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The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom Hardcover – August 25, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Paul Dirac (1902–1984) shared the Nobel Prize for physics with Erwin Schrödinger in 1933, but whereas physicists regard Dirac as one of the giants of the 20th century, he isn't as well known outside the profession. This may be due to the lack of humorous quips attributed to Dirac, as compared with an Einstein or a Feynman. If he spoke at all, it was with one-word answers that made Calvin Coolidge look loquacious . Dirac adhered to Keats's admonition that Beauty is truth, truth beauty: if an equation was beautiful, it was probably correct, and vice versa. His most famous equation predicted the positron (now used in PET scans), which is the antiparticle of the electron, and antimatter in general. In 1955, Dirac came up with a primitive version of string theory, which today is the rock star branch of physics. Physicist Farmelo (It Must Be Beautiful) speculates that Dirac suffered from undiagnosed autism because his character quirks resembled autism's symptoms. Farmelo proves himself a wizard at explaining the arcane aspects of particle physics. His great affection for his odd but brilliant subject shows on every page, giving Dirac the biography any great scientist deserves. (Sept.)
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Kirkus *Starred Review*
“Paul Dirac was a giant of 20th-century physics, and this rich, satisfying biography does him justice…. [A] nuanced portrayal of an introverted eccentric who held his own in a small clique of revolutionary scientific geniuses.”

Peter Higgs, Times (UK)
“Fascinating reading… Graham Farmelo has done a splendid job of portraying Dirac and his world. The biography is a major achievement.”

“If Newton was the Shakespeare of British physics, Dirac was its Milton, the most fascinating and enigmatic of all our great scientists. And he now has a biography to match his talents: a wonderful book by Graham Farmelo. The story it tells is moving, sometimes comic, sometimes infinitely sad, and goes to the roots of what we mean by truth in science.”

New Statesman
“A marvelously rich and intimate study.”

Sunday Herald
“Farmelo’s splendid biography has enough scientific exposition for the biggest science fan and enough human interest for the rest of us. It creates a picture of a man who was a great theoretical scientist but also an awkward but oddly endearing human being…. This is a fine book: a fitting tribute to a significant and intriguing scientific figure.”

The Economist
“[A] sympathetic portrait….Of the small group of young men who developed quantum mechanics and revolutionized physics almost a century ago, he truly stands out. Paul Dirac was a strange man in a strange world. This biography, long overdue, is most welcome.”

Times Higher Education Supplement (UK)
“A page-turner about Dirac and quantum physics seems a contradiction in terms, but Graham Farmelo's new book, The Strangest Man, is an eminently readable account of the developments in physics throughout the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s and the life of one of the discipline's key scientists.”

New Scientist
“Enthralling… Regardless of whether Dirac was autistic or simply unpleasant, he is an icon of modern thought and Farmelo's book gives us a genuine insight into his life and times.”

John Gribbin, Literary Review
“Fascinating …[A] suberb book.”

Tom Stoppard
“In the group portrait of genius in 20th century physics, Paul Dirac is the stick figure. Who was he, and what did he do? For all non-physicists who have followed the greatest intellectual adventure of modern times, this is the missing book.”

Michael Frayn
“Graham Farmelo has found the subject he was born to write about, and brought it off triumphantly. Dirac was one of the great founding fathers of modern physics, a theoretician who explored the sub-atomic world through the power of pure mathematics. He was also a most extraordinary man - an extreme introvert, and perhaps autistic. Farmelo traces the outward events as authoritatively as the inward. His book is a monumental achievement – one of the great scientific biographies.”

Roger Highfield, Editor,New Scientist
“A must-read for anyone interested in the extraordinary power of pure thought. With this revelatory, moving and definitive biography, Graham Farmelo provides the first real glimpse inside the bizarre mind of Paul Dirac.”

Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society, Master of Trinity College, Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge and Astronomer Royal
“Paul Dirac, though a quiet and withdrawn character, made towering contributions to the greatest scientific revolution of the 20th century. In this sensitive and meticulously researched biography, Graham Farmelo does Dirac proud, and offers a wonderful insight into the European academic environment in which his creativity flourished."

Barnes & Noble Review
“Farmelo explains all the science relevant to understanding Dirac, and does it well; equally good is his careful and copious account of a personal life that was dogged by a sense of tragedy…. [I]f [Dirac] could read Farmelo’s absorbing and accessible account of his life he would see that it had magic in it, and triumph: the magic of revelations about the deep nature of reality, and the triumph of having moved human understanding several steps further towards the light.”

Newark Star-Ledger
“[An] excellently researched biography…. [T]his book is a major step toward making a staggeringly brilliant, remote man seem likeable.”

Los Angeles Times
“Graham Farmelo has managed to haul Dirac onstage in an affectionate and meticulously researched book that illuminates both his era and his science…. Farmelo is very good at portraying this locked-in, asocial creature, often with an eerie use of the future-perfect tense…, which has the virtue of putting the reader in the same room with people who are long gone.”
“[A] tour de force filled with insight and revelation. The Strangest Man offers an unprecedented and gripping view of Dirac not only as a scientist, but also as a human being.”

New York Times Book Review
“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…. [T]he most satisfying and memorable biography I have read in years.”

