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‘A major achievement’Peter Higgs
‘Farmelo does Dirac proud’Martin Rees
‘This biography is a gift’Louisa Gilder
The Strangest Man
The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius
Paul Dirac (1902-84) was the first truly modern theoretical physicist. After a desperately unhappy childhood in Bristol, UK, his training in engineering and mathematics prepared him to co-discover quantum theory, the most revolutionary scientific theory of the twentieth century. A legendary introvert, his golden streak in research from 1925-33 included his successful prediction of anti-matter which won him a Nobel Prize and brilliant speculations on the existence of magnetic monopoles. In 1937, he married Manci Balazs, in many ways his polar opposite – warm, friendly and unscientific. He later became an apostle of mathematical beauty and its importance to fundamental physics – the words on his gravestone are ‘Because God made it that way…’.
Six themes of The Strangest Man
1.‘I never had a childhood’
Dirac’s family rarely had visitors. His father to spoke to him only in French, his mother only in English.
2. Quantum pioneer
Dirac co-invented quantum mechanics and was the first to marry it to the special theory of relativity in this theory of the electron.
3. Antimatter‘s Conceiver
Dirac conceived half the early universe in his head: he predicted the existence of the anti-electron in 1931, a year before it was first detected, and foresaw the new world of anti-matter. The physicist Werner Heisenberg regarded this as ‘perhaps the biggest of all the big jumps in modern physics.’
‘[Anti-electrons] are not to be considered as a mathematical ﬁction; it should be possible to detect them by experimental means’Dirac, lecture at Princeton University, autumn 1931.
In 1937, Dirac married the Hungarian divorcée Manci Balazs. The unlikely couple had two daughters.
5. Religion of mathematical beauty
For Dirac, mathematical beauty was ‘almost a religion’ – he believed that successive fundamental theories were increasingly beautiful. From the late 1930s, this was the lodestar of his research..
He first set out what he described as the ‘principle of mathematical beauty’ in his Scott Lecture, which he delivered in Edinburgh on 6 February 1939.
6. More than ‘a one-dimensional man’
Dirac was an inveterate walker and his cultural interests ranged from Cher and Mozart to Tolstoy and Kubrick’s ‘2001:a space odyssey’.