The Strangest Man?

All right, who said it?

I am not interested in literature, I do not go to the theatre, and I do not listen to music. I am occupied only with theories.

Is that Professor Galamobos talking about what he did on his sabbatical leave? His advice to students taking Econ 300 during winter term?  Professor Brandenberger talking about how LU professors used to be back in the day? Our new mantra for the Math-Econ major?

Not at all.

It’s Nobel Prize winning physicist, Paul Dirac, describing the work ethic that led him to international superstardom, if only he would have desired such a thing.  I picked up Graham Framelo’s biography of Dirac this past summer, and I would definitely recommend it as a good read for break, or a gift to that bookworm in the family.

Here’s a short review:

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom,  by Graham Farmelo

Reviewed by David Gerard, with editorial input from Emeritus Professor of Physics, John Brandenberger

In 1928, Paul A. M. Dirac, an English engineer turned physicist, developed a relativistic version of quantum theory.  The theory, among other things, implied the possibility of electrons having negative energy — which in turn quickly came to be associated with the positron — the positive counterpart to the electron viewed as antimatter.  For this and other contributions, Dirac shared the 1933 Nobel Prize in physics with Erwin Schrödinger. Yet, outside of physics and certain academic circles, he remains virtually unknown.  Certainly, Dirac lacked the visibility and charisma of the more famous physicists such as Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Oppenheimer, Fermi and Feynman.  But, moreover, Dirac was heroically taciturn and was, indeed, a rather strange man.  Fortunately, Farmelo soft-pedals opportunities to get laughs at Dirac’s expense.  For example, he spends only one sentence on Dirac being mistaken for a vagrant on a trip to Colorado, and mentions that it wouldn’t be the last time that that happened. However, Farmelo never brings it up again.

If you can get through the first 80 pages or so, Dirac’s years in college and on through the end of WWII is riveting.  Earlier this year, I read Thomas McCraw’s biography of Joseph Schumpeter, and the contrasting personalities between Schumpeter and Dirac couldn’t be much greater. Yet, both were profoundly affected by the two world wars. Whereas Schumpeter accommodated his colleagues’ flights from Europe, Dirac’s two best friends had been drawn into the turmoil — Heisenberg largely playing along with Berlin and  the Nazi regime and Kapitza having been indoctrinated into the Stalinist system. Fratelo spends little time dwelling on how such intellectual giants could accommodate such horrific political systems. Dirac, on the other hand, seems almost incapable of understanding much of what going is going on beyond his physics.