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.

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you   
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

A (Very) Short History of Life on Earth - Henry Gee *****

In writing this book, Henry Gee had a lot to live up to. His earlier title  The Accidental Species was a superbly readable and fascinating description of the evolutionary process leading to Homo sapiens . It seemed hard to beat - but he has succeeded with what is inevitably going to be described as a tour-de-force. As is promised on the cover, we are taken through nearly 4.6 billion years of life on Earth (actually rather more, as I'll cover below). It's a mark of Gee's skill that what could have ended up feeling like an interminable list of different organisms comes across instead as something of a pager turner. This is helped by the structuring - within those promised twelve chapters everything is divided up into handy bite-sized chunks. And although there certainly are very many species mentioned as we pass through the years, rather than feeling overwhelming, Gee's friendly prose and careful timing made the approach come across as natural and organic.  There was a w

On the Fringe - Michael Gordin *****

This little book is a pleasant surprise. That word 'little', by the way, is not intended as an insult, but a compliment. Kudos to OUP for realising that a book doesn't have to be three inches thick to be interesting. It's just 101 pages before you get to the notes - and that's plenty. The topic is fringe science or pseudoscience: it could be heavy going in a condensed form, but in fact Michael Gordin keeps the tone light and readable. In some ways, the most interesting bit is when Gordin plunges into just what pseudoscience actually is. As he points out, there are elements of subjectivity to this. For example, some would say that string theory is pseudoscience, even though many real scientists have dedicated their careers to it. Gordin also points out that, outside of denial (more on this a moment), many supporters of what most of us label pseudoscience do use the scientific method and see themselves as doing actual science. Gordin breaks pseudoscience down into a n

Michael D. Gordin - Four Way Interview

Michael D. Gordin is a historian of modern science and a professor at Princeton University, with particular interests in the physical sciences and in science in Russia and the Soviet Union. He is the author of six books, ranging from the periodic table to early nuclear weapons to the history of scientific languages. His most recent book is On the Fringe: Where Science Meets Pseudoscience (Oxford University Press). Why history of science? The history of science grabbed me long before I knew that there were actual historians of science out there. I entered college committed to becoming a physicist, drawn in by the deep intellectual puzzles of entropy, quantum theory, and relativity. When I started taking courses, I came to understand that what really interested me about those puzzles were not so much their solutions — still replete with paradoxes — but rather the rich debates and even the dead-ends that scientists had taken to trying to resolve them. At first, I thought this fell under