leon Levy Archives Center at the IAS, Princeton
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Lecturing at Rutgers University
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The William Barton Rogers Building, MIT

4. Media

Graham has contributed many articles for the press in the UK, Europe and North America, and has often been a guest on BBC Radio 4, notably on The Today Programme, Start the Week, PM and specialist science programmes.

BOOKS REVIEWED BY GRAHAM

Graham has reviewed over 500 books including:

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Articles WRITTEN BY GRAHAM

Podcasts for Scientific American FEATURING GRAHAM

  • ‘The Strangest Man’ of Science, Part 1
    Award-winning writer and physicist Graham Farmelo talks with podcast host Steve Mirsky about The Strangest Man, Graham’s biography of Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Paul Dirac. Part 1 of 2.
  • Paul Dirac: ‘The Strangest Man’ of Science, Part 2
    Award-winning writer and physicist Graham Farmelo talks with podcast host Steve Mirsky about The Strangest Man, Graham’s biography of Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Paul Dirac. Part 2 of 2.
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5. Foody

For twenty-six years, Graham was an under-cover restaurant critic. He inspected some six-hundred establishments, from tea-shops in Cumbria to over-priced bistros in Clapham to El Bulli in Catalonia. If asked what three meals he’d like before facing a firing squad, Graham would choose a simple meal in a Tuscan trattoria, a haute cuisine blow-out in Lyon, France, and a mainly-fish extravaganza in Kyoto, Japan.

During a series of walking vacations in Italy, organized by the admirable ATG Oxford, he became extremely fond of fine coffee, made in the Italian style. He now is quite happy to walk miles in the early morning to begin the day with a decent espresso, for example in his two favourite coffee bars outside Italy – ‘Small World Coffee’ in Princeton and ‘Cartmel Coffee’, in England’s Lake District. Graham wrote of his unreasonable dedication to fine espresso in this piece ‘Shot of Love’ , probably his most-read article.

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6. Awards

  • Kelvin Prize and Medal 2012 (for outstanding contributions to the public understanding of physics) from the UK Institute of Physics
  • Appointed Honorary Fellow of the British Science Association, 2011
  • For ‘The Strangest Man’:
    – Costa Prize for biography, UK, 2009
    – Los Angeles Times Science Book Prize, 2010
    –‘Physics World’ book of the year, 2009
    – Finalist for the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for biography, from the PEN American Center 2010
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Browsing flaneur in Princeton

7. Favourite Things

Graham shares his top-ten favourites from the worlds of the arts, sciences and beyond.

10 favourite TV programmes of 2018
A Dangerous Dynasty: House of Assad (BBC)
Dynasties (BBC)
Grenfell (BBC)
Informer (BBC)
Killing Eve (BBC)
King Lear (BBC)
The Little Drummer Girl (BBC)
The Long Song (BBC)
Mum (BBC)
Stephen – The Murder That Changed a Country (BBC)
A Very English Scandal (BBC)

TV series of the year: Informer (BBC)

10 favourite podcasts of 2018
The Allusionist, Helen Zaltzman
The Daily, Michael Barbaro, New York Times
Coffee House Shots, Fraser Nelson et al, The Spectator
For the Many, Iain Dale and Jacqui Smith, LBC
Fortunately…, Fi Glover and Jane Garvey, BBC
How to Invent a Country, Misha Glenny, BBC
Pod Save America, Jon Lovett, Tommy Vietor and Jon Favreau, Crooked Media
Talking Politics, David Runciman, London Review of Books
Two Shot Podcast, Craig Parkinson
Why is This Happening?, Chris Hayes

Podcast of the Year: For the Many – Iain Dale and Jacqui Smith

10 favourite theatre productions of 2018
Antony and Cleopatra, National Theatre
Company, Marianne Elliott company, London
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Apollo Theatre, London
The Ferryman, Royal Court production, dir. Sam Mendes
Hamilton, London production
Lehman Trilogy, National Theatre
King Lear, Chichester Theatre
Network, National Theatre
Pinter at the Pinter Theatre, dir. Jamie Lloyd
Summer and Smoke, Almeida Theatre

Theatre production of the year: King Lear, Chichester Theatre, starring Ian McKellen

10 favourite movies of 2018
BlacKkKlansman, dir. Spike Lee
Cold War, dir. Pawel Pawlikowski
First Reformed, dir. Paul Schrader
Phantom Thread, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson
Roma, dir. Alfonso Cuarón
Shoplifters, dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda
A Star is Born, dir. Bradley Cooper
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, dir. Martin McDonagh
Wildlife, dir. Paul Dano
You Were Never Really There, dir. Lynne Ramsay

Movie of the Year: Phantom Thread, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

10 favourite exhibitions of 2018
All Too Human – Bacon, Freud and a century of painting, Tate Britain
Andy Warhol – from A to B and back, Whitney Museum of American Art, NYC
Charles I – King and collector, Royal Academy of Art, London
The Charterhouse of Bruges, Frick, NYC
Edward Burne-Jones, Tate Britain, London
Fashioned From Nature, V&A, London
It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200, Morgan Library and Museum, NYC
Mantegna and Bellini, National Gallery, London
Monet and Architecture, National Gallery, London
Picasso 1932, Tate Modern, London

Exhibition of the year: Charles I – King and collector at the Royal Academy of Art

10 favourite books of 2018
Debussy, Stephen Walsh
Democracy Hacked, Martin Moore
Dramatic Exchanges, Daniel Rosenthal (ed.)
Fire and Fury, Michael Woolf
Helmholtz, David Cahan
How Democracies Die, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt
Maker of Patterns, Freeman Dyson
Milkman, Anna Burns
On the Future, Martin Rees
Thomas Cromwell: a Life, Diarmaid MacCulloch

Book of the Year: Maker of Patterns, by Freeman Dyson

Favourite Things Archive

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Top: a favourite film: ‘Barry Lyndon’ 1975 (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images); Bottom: three favourite novels.
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