two things tagged “mathematics”

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius by Graham Farmelo A

'The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius' by Graham Farmelo

I was lucky. I went to good schools, I had excellent teachers. I was in the right place at the right time.

Paul Dirac

Opportunity and luck bestow their benisons upon a once-in-a-generation genius, mathematical mystic, and one of the greatest theoretical physicists to have walked the planet.

You never hear of Dirac much1. I read this article about him being in love and decided to read more about his life and work. This award-winning book came highly recommended. I enjoyed its breadth and depth thoroughly. I am a slow reader and was surprised by the speed at which I got through its heft: 625 pages2! Farmelo expertly weaves world history, politics, religion, and humor into Dirac’s story. The epilogue spends some time conjecturing that he may have been autistic in a bid to explain his many eccentricities and severe taciturnity3. Lots of painful family tragedy that was rather difficult to read. Intuition and Mathematical beauty were paramount to him:

If you are receptive and humble, mathematics will lead you by the hand. Again and again, when I have been at a loss how to proceed, I have just had to wait until [this happened]. It has led me along an unexpected path, a path where new vistas open up, a path leading to new territory, where one can set up a base of operations, from which one can survey the surroundings and plan future progress.

Here’s an In Our Time episode with Farmelo and two other physicists if you want to get a taste of what this excellent and riveting biography is about. I thought this description of Dirac by a young Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (who took Dirac’s Quantum Mechanics course at Cambridge four times in 1930 because it was “just like a piece of music you want to hear over and over again”) was rather funny:

“Dirac showed none of the confidence that might be expected of a young man at the top of his game. Chandrasekhar wrote home to his father that he was disappointed that Dirac did not show a bit more swagger: ‘[Dirac is a] lean, meek shy young “Fellow” (FRS) who goes slyly along the streets. He walks quite close to the walls (like a thief!), and is not at all healthy. A contrast to Mr Fowler […] Dirac is pale, thin, and looks terribly overworked.”

Update

Here’s a video of the author giving a presentation on Dirac and Mathematical Beauty

  1. And according to the author, not even in his native Bristol… ↩︎

  2. Well, a hundred or so are copious footnotes and references. ↩︎

  3. And I do mean laughably, alarmingly severe. His colleagues came up with a unit called a “Dirac” which is one word per hour. ↩︎