Monday December 21st, 2009

The Strangest Man by Graham Farmelo

paul-diracSpeaking of enigmatic physicists (see entry immediately below), Paul Dirac, one of the 20th century’s greatest scientists, possessed oddness that matched his brilliance. (Among many other accomplishments, he predicted the existence of antimatter.) Graham Farmelo’s widely praised new biography takes its title from a Niels Bohr quote: “Dirac is the strangest man who ever visited my institute.” In her review of the book for the New York Times, Louisa Gilder didn’t waste any time, beginning: “This biography is a gift. It is both wonderfully written (certainly not a given in the category Accessible Biographies of Mathematical Physicists) and a thought-provoking meditation on human achievement, limitations and the relations between the two.”

When the book was published in the UK earlier this year, Tim Radford wrote that Dirac, “a silent, solemn, young beanpole . . . sounds like an unlikely candidate for a biography, let alone a ‘hidden life.’ And yet [The Strangest Man] races along. . . . This is a rich book: it pinpoints the moment, the milieu, the excitement of discovery and the mystery of matter, and it provides an alternative social history of the 20th century as well. And all of this is held together by a figure simultaneously touching and mysterious.”

Peter Woit finds the bio’s last section, about Dirac and his possible feelings about string theory, “seriously misguided.” But Woit concludes: “Ignoring the last few pages, Farmelo’s book is quite wonderful, by far the best thing written about Dirac as a person and scientist, and it’s likely to remain so for quite a while.”

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom by Graham Farmelo
Basic Books, 560 pp., $29.95