Audio-book Review
By Chet Yarbrough


The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul DiracThe strangest man
By Graham Farmelo

Narrated by B.J. Harrison


Considered by some to be the second Einstein of Physics’, Paul Dirac is practically unknown to most of the non scientific community. But Graham Farmelo, in “The Strangest Man”,  reflects on Dirac’s genius.

After listening to Farmelo’s biography of Dirac, one begins to understand why so few outside of Science know of this “brainiac”.  Dirac’s history of communication is Spartan; i.e. rife with “yes” and “no” answers, long pauses, or abrupt departures, Dirac fails to become a household name like Einstein, Bohr, or Oppenheimer.

At the age of 31, Dirac shared the Nobel Prize with Erwin Schrodinger for discovery of new forms of atomic theory.  In the span of Dirac’s life, he manages to astound the Physics community with his independent research, and taciturn analysis of quantum mechanics.  From Dirac’s top down theoretical formulation of quantum mechanics, he manages to reveal the spin of electrons and an early stage belief about string theory.  His formulations were solitary revelations born of a superior perception of reality that kept Dirac at the cutting edge of Physics beyond his 30th year of life.

One of the revealing parts of Farmelo’s biography is Dirac’s distorted perception of his childhood and his parent’s treatment of him and his two siblings.  Dirac believes his father to be a destroyer of his children’s lives while Farmelo’s biography seems to show Charles Dirac deeply loved his two sons and daughter.

Farmelo is not suggesting that Charles Dirac was a good father or husband but he is saying an offspring’s memory of what happens in their childhood is a distortion of reality.  Charles Dirac may have been a martinet, though he did not strike his children.  He may have been a philanderer but he remained with his wife until she died.  He may have been a cheap skate but he left what he had to his wife when he died.  Ironically, Paul Dirac is genetically pre-disposed to become a genius but he fails to see the truth of his own childhood.

The Chinese curse of “may you live in interesting times” is a hallmark of Paul Dirac’s life.  Born in 1902 Dirac lives through WWI, WWII, The Korean War, The 1950’s Red Scare, the reign of Joseph Stalin, Sputnik, the Apollo moon landing, the Cuban missile crisis, and Vietnam.  He dies in Tallahassee, Florida in 1984.  In the course of his life he met, competed with, and often surpassed the crème of the Physics community.

Dirac’s life is a journey through 20th century history.  He falls for Russian communism as many intellectuals of the 1920s did.  He lives through and understands the potential of nuclear fission and the atomic bomb but chooses not to participate in its creation.  He lives through Germany’s bombing of England and deplores German dehumanization of Jewish scientists but accepts post war rationalizations of German scientists (e.g. Werner Heisenberg) that supported Hitler.  He is denied a visa to immigrate to the United States in the 1950s because of McCarthyism.  He leaves Cambridge in the 1970s to become Florida State University’s most famous professor.

Though Dirac made monumental theoretical contributions in the field of Physics, he fails to acquire the same cosmological gravitas as Albert Einstein or Niels Bohr, largely because of his lack of charisma.

Farmelo’s biography shows Dirac as a human being working through life, burdened by perceptions of childhood, blessed with a superior perception of reality but subject to the exigencies of living any life in this world; the difference being that Dirac was a genius among geniuses.

Post Script: At the end of the book, Farmelo suggests that Dirac may have been a “high performing” autistic like Rainman portrayed by Dustin Hoffman; a titillating observation but so what; a clinical label neither diminishes or adds to Dirac’s contribution to the discipline of physics and mathematics.  [contact-form-7 id=”1710″ title=”Contact form 1″]

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