image description image description
'Enthralling' New Scientist
'... gave me the intensest pleasure' @stephenfry
'wonderful and sensitive' Oliver Sacks
‘A major achievement’ Peter Higgs
The Times
‘Farmelo does Dirac proud’ Martin Rees
‘This biography is a gift’ Louisa Gilder
NYT

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.

image description
Paul Dirac, nine days after his fifth birthday
image description
Dirac family, 3 September 1907 Father Charles Adrien Ladislas Dirac, mother Florence Hannah Dirac, younger sister Betty, and an older brother Félix.

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. He is widely regarded by his successors as the first truly modern theoretical physicist.

image description
Dirac positions himself at Einstein’s shoulder, Solvay Conference, Brussels, October 1927
image description
Dirac (left) first met Robert Oppenheimer (right) in Göttingen in 1926

Dirac lecturing in 1975 in Christchurch, New Zealand

Video of Solvay Confererence, October 1927, featuring Dirac

3. Antimatter‘s Conceiver

Dirac conceived half the early universe his head: he predicted the existence of 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.’

image description

‘The Dirac equation, so simple that it can be written on the palm of a hand, describes every electron that has ever existed (and ever will exist) in the universe. The equation also enabled Dirac to predict the existence of antimatter, at one time half the entire universe.’

‘[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.

image description
Anti-electron, first observed by Carl Anderson at Caltech, 2 August 1932

4. Opposites

In 1937, Dirac married the Hungarian divorcee Manci Balazs. In many ways, she was his opposite – warm, talkative, gregarious and with no interest in science. The unlikely couple had two daughters.

image description
Dirac and his wife on their honeymoon, January 1937
image description
Dirac and his family, c. 1946

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..
Dirac’s great lecture on the principle of mathematical beauty

Graham lecturing on ‘Paul Dirac and the religion of mathematical beauty’
image description
Dirac’s grave in Roselawn Cemetery, Tallahassee, Florida

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’.

image description
Dirac hiking in Germany, 1926
image description
Dirac often visited the Rijksmuseum to see Rembrandt’s self-portraits
image description
‘Dirac loved Mickey Mouse’ – John Van Vleck (Image: iStockphoto/manley099)
image description
Chopin was one of Dirac’s favourite classical composers
image description
Dirac took two years to read Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’, which he much admired
Back
to Top