Book of the week: The Strangest Man

Jocelyn Bell Burnell finds much truth in the stories about a taciturn physicist

January 15, 2009

A page-turner about Dirac and quantum physics seems a contradiction in terms, but Graham Farmelo's new book, The Strangest Man, is an eminently readable account of the developments in physics throughout the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s and the life of one of the discipline's key scientists, the taciturn Paul Dirac.

The emphasis is on Dirac the physicist, so the book concentrates mainly on his scientifically productive decades. The first 45 years of his life occupy three quarters of the book, with the final quarter looking at the years from then until his death in his early eighties.

Farmelo does an excellent job of setting Dirac in a personal and scientific context. We are introduced to his contemporaries in physics, with wonderful thumbnail sketches of the characters revealing their personalities succinctly.

We are given the background physics and an understanding of its development at each stage in the story. This is an excellent history of the discipline in the 20th century as well as being a biography of one of the main players. We are also introduced to Manci (nee Wigner), who became Dirac's wife, promoter, defender and guardian of his reputation (as she saw it).

For many years Farmelo was a member of the physics department at The Open University, teaching physics through the written word, and it shows. Now, through the Science Museum, he is involved in the communication of science. He has a brilliant style, explaining advanced theoretical concepts in physics extremely clearly.

For me, the book shed light on topics I met as an undergraduate but did not fully understand or appreciate. I commend the volume to professional physicists as I believe they too will gain a lot from reading it. As well as being clear without being condescending, Farmelo's style is accessible and entertaining.

His style of writing is sparkling, racy and has panache. He is entertaining and has a wry sense of humour, so the book will appeal to a very wide readership. Indeed, if it were a month earlier I would be recommending it as a Christmas present for senior school students and undergraduates with an interest in physics, history of science students and their teachers, and members of the public with these interests.

Dirac must not have been an easy subject for a biographer. I suspect he was as uncooperative in death as he was in life, never making it easy for anyone to get to know him. And he will not have left large quantities of personal papers behind, for I doubt he went in for that. So Farmelo has had to do a huge amount of research around his subject, talking to and reading the papers of those who knew Dirac - except that almost nobody knew him in the sense we normally use the word. A vast quantity of research has gone into this book, and it is well referenced - the footnotes alone occupy more than 60 pages.

The result forms a coherent book, although inevitably with Dirac, puzzles and uncertainties remain as to why he did or did not do something. By combining the sources, Farmelo presents a much fuller picture of the man, his work and his times than I would have thought possible. However, to say it is a well-rounded picture is a step too far because I doubt Dirac was a well-rounded person.

There are many Dirac stories circulating in the physics community (usually about how taciturn he was) and one of the joys of reading this book was to find that all those stories I had heard were true. Farmelo identifies the origin of each and validates them by setting them in context - and for this alone we owe him quite a debt.

The story that I hold on to (in case it is of use to me some day) is the one where Dirac is lecturing to some colleagues when a member of the audience says he does not understand the equation the great man has just put up on the board.There is a long silence, which discomfits the audience but not Dirac, until he resumes his lecture where he left off, ignoring the intervention, declaring it to be a statement not a question.

He was not good at explaining things people did not understand, simply repeating again, in much the same words, what he had said the first time. He had decided what the best way to explain something was and he was sticking with that.

Why was Dirac so very taciturn? Why did he seem so disconnected from the lives of those around him? It seems he could not make sense of people and they could not make sense of him - a strange man indeed.

Farmelo explores whether Dirac was autistic but, given the wide spectrum of autism, his consideration is cautious and he rightly concludes that the evidence is inadequate to support such a conclusion. He mentions, but does not further explore, Asperger's syndrome, a form of autistic spectrum disorder. "Unlike people with other forms of autistic spectrum disorder, people with Asperger's syndrome have average or above-average intelligence and adequate language skills in the areas of vocabulary and grammar," according to the Research Autism website. This might have been a more useful line to consider and I am sorry Farmelo did not pursue it.

Great thinkers are always posthumously productive, says Farmelo, in an interesting assertion. He demonstrates the truth of this most convincingly in the book's final chapter, where he shows how many of Dirac's ideas including string theory, antimatter, electron spin, monopoles, spinors and other fruitful mathematical techniques underpin today's research areas.

I am still left puzzling over my encounter with Dirac in Florida in the mid-1970s. I had received an award from the Centre for Theoretical Physics in Coral Gables and Dirac was to present it during the annual Coral Gables theoretical physics conference.

When it came to the event, Dirac stood up at the front of a functional lecture theatre, I stood near him, and in silence he shoved the folder containing the cheque and citation towards me.

"Read the citation! Read the citation!" hissed the front row, but Dirac could not or would not hear them. So I read it as part of my acceptance speech. That much is pure Dirac.

One evening during the conference, the participants were invited to a lavish party at a private house in Miami - apparently physicists added cachet to a party (those days are gone). Dirac and I endured numerous handshakes with Miami socialites, handshakes frozen and prolonged to assist the society photographers present. Did he enjoy being lionised like that?

After the conference we were touring Florida and the Diracs kindly invited us to their home in Tallahassee. During the visit, Manci stressed how unwelcoming Cambridge was to foreigners (was I seen as an ally?). Dirac took us out on a boat in a nearby bird reserve and although he didn't say much, he took the trouble to point out the different birds to us. A mellow Paul Dirac? An initiative of Manci's? I shall never know.


Graham Farmelo is an international consultant in public engagement who has worked on the UK strategy for the promotion of Cern's Large Hadron Collider. He has a successful background in academia that began at The Open University. He was appointed as a tenured lecturer at 24, and later moved to the Science Museum, where he held positions including director of exhibitions in the Wellcome Wing and assistant director.

He enjoys walking, particularly in Italy, where he is able to indulge another of his passions: espresso. Farmelo has been a restaurant critic for more than 20 years and says his love of food often creeps into his writing.

To help him write, Farmelo has a bust of Shakespeare on his desk that he says "looks at me asking: 'Why aren't you writing better?'". He is looking for a Chekhov bust to put on the other side of his desk.

Farmelo has eclectic taste in music and loves theatre, in particular productions of Shakespeare by Trevor Nunn, saying: "He's given me some of the best nights of my life. At least in public."

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius

By Graham Farmelo
Faber and Faber, 560pp, £22.50
ISBN 97805712280
Published 22 January 2009

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