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The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom
Paul Dirac was among the great scientific geniuses of the modern age. One of the discoverers of quantum mechanics, the most revolutionary theory of the past century, his contributions had a unique insight, eloquence, clarity, and mathematical power. His prediction of antimatter was one of the greatest triumphs in the history of physics. One of Einstein’s most admired colleagues, Dirac was in 1933 the youngest theoretician ever to win the Nobel Prize in physics.
Dirac’s personality is legendary. He was an extraordinarily reserved loner, relentlessly literal-minded and appeared to have no empathy with most people. Yet he was a family man and was intensely loyal to his friends. His tastes in the arts ranged from Beethoven to Cher, from Rembrandt to Mickey Mouse.
Based on previously undiscovered archives, The Strangest Man reveals the many facets of Dirac’s brilliantly original mind. A compelling human story, The Strangest Man also depicts a spectacularly exciting era in scientific history.
||August 25, 2009|
|Average Customer Rating:
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106 of 112 found the following review helpful:
Nobel Laureate, Fan of CherSep 20, 2009
By John F. Leamons
Paul Dirac was one of the founders of quantum theory. He fused quantum theory and the special theory of relativity and, in the process, provided a reason for suspecting that there is such a thing as anti-matter. Dirac died in 1984. Given that (a) the work for which he is remembered was all done by 1931, (b) his work was rather technical, and (c) he had no life apart from his work, how has Graham Farmelo managed to write a 500-page biography and, what's more, to include only five equations, four of which have nothing to do with physics? It's a neat trick. First, Farmelo gives us more than a biography. He gives us a history of quantum theory. Second, he tells us about people associated with Dirac, many of whom did have a life outside physics. Finally, Farmelo has a gift for expressing technical ideas simply, compactly, in mere words--words anyone can understand. For example, his account of the infinities that plagued quantum field theory could not be simpler. The infinities are important to Farmelo's story because, if Pierre Ramond can be believed, it is because of them that Dirac was convinced, as he approached death, that his life had been a failure. Farmelo speculates that Dirac may have been autistic. Strange he certainly was. It's hard to picture this great mind, absorbed week after week in Cher's television show. But, then, this was a fellow who thought Wittgenstein was "awful" because he talked too much. Farmelo suggests that Dirac's truth-via-beauty philosophy is an afterthought, that it did not guide him in his important work. (This matters in biography, though not in physics. In physics, experimenters will always have the last word, and their detectors are indifferent to philosophies.) Farmelo shows us how very lucky Dirac was. Had Dirac not stumbled into physics he might well have shared his brother's fate.
81 of 91 found the following review helpful:
The best science book you will readAug 17, 2009
By C. Catherwood
Graham Farmelo has written the best science book you can read. It is written by a distinguished scientist, who knows his equations (especially THAT equation...) but who has done so in a way that can be understood by those of us with degrees in the humanities. This is a very rare feat: he does not stint on the science, but is clear, readable and easy to follow even if your mathematics did not continue beyond high school.
Not only that but Dirac is a fascinating person in his own right, regardless of the science - the human side of the story is gripping, since Dirac was so unusual and yet able to stay this side of sanity and make his great discoveries.
So an ideal book for all of us: buy it and buy copies for your friends.
Christopher Catherwood (author of WINSTON CHURCHILL: THE FLAWED GENIUS OF WORLD WAR II: Berkley, 2009)
108 of 126 found the following review helpful:
Someone has to say itSep 13, 2009
This book, while highly informative and very readable, has, in my view, three irritating flaws. One is poor editing. In the first chapter, Dirac's parents have two children on one page, three on the next, but the third isn't born until a few pages later. At the other end of the book, Dirac's wife is a manipulative shrew on one page, on another a loving wife. Such inconsistencies abound between the covers of this very long book. Indeed, my second concern is its length. Farmelo, like even those closest to Dirac, had little access to his inner life so he tries to create one, of sorts, by describing ad minutum what Dirac would have heard on the radio on this or that day, what he would have seen from this or that window, etc etc etc etc. The real Dirac was, however, lost in thought and likely heard or saw none of it. The book could be cut by a third. Third and most important is Farmelo's superficial discussion of Dirac's view of beauty in science and his (the author's) misleading distinction between "top-down" and "bottom-up" science; space does not permit me to say more about this, but beware. It is true that the book has many excellent qualities, but since other reviewers are extolling its praises without qualification, someone needs to say it isn't perfect.
54 of 61 found the following review helpful:
A joy to readAug 16, 2009
By Charles Schwager
This engaging and fascinating biography of one the world's greatest, though mostly unknown, physicist requires no knowledge of physics to tempt the layperson interested in learning about an odd brilliant character and his impact on the world of science. You also get a wonderfully clear picture of Britain in the 20th century. The writing is clear and highly intelligible even when describing Dirac's remarkable breakthroughs in quantum mechanics. I highly recommend this book.
19 of 20 found the following review helpful:
Well researched, well written, and yet a challengeOct 22, 2009
Having learned of this book through a review in The Economist, I ordered a copy of the UK edition rather than wait for the US edition. Despite that, I have only now finished it, having several times set it aside to read other books. And I would seem to be the idea audience for a biography of Dirac: my (now long ago) dissertation involved a generalization of the Dirac Equation.
The early and mid 20th century was a time of great progress in understanding fundamental physics, with the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics established and their initial combination achieved, the latter in large part through Dirac's work. (The reconciliation of quantum mechanics and the general theory of relativity remains, prominently, to be accomplished.)
Several physicists of that period led interesting lives, and their biographies are surprisingly popular despite the lack of broad interest and general education in physics in the US. Two, Einstein and Feynman, are publishing mainstays. In addition to being great physicists, they were also interesting people. They said clever things, wrote clever articles and books, hobnobbed with important people, spoke out on causes, and got mixed up with various women. All great fodder for books. Other great physicists of the century weren't as colorful, but many still managed to be interesting.
Dirac, by contrast, was reticent and taciturn. He could be silent in social situations, and monosyllabic in answering questions. He largely worked by himself. Not so much material for an enthralling biography. (The author speculates, reasonably, that Dirac fell somewhere in the spectrum of what we now call autism.)
His childhood was wretched, with a distant but demanding father and an unhappy mother. His brother committed suicide. This, along with his escape to school and his development into a promising and driven researcher, forms the first part of the book.
In the next phase of Dirac's life we see him develop into one of the world's leading physicists. The book alternates between his private development, the development of physics as seen through his interaction with other physicists and the author's filling in the story, and his painful interactions with his family.
Having passed the period of his greatest accomplishments Dirac, like so many physicists, had to adapt to the role of physics elder; his contributions waned and his planned research became harder to realize. To the surprise of many he married the Hungarian Manci, sister of the physicist Eugene Wigner. While she gave him a family and a new center to his life, she was also strong-willed and presented her own challenges to the reserved Dirac. In the end, she became the defender and promoter of the legacy of Dirac.
I may have found this book hard sledding because I already knew what Dirac achieved as a physicist and the story of physics in the 20th century. Take that out of the book, and what's left is pretty depressing. I feel sorry for the life Dirac lived as a person, separate from his life as a genius. But it's not fun reading.
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