The Strangest Man by Graham Farmelo

There has been a fair amount of discussion of Graham Farmelo’s The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom— Peter Woit reviewed it on his blog, the New York Times reviewed it a couple of Sundays ago, Barnes and Noble’s online review did a piece on it, etc.. Nearly all of the press has been positive, and while it’s taken me a while to work my way through the book, that’s entirely a function of having a day job and a baby. The book itself is excellent, and kept me reading alter than I should’ve several times, which is not something I can say about a lot of biographies.

Of course, half the game in writing a biography is choosing an appropriate subject, and Dirac turns out to be an inspired choice. He was a brilliant theorist, helping to shape quantum mechanics in the 1920’s and 1930’s, he was famously odd (his colleagues at Cambridge invented “a new unit for the smallest imaginable number of words that someone with the power of speech could utter in company– an average of one word an hour, ‘a Dirac'”), and he turns out to have a surprisingly complex family history, which is documented in an extensive collection of letters that he saved for decades. All of these make him an excellent subject for a biography, and Farmelo makes the most of the material.

There’s lots of good science material, sketching out the reasons for Dirac’s fame, though without going into any of the mathematics in detail. The real strength of the book comes in describing the oddities of Dirac’s personal life, such as this passage describing his correspondence with his eventual wife, Eugene Wigner’s sister Manci:

He sent her lists of corrections to her English, and answered her queries as tersely as a speak-your-weight machine. When she sent him photographs of herself, he was grateful but critical: “I do not like this picture of you very much. The eyes look very sad and do not go well with the smiling mouth.” After she complained that he did not answer all her questions, he re-read her letters, numbered them, and sent her tabulated responses to every question he had ignored…

this is followed by a reproduction of the table, including questions such as “What makes me (Manci) so sad?” which is answered “You have not enough interests.” Lest you think this an invention on the part of the biographer, the photo plates include a picture of the relevant letter, which does indeed include the table in the text.

The feature of the book that has led to the most discussion is in the last chapter, where Farmelo speculates that Dirac may have been autistic. I’m not usually a fan of psychoanalyzing the dead, but in this case, it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. Dirac’s famous personality quirks fit extremely well with the official descriptions of autism-spectrum disorders, and also match up well with the few students I’ve had who were officially diagnosed with Asperger’s.

This is an excellent book, and I recommend it to anyone who has an interest in the history of physics. Dirac is an unusual character, but he was present for many of the great moments of 20th Century physics, and the combination of his odd life and the momentous scientific discoveries makes for a compelling read.

The only ambivalence I have about the book is that it’s yet another book celebrating the sheer oddness of a famous physicist. I half wish that we could get some more books about people who were relatively well-adjusted, because, really, the vast majority of physicists are not suffering from severe personality disorders. I’m not wild about biographies that give the impression that all physicists are incredibly odd and socially inept.

The problem, of course, is that the well-adjusted physicists aren’t nearly as much fun to write about. Or to read about, as this book shows.