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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.

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Paul Dirac, nine days after his fifth birthday
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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.

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Dirac positions himself at Einstein’s shoulder, Solvay Conference, Brussels, October 1927
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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 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.’

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‘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). 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.

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

4. Opposites

In 1937, Dirac married the Hungarian divorcée Manci Balazs. The unlikely couple had two daughters.

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Dirac and his wife on their honeymoon in Brighton, January 1937
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Dirac and his family at home in Cambridge, 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..
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.

Graham lecturing on ‘Paul Dirac and the religion of mathematical beauty’
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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’.

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