Paul Dirac – Eminent Introductory Paragraph

“I think it’s a peculiarity of myself that I like to play about with equations, just looking for beautiful mathematical relations which maybe don’t have any physical meaning at all. Sometimes they do.”

-P.A.M. Dirac

Paul Dirac, 1933

Paul Dirac made fundamental contributions to the field of quantum mechanics in the 20th century. He published numerous papers in his early career that were frequently described by his contemporaries as “golden marble statues falling from heaven”. Dirac was the first person to write a phd on quantum mechanics, and formulated Fermi-Dirac statistics, which describes the behaviour of large collections of electrons and is widely used by anyone dealing with such systems. His bra-ket notation for quantum mechanics is still standard for anyone in the field, and he did principal work for the development of quantum electrodynamics, once called the “jewel of physics” by Feynman. His crowning achievement, perhaps, was his famous Dirac equation, looked upon by many as one of the great triumphs of modern science. It was the first theory that was consistent with both relativity and quantum mechanics, mathematically explained the concept of spin, and could completely describe the behaviour of any electron. On top of all that, this equation required a particle with the same mass but opposite charge of the electron, a particle that no one had ever seen before and for which there was no experimental evidence. Nevertheless, Dirac insisted on the existence of this particle based solely on the elegance of his equation, a practice baffling to physicists at the time. Regardless, the positron would be discovered 4 years later, cementing Dirac as one of the great physicists with his prediction of antimatter using only mathematics. 

Born August 1902 in Bristol, Dirac was the second son to a middle-class family. Details of this time come only from Dirac’s retellings, however his accounts detail a bit of a strange family situation. According to Dirac, his father was strict and authoritarian, and would pull Dirac from the rest of his family to eat at the other side of the room with him. His father would only speak to his kids in French, with his Swiss mother only speaking to them in English. His father would apparently punish Dirac anytime he made a mistake in French. Young Dirac eventually developed the idea that it would be better to not speak at all than risk punishment by his father. This would eventually lead to the odd personality of Dirac’s for which he was known. 

Dirac giving a lecture on electrons and particle theories at a meeting in 1956

I can relate to Dirac in the following way. He was often described as an unusual individual. He held no presence in a room and would never talk at length about anything, his friends defining the unit Dirac as precisely 1 word per hour. He was socially very awkward and you would never suspect he was a titan of his field. However, he was highly passionate about his work in physics, and was deeply intrigued by math. According to his diary, he spent 6 days in a week at grad school doing work, taking walks on Sundays. 

I should have relatively little trouble relating to Dirac. I am neither British nor Swiss, but we are both white, male, heterosexual atheists born in a middle-class family, which clears a lot of troubling areas off the table. However, Dirac did have trouble finding unemployment after his graduation, which was largely due to the Great Depression. That and his shaky home life are certainly experiences I have never lived through, creating a potentially significant barrier. 

Dirac was a genius. He was a creative and intuitive mind that had a great passion for what he did. He was highly active in research throughout his life and was rational in his worldviews. His work has been described as some of the most important in science history, contributing to our knowledge by vast amounts. He remained an independent, curious, and bizarre character until his death in 1984. In my opinion, these are all valuable characteristics that I believe are worth teaching, and I personally hope to emulate. 

I would like to better understand Dirac’s work. Both his early publications and the work that spawned out of it, and his later ideas which are often mentioned less.

Dirac holding an axe, 1958

6 Replies to “Paul Dirac – Eminent Introductory Paragraph”

  1. Anita

    Hi Pavel,

    You wrote a great post and thanks for introducing me to Paul Dirac. Although I barely know what quantum mechanics is, I was intrigued by your writing about Dirac’s accomplishments and character. It’s great that there aren’t any barriers for you to connect with Dirac, and I love the last picture!


    1. Anita

      Hi Pavel, sorry that I forgot to include some constructive feedback in my initial comment. My constructive feedback is you could think about including a bit on how Dirac exemplifies your own goals in TALONS.

      Anita 🙂

  2. Dylan

    Hi Pavel,

    I loved your post! My favourite part was definitely when you described how Paul Dirac created the Dirac equation, and how confident he was in the existence of a particle that no one had ever seen before. I bet when he proved everyone wrong, it was quite the event. I found it interesting how you connected yourself with your notable on areas other than personality and passions, and I think it would be beneficial to your future posts if you connected to those areas a bit as well. Another piece of advice would be to have a sign-off at the end, like “thanks for reading, Pavel,” or something similar. Thanks for teaching me about Paul Dirac!


  3. Tyler

    Something I like about the blog is how you explain his achievements in depth
    Something interesting about your personal connection with your eminent person is that you view both him and yourself as unusual
    Something to improve on next time is just to preview your blog’s layout next time as the video is a bit close to the text

  4. Saihaj

    Hi Pavel
    I enjoyed reading what you wrote about what Paul’s life was like when he was younger and the type of person that he was. I also liked the quote at the beginning of the introduction. Your shared connection with him in your interest in physics was a good point, along with some traits he had that you mentioned you wanted to emulate. You could’ve elaborated on your answer to the question “to what extent does your chosen notable exemplify your own goals in TALONS?”, but it overall, was a great introduction.

  5. Adrian

    Hi Pavel, you did a great job demonstrating why Paul Dirac is such an important person in science/mathematics. I really like the resources you included in your post as well, but make sure to link them either at the bottom of the page or below the picture/quote itself. This is a great start to your eminent project!

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