“Singular Oddities of Character”: Cavendish and Dirac

One of the oddities of writing the book-in-progress is that it involves a lot more history-of-science than I’m used to. which means I’m doing things like checking out 800-page scientific biographies from the college library so I can use them to inform 500 word sections of 4000 word chapters. One of these is Cavendish: The Experimental Life by Christa Jungnickel and Russell McCormmach, a biography of Henry Cavendish (and his father), whose most famous experiment is one of the things I plan to describe in the book. Henry himself turns out to be quite a character, though, thus the 800-page biography. The phrase “singular oddities of character” in the post title comes from his biographer George Wilson, and is pretty apt.

Among 20th century physicists, the person widely regarded as the oddest is Paul A. M. Dirac, whose biography is titled The Strangest Man after a comment Niels Bohr made. Dirac famously had a fake unit named after him, for “the smallest imaginable number of words that someone with the power of speech could utter in company,” but after my recent reading, it looks like Cavendish got robbed.

Funny stories about Dirac abound, but at the same time, a Google image search on his name turns up a wealth of photos. The one in the composite above is from this page, largely because I liked the way it went with the picture of Cavendish.

Cavendish, on the other hand, appears only in a single pencil sketch, a version of which (from this page is included above. This portrait was obtained by subterfuge: Cavendish refused a request that he sit for a portrait, so an artist, William Alexander, was invited to the club where Cavendish dined, and seated near the peg where Cavendish would hang his hat and coat. Alexander surreptitiously sketched Cavendish’s profile, and inserted it between the much more detailed drawings of said hat and coat. The resulting sketch was correctly identified by several people who knew Cavendish, and then left with the British Museum as the only known portrait of one of the greatest experimental scientists of the late 1700s.

And for all Dirac’s famous reluctance to speak, it would be hard to top Cavendish, as recounted on page 304 of the Jungnickel and McCormmach book:

Thomas Thomson found Cavendish “shy and bashful to a degree bordering on disease; he could not bear to have any person introduced to him, or to be pointed out in any way as a remarkable man.” Thomson told a story about a meeting between Cavendish and a visiting Austrian at [Royal Society President Joseph] Banks’s house: Cavendish was introduced to the Austrian as a profound and celebrated philosopher, and then he was forced to listen to a flattering speech: “Mr. Cavendish answered not a word, but stood with his eyes cast down, quite abashed and confounded. At last, spying an opening in the crowd, he darted through it with all the speed of which he was master, nor did he stop till he reached his carriage, which drove him directly home.”

On the following page, they quote advice from Dr. Wollaston, who suggested that “the way to talk to Cavendish is never to look at him, but to talk as it were into vacancy, and then it is not unlikely that you may set him going.”

I’m always a little hesitant to post this sort of thing, because I don’t really approve of adding to the popular image of scientists as odd and socially awkward. But then, how can I not share material like this? The image of Cavendish fleeing a party because he was being flattered is just brilliant.

I’ll attempt to ameliorate the image damage, then, by noting that Cavendish and Dirac stories are noteworthy precisely because they’re exceptionally odd even among scientists. While pop-culture depictions of scientists lean rather heavily toward the strange end of the social spectrum, the vast majority of scientists are actually relatively normal and socialize happily. The stuff we talk about at parties may skew in a different direction than you would find at a non-scientific soiree, but we do have parties, and talk at them.

Indeed, as weird and awkward as they may have been, Cavendish and Dirac still socialized in their odd way. Most of the Cavendish stories related in the Jungnickel and McCormmach book come from people who encountered Cavendish at social gatherings hosted by members of the Royal Society. He went reluctantly– they quote Wilson quoting somebody else on seeing Cavendish standing on the landing outside the door of a house, trying to work up the courage to go in, and staying frozen there until a later arrival forced his hand–but he did go. Eventually.

So, the sharing of these stories should not be taken as representative of scientists generally. Their oddities of character are noteworthy because they’re singular– even other scientists found these guys exceptionally odd, in a way that’s too interesting not to share.

(And now I’ve gotten not only a footnote for the book-in-progess but also a blog post out of this 800-page library book, so it’s all good…)

One thought on ““Singular Oddities of Character”: Cavendish and Dirac

  1. Sometimes the quirks are intentional. From the book Faust in Copenhagen, I learned that the various physicists working on quantum theory each cultivated a speech impediment. Social bonding, I’m guessing.

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