The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac Quantum Genius by Graham Farmelo - review by John Gribbin

John Gribbin

The Shakespeare of Physics

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac Quantum Genius


Faber & Faber 560pp £16.99

Graham Farmelo has done something I thought impossible – he has written an interesting account for the lay person of the life of Paul Dirac. Dirac was one of the greatest of the quantum pioneers, the only physicist that Richard Feynman, himself an outstanding genius, looked up to. He formulated quantum physics in its purest mathematical form, predicted the existence of antimatter, and, more than fifty years ago, suggested that the way forward for physics was to treat fundamental entities as tiny strings, not as points. Today, string theory is the hot topic. So there is plenty of scientific meat here to chew on. The snag, for a biographer, is that Dirac was also almost certainly autistic, and led a life of extreme dullness outside his scientific work. I once thought of writing about him myself, but gave up in despair almost as soon as I started, at a loss to know how to make such a book entertaining. Farmelo, though, has succeeded where I failed, if not quite in making the story entertaining, then certainly in making it fascinating.

The story begins in Bristol in 1902, where Paul Dirac was born. His father, Charles, was Swiss, and had settled in Bristol as a teacher of foreign languages. Paul was the second son of Charles and his English wife Florence, twelve years his junior, whom he treated as a domestic

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