“The Strangest Man”
Thursday 29 July 2021
Teachers in the Northern Hemisphere are hopefully enjoying a summer vacation and recharging their batteries after a stressful Covid-dominated year. For a relaxing and yet very informal and informative read I recommend you try to get hold of a copy of “The Strangest Man” written by Graham Farmello. It is a biography of Paul Dirac and must rank as one of the best biographies ever written. Paul Dirac won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1933 jointly with Erwin Schrӧdinger (the delayed 1932 prize was awarded to Werner Heisenberg at the same time). He was a fascinating man who made a huge contribution to atomic physics, particularly the structure and working of the atom at a quantum level. The book details his early life and the friendships he made with all the world’s leading scientists at the time. He was immensely shy in nature hardy ever speaking a word. In fact his colleagues in Cambridge coined a unit called the "dirac", which was defined as one word per hour. The fact that he never pushed himself forward perhaps explains why he in not better known. The book gives much insight into the Nature of Science and shows how Dirac believed more in following the beauty of mathematics to lead to the prediction of as yet unknown observations rather than the more traditional route of finding hypotheses and theories to explain existing observations. For example, he is credited with predicting the existence of positrons (along with the concept of of other forms of anti-matter) way before they were actually observed. The book is beautifully written, extremely readable and full of interesting anecdotes including a discussion of his probable (but never formally recognised) autism.