The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom
The Strangest Man – Paul Dirac was among the greatest scientific geniuses of the modern age. One of Einstein’s most admired colleagues, he helped discover quantum mechanics, and his prediction of antimatter was one of the greatest triumphs in the history of physics. In 1933 he became the youngest theoretician ever to win the Nobel Prize in Physics.
Dirac’s personality, like his achievements, is legendary. The Strangest Manuses previously undiscovered archives to reveal the many facets of Dirac’s brilliantly original mind.
Book Review by Ian
I rate this a top shelf biography. As a PhD in theoretical physics the author was appropriately trained to tackle the scientific side of this as well as his long infatuation with the subject (Dirac) which gave him plenty of impetus to get at the human side of the subject. He writes well, the story unfolding easily and warmly, taking us through the usual biographical flow of a life after beginning somewhat abruptly with a valuable late insight into Dirac’s own thoughts on his father (in particular) and his life.
This insight, gained from a former neighbour and colleague of Dirac’s in Florida, shows us both an important human impact made on this man’s life, as well as the author’s research quality, seeking out and perhaps even going to the USA to interview this person.
I knew about Dirac since student days, but since physics wasn’t my subject and the quantum stuff way beyond me, I never bothered with finding out about him beyond the basics. But I am truly glad I bought and read this book. The subject emerges as a giant for me now, even though I little understand the intricacies of what he did. It is however, easy to appreciate the magnitude of what he achieved, how he was rated by mentors, colleagues and juniors.
When Einstein recommends you as his first choice to appointment at the Institute for Advanced Studies, you know you’re of some value as a scientist. When people of the stature of Oppenheimer and Feynman are in awe of you, you know you must be worthy of something. Such was it for Dirac.
Unlike at least one of the reviewers here, I am disappointed that we don’t get more technical explanations of some of the science. I realise that stuff is over the heads of most bio readers (including me), but I think it might be appropriate for scientific biographers to think about including such material in an appendix (especially when they are trained and capable as Farmelo is). A kind of Technical Details for Dummies appendix, as it were, including the equations, but explained as simply as possible – if that is possible, and I’m sure it is. I give as an example that succeeds admirably Pais’ bio of Einstein, where the technical details are provided by the physicist-biographer in a manner that does not intrude for the non-mathematical reader but is highly useful for those who can benefit from it.
I see one reviewer found a couple of historical inaccuracies. These are always likely to intrude in a work of this size and breadth. They can be corrected in a second edition and the reviewer thanked for drawing attention to them.
In all I am very pleased with this work. I bought it about 8 months ago and have already read it completely twice as well as dipping into various index entries 10 or 15 times.
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About the Author
Graham Farmelo is a Senior Research Fellow at the Science Museum, London, and Adjunct Professor of Physics at Northeastern University. He lives in London, England.