“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.”
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.
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.