Skip to main content

The Strangest Man – Graham Farmelo ****

Paul Dirac was arguably the greatest British physicist since Newton. Holder of the same chair as Newton (and Stephen Hawking) at Cambridge, he took an unwaveringly mathematical approach to physics despite his engineering background, always stressing the beauty of the equations as paramount. He tends to be remembered for having predicted anti-matter and specifically the positron, but his role in the development of quantum mechanics was much more significant than this alone.
That Dirac is almost unheard of (and seemingly hardly remembered in his home city of Bristol) is very sad – yet in some ways not surprising, given the unremitting lack of communication that seemed to typify his existence. Graham Farmelo’s book is full of examples of Dirac failing to communicate, whether with the general public or with other scientists – even those as great as Richard Feynman – though he does seem to have delivered some effective public lectures.
This is a big, beefy biography, running to 438 pages before you reach the extensive notes. There is plenty of opportunity to get immersed in the Dirac home life in what seems to have been a highly dysfunctional family. Despite his many years of marriage, Dirac never seems to have come to terms with the realities of family life. But family and friends inevitably come second to the man’s science – and Graham Farmelo manages well the difficult task of leading us through the mental minefields of the development of quantum theory, his excursions into relativity and cosmology, and his unremitting distaste for the the need to dispose of infinities in Quantum Electrodynamics, a field where theory managed irritatingly to predict reality more accurately than any other. If anything real opens a view on Dirac, it was his insistence that this match to reality was less important than the ugliness of the approach.
I do have two minor concerns about this book. One is the sheer length. It is too long. I’ve been taken to task before for complaining about fat books, but popular science should not require such sticking power to get the results. The reason for the length seems to be a case of I’ve-got-access-to-the-archives-itis. I know what this feels like. You get fascinated by all the little details in the primary material – and the result is putting much too much detail into the finished book. At least a third of the content could have been cut out with no loss of understanding.
The other slightly unnerving aspect is the way that Farmelo holds off until chapter 30 of 31 before speculating that Dirac could well have been on the autistic spectrum. This is such an obvious deduction that the reader is from early on wondering why it’s not mentioned. Of course we can never be 100 per cent certain looking back at a historical character, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen better indications, and it’s something that should have been more woven into the main text.
These remain small issues, though. This book should be cherished as one of the better scientific biographies -certainly the best of 2009 so far – and gives us an insight into what was the most secretive scientific life of the twentieth century.
Hardback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Demon in the Machine - Paul Davies *****

Physicists have a habit of dabbling in biology and, perhaps surprisingly, biologists tend to be quite tolerant of it. (I find it hard to believe the reverse would be true if biologists tried to do physics.) Perhaps one reason for that tolerance is Schrödinger’s lecture series and book What is Life?, which had a huge impact on molecular biology and with a reference to which, not surprisingly, Paul Davies begins his fascinating book. 

At the heart of the The Demon in the Machine (we'll come back to that demon in a moment) is the relationship between life and information. In essence, Davies points out that if we try to reduce life to its simple physical components it is like trying to work with a computer that has no software. The equivalent of software here is information, not just in the best publicised aspect of the information stored in the DNA, but on a far broader scale, operating in networks across the organism.
This information and its processing gives life its emergent compl…

The Cosmic Mystery Tour – Nicholas Mee ****

This is another book, like last year’s Enjoy Our Universe by Alvaro de Rújula, that sets out to provide a light-hearted introduction to physics and astrophysics for the general reader. It’s from the same publisher (OUP) and packaged in the same way: as a high quality small-format hardback with 200 glossy pages, the majority of them adorned with colour pictures. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Unlike its predecessor, this new book by Nicholas Mee delivers exactly what it promises.

It’s not that de Rújula’s book was a bad one, but he just wasn’t able to think his way into the reader’s mind. He kept saying ‘physics is fun’, but he was talking about the fun a professional physicist gets out of doing it – which is a very arcane, often highly mathematical, type of fun. The result, for a non-specialist reader, was actually quite alienating. Mee, on the other hand, understands exactly how his readers think, what they find interesting, and the details that – no matter how important they …

Professor Maxwell's Duplicitous Demon - Brian Clegg ****

‘It’s not uncommon when trying to give Maxwell his rightful place in the pantheon of physics to bracket him with Newton and Einstein’, Brian Clegg says towards the end of this book. In one sense that’s perfectly true. Dip into any physics textbook and you’ll see Maxwell’s name at least as often as the other two. His greatest achievement – Maxwell’s equations – did for electromagnetism what Newton had done for gravity, while laying the essential theoretical groundwork for everything Einstein was to do.

There’s a big difference, though. A few years ago, when I was offered the chance to write short biographies of Newton and Einstein, I jumped at it – because they addressed mysteries of the universe that anyone can relate to, and their lives outside physics were, if anything, even more fascinating. At the risk of sounding downright rude, you can’t say either of those things about James Clerk Maxwell. In spite of that, Brian Clegg has done a wonderful job here of recounting just what Maxwel…