We asked physicist Graham Farmelo to talk about his new book, The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius, and about Dirac’s relationship with Bristol…
What did Dirac achieve?
Dirac was one of the discoverers of the most revolutionary scientific theory of the past century; quantum mechanics, the theory of matter at its finest level (atoms, molecules and their constituents). In 1928, he astonished the world of scientists by finding an equation that describes the electron using quantum theory and Einstein’s special theory of relativity, two theories that had previously seemed all but incompatible. With no hints at all from experiment, he used this equation to predict the anti-particle to the electron, the first example of anti-matter. This is widely regarded as one of the greatest leaps in the modern history of science.
What does this mean for us?
Quantum mechanics is used everyday by scientists in the microelectronics industry; every time you use a computer, or indeed anything with a computer chip inside, you are using a quantum device. Whenever you play a CD or DVD, you use a laser to read the disc; the fundamental science underlying the operation of the laser was first understood by Dirac. Finally, watch out in the coming years for the development of spintronic devices: these will exploit the ability to manipulate the spin of the electron (rather than its electrical charge). At the heart of this science is the Dirac equation for the electron; it may one day be the foundation of a multi-billion-dollar industry.
Why is Dirac described as Bristol’s Einstein?
Dirac was the finest scientist Britain has produced in 125 years, one of the handful of physicists who can stand on the podium of modern greats with Einstein. Dirac was born, bred and educated (until he was 21) in Bristol.
How important was Dirac’s upbringing and education in Bristol on his work?
It was extremely important. Dirac always acknowledged that he had a first-class public education, at junior school (Bishop Road School), at Merchant Venturers’ College and at Bristol University, where he took two degrees (electrical engineering and applied mathematics). His education in both engineering and mathematics was, thanks to superb teachers, extremely influential in shaping his view of the universe.
Why does he seem to be appreciated more outside than inside Bristol?
I have no idea! Certainly, Dirac did little to promote himself and had an aversion for journalists and TV cameras. But he was always very fond of Bristol and, after he emigrated to the US in 1971, was interested in local news from his native city.
What can we do more in Bristol to celebrate Dirac?
Opportunities to remember him are limited only by the civic imagination. A few years ago, a local school considered naming itself after Dirac but decided against it – I was not surprised. With Bristol now a Science City, there can be no better case for Dirac being recognised in the city of his birth.
What will you be working on next?
Probably a book about little known scientists from other cities. I plan not even to mention Dirac!
Graham Farmelo is Senior Research Fellow at the Science Museum, London, and Adjunct Professor of Physics at Northeastern University, Boston, USA. Formerly a theoretical physicist, he is now an international consultant in science communication. He edited the best-selling It Must be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science in 2002, and is the author of The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius, which has been called magnificent and beautifully written in reviews. On 9 March 2009, Farmelo will visit Bristol speak at a special event about Bristol-born physicist Paul Dirac, little known locally, but one of the most important scientists of the 20th century.