The Strangest Man

Graham Farmelo’s The Strangest Man is a biography of one of the most imporant scientists of the twentieth century. Throughout his scientific life, Paul Dirac sought to discover the deepest and most comprehensive laws of the universe, laws he believed would be expressible in mathematical equations that were aesthetically pleasing. Though he was adept at formulating such laws, he was inept when he tried to understand the complexities of his own eccentric personality and his difficulties in interacting with people. These difficulties persisted within his own family and with the many individuals he met over the course of his career.

Science is an intensely social enterprise, and ideas that are permanently locked in the minds of their creators never become truly scientific. Thus, it is a paradox of Dirac’s life that such an asocial individual came to be admired by such scientists as Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, and Erwin Schrödinger. A principal goal of Farmelo’s biography is to understand this paradox by penetrating the shell that Dirac constructed around his “hidden life” to reveal the emotional roots of his personal oddities and public triumphs. The book’s title derives from the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who once said that Dirac was “the strangest man” ever to have visited his institute.

Farmelo, a physicist with a talent for popularization (an activity that Dirac disdained), has been interested in Dirac since his own adolescence in England. Unlike many Englishmen and Americans, who were fascinated with the Bristol-educated Archibald Leach (who became the actor Cary Grant), Farmelo, whose paternal grandmother was born in Bristol, developed an abiding absorption in Dirac. Dirac had spent twenty-five years as a child, teenager, and young adult in Bristol. As Farmelo pursued his own scientific career, he kept encountering Dirac’s name in his textbooks, and his admiration grew, as did his interest in the history of science. This growing interest led him to edit It Must Be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science (2002). Dirac, who was responsible for some of the most beautiful equations of modern physics, was part of this publication.

Dirac’s life has already been explored in articles and in Helge Kragh’s Dirac: A Scientific Biography (1990). However, Farmelo’s approach is not a detailed study of Dirac’s scientific publications; he generously refers readers interested in that aspect of Dirac’s life to Kragh. Instead, Formelo engages in a probing investigation of the psychological and social contexts of Dirac’s discoveries and publications.

Although Farmelo takes a basically chronological approach to his subject’s life, he is not averse to jumping forward and backward in time should his development of a theme warrant it. He intends his book for general readers, and he explains equations mostly in words. The book begins with a prologue that analyzes Dirac as a “top-down thinker,” someone who believes that theories are more important than experiments. Unlike Dirac, Farmelo the biographer pursues the “bottom-up” approach, in the sense that he bases his generalizations about Dirac’s life, career, and character on historical facts. Thus, he has assiduously collected data from archives in England and the United States; he has also interviewed many of the surviving colleagues, friends, and family members who were in any way connected with his subject. He has also read extensively in the secondary literature that has gathered around the analysis of Dirac’s life and contributions.

What is original in Farmelo’s treatment is the extent to which he is able to uncover aspects of his subject’s life and personality that Dirac himself tried to keep concealed. For example, Dirac viewed his father Charles as a tyrant who bullied his wife, two sons, and daughter (Paul was the middle child). Charles himself had been tyrannized by his own parents, as well as in the Swiss army, and after he moved to England to teach modern languages he became a rigid...

(The entire section is 1664 words.)