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Quantum physics and popular culture: Hit job on – of all people – Paul Dirac?


In his review for The Sunday Times (January 11, 2009) of a new book on the life of quantum physicist Paul Dirac, The Strangest Man: the Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius The Strangest Man: the Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius by Graham Farmelo of the Science Museum of London, John Carey begins by noting that Paul Dirac was the greatest British physicist since Newton:

In the 1920s and 1930s, together with Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger and Pauli, he opened up the field of quantum physics, changing the course of science. In 1933, aged 31, he became the youngest theoretician to win a Nobel prize.

However, according to Farmelo, the reason there was no biography of Dirac until now is that he was

pathologically silent and retiring, and as a thinker he was unintelligible except to mathematicians. Even his fellow physicists complained that he worked in a deliberately mystifying private language. For his part, he insisted that the quantum world could not be expressed in words or imagined. To draw its picture would be “like a blind man sensing a snowflake. One touch and it’s gone”. Its beauty revealed itself only in mathematical formulae.

Actually about the quantum world, Dirac is certainly right, and certainly not the only person to think so. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says, “the real difficulty in understanding quantum mechanics lies in coming to grips with their implications — physical, metaphysical, and epistemological.”

It is not Dirac’s fault if he didn’t make the non-materialist implications of quantum physics acceptable to materialists. Materialists have been trying to tame it for about seventy years now, I guess. Not only have they not succeeded, but the disaster has spread to neuroscience.

Farmelo argues that Dirac suffered from autism. As a layperson, I am suspicious of psychological diagnoses of the dead, even from professionals – and the review certainly implies that the book is gossipy, which discourages me from changing my mind on the subject.

“But the tittle-tattle of Dirac’s daily life is ultimately irrelevant,” Carey tells us, after offering an unexpected shower of same. But then we learn something very interesting:

What does come across, surprisingly, is how far Dirac’s methods seem like those of an imaginative writer. His ideas came as intuitions. They were not derived from experimental observation, but from contemplation of pure mathematics. His discovery of antimatter followed this pattern. He deduced from his equations that if electrons exist, anti-electrons must exist also, though nobody had ever observed one. The universe, he suggested, was composed of equal parts of matter and antimatter, and though, for some unknown reason, human experience is confined almost entirely to matter, there may be parts of the universe made of antimatter. Most physicists greeted this with derision. Yet within months an experimenter at Caltech had photographed a positron or anti-electron; nowadays, Farmelo points out, particle accelerators generate billions of anti-electrons and anti-protons daily for use in industry and medicine, where positron emission tomography allows doctors to see inside patients’ brains and hearts.

I have long supposed that a proper realignment of science would realign sciences and arts in precisely this way.

Anyway, physicist friend A. J. Meyer, who calls the Sunday Times article a “crass hit job” has given me permission to post his opinion:

I got to know knew Dirac & his wife Manci through Behram Kursunoglu’s Coral Gables Conferences. They were sort of a “Maggie & Jigs” couple. Manci was [Nobelist] Eugene Wigner’s

sister. She would storm into meetings asking:”Where is that idiot?”
Dirac told a mutual friend that Manci always called him an idiot. Manci was not shy, during one meeting she walked across the room to lecture me about my pipe.

I really liked Dirac, and he certainly wasn’t taciturn when he talked about physics. He just didn’t like small talk.

Dirac was extremely frugal with words, but nevertheless he maximized their information content.

One day, I gave a presentation on “Primatons” — the ultimate granularity of space-time. After the talk, I asked him for his opinion – Dirac answered: “You are out on a limb.”

I then asked him: “Are you going to saw it off?”

He replied: “No.”

I have a hunch that Dirac’s economical use of words was carried over from his well founded belief that if the mathematics that described a physics theory wasn’t beautiful – simple & elegant, then the theory was probably false.

At the very last Coral Gables Conference, at which I heard Dirac speak, he stressed the importance of beautiful mathematics and how distressing it was that the younger generation of physicist had a lack of rigour and were using slipshod mathematics in their work. One younger physicist then asked: “How do you define ‘beautiful mathematics’?” Dirac replied: “If you have to ask that question, then you are in the wrong business.”


Ah yes. Perhaps much of the problem with science today is that many of its practitioners are in the wrong business.

The Darwinists should, for example, be writing fiction, along the lines of “goo = zoo = you = poo, purely by accident!”, for example.

Oh wait. They do.
They don’t call it fiction, because fiction readers are moderately discerning. They market it as science, because nowadays any nonsense marketed as science sells.

Design in the universe: All you people need is help with ignoring the elephant

Mars red but not dead?

Extraterrestrial life: NASA says could be life on Mars- or could be rocks

Science fiction: What if God resigned? What would change?

Colliding Universes is my blog about competing theories of our universe.

"John Carey begins by noting that Paul Dirac was the greatest British physicist since Newton:" Ah, that would explain why Dirac's name pops up in so many of my electrical engineering classes, including, of course, solid state electronic devices. SeanSean
“goo = zoo = you = poo, purely by accident!” pure poetry and so true(true that it is not true). critiacrof
Oh wait. They do. Denyse, You crack me up. GilDodgen
What timing. I just put up a review of Quantum Enigma over at TT. And here I was wondering why quantum issues don't get more discussion in ID circles. Interesting fellow. And I'm with you on the psychoanalysis of the dead - I've even seen claims that Socrates had ADHD. I'll believe the validity of that claim the moment a ouija board is classified as a scientific instrument. nullasalus

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