Time Magazine
“Paul Dirac won a Nobel Prize for Physics at 31. He was one of quantum mechanics’ founding fathers, an Einstein-level genius. He was also virtually incapable of having normal social interactions. Graham Farmelo’s biography explains Dirac’s mysterious life and work.”

Library Journal
“Farmelo did not pick the easiest biography to write – its subject lived a largely solitary life in deep thought. But Dirac was also beset with tragedy… and in that respect, the author proposes some novel insights into what shaped the man. This would be a strong addition to a bibliography of magnificent 20th-century physicist biographies, including Walter Issacson’s Einstein, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and James Gleick’s Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman.”

American Journal of Physics
“[A] very moving biography…. It would have been easy to simply fill the biography with Dirac stories of which there is a cornucopia, many of which are actually true. But Farmelo does much more than that. He has met and spoken with people who knew Dirac including the surviving members of his family. He has been to where Dirac lived and worked and he understands the physics. What has emerged is a 558 page biography, which is a model of the genre. Dirac was so private and emotionally self-contained that one wonders if anyone really knew him. Farmelo’s book is as close as we are likely to come."

American Scientist
“[A] highly readable and sympathetic biography of the taciturn British physicist who can be said, with little exaggeration, to have invented modern theoretical physics. The book is a real achievement, alternately gripping and illuminating.”

Natural History
“Farmelo’s eloquent and empathetic examination of Dirac’s life raises this book above the level of workmanlike popularization. Using personal interviews, scientific archives, and newly released documents and letters, he’s managed – as much as anyone could – to dispel the impression of the physicist as a real-life Mr. Spock, the half Vulcan of Star Trek.”

“[A] consummate and seamless biography…. Farmelo has succeeded masterfully in the difficult genre of writing a great scientist’s life for a general audience.”

Physics Today
“[An] excellent biography of a hero of physics…. [I]n The Strangest Man, we are treated to a fascinating, thoroughly researched, and well-written account of one of the most important figures of modern physics.”

“As this excellent biography by Graham Farmelo shows, Dirac’s contributions to science were profound and far-ranging; modern ideas that have their origins in quantum electrodynamics are inspired by his insight…. The effortless writing style shows that it is possible to describe profound ideas without compromising scientific integrity or readability."

Freeman Dyson, New York Review of Books
“In Farmelo’s book we see Dirac as a character in a human drama, carrying his full share of tragedy as well as triumph.”

American Journal of Physics
“Farmelo’s exhaustively researched biography…not only traces the life of its title figure but portrays the unfolding of quantum mechanics with cinematic scope…. He repeatedly zooms his storyteller’s lens in and out between intimate close-ups and grand scenes, all the while attempting to make the physics comprehensible to the general readership without trivializing it. In his telling, the front-line scientists are a competitive troupe of explorers, jockeying for renown – only the uncharted territory is in the mind and the map is mathematical…. We read works like Farmelo’s for enlightenment, for inspiration, and for the reminder that science is a quintessentially human endeavor, with all its blemishes and, yes, strangeness.”


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 560 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (August 25, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465018270
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465018277
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.7 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (119 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #138,805 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

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. He lives in London.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

119 of 126 people found the following review helpful By John F. Leamons on September 20, 2009
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Paul Dirac was one of the founders of quantum theory. He fused quantum theory and the special theory of relativity and, in the process, provided a reason for suspecting that there is such a thing as anti-matter. Dirac died in 1984. Given that (a) the work for which he is remembered was all done by 1931, (b) his work was rather technical, and (c) he had no life apart from his work, how has Graham Farmelo managed to write a 500-page biography and, what's more, to include only five equations, four of which have nothing to do with physics? It's a neat trick. First, Farmelo gives us more than a biography. He gives us a history of quantum theory. Second, he tells us about people associated with Dirac, many of whom did have a life outside physics. Finally, Farmelo has a gift for expressing technical ideas simply, compactly, in mere words--words anyone can understand. For example, his account of the infinities that plagued quantum field theory could not be simpler. The infinities are important to Farmelo's story because, if Pierre Ramond can be believed, it is because of them that Dirac was convinced, as he approached death, that his life had been a failure. Farmelo speculates that Dirac may have been autistic. Strange he certainly was. It's hard to picture this great mind, absorbed week after week in Cher's television show. But, then, this was a fellow who thought Wittgenstein was "awful" because he talked too much. Farmelo suggests that Dirac's truth-via-beauty philosophy is an afterthought, that it did not guide him in his important work. (This matters in biography, though not in physics. In physics, experimenters will always have the last word, and their detectors are indifferent to philosophies.) Farmelo shows us how very lucky Dirac was. Had Dirac not stumbled into physics he might well have shared his brother's fate.
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86 of 98 people found the following review helpful By C. Catherwood on August 17, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Graham Farmelo has written the best science book you can read. It is written by a distinguished scientist, who knows his equations (especially THAT equation...) but who has done so in a way that can be understood by those of us with degrees in the humanities. This is a very rare feat: he does not stint on the science, but is clear, readable and easy to follow even if your mathematics did not continue beyond high school.

Not only that but Dirac is a fascinating person in his own right, regardless of the science - the human side of the story is gripping, since Dirac was so unusual and yet able to stay this side of sanity and make his great discoveries.

So an ideal book for all of us: buy it and buy copies for your friends.

Christopher Catherwood (author of WINSTON CHURCHILL: THE FLAWED GENIUS OF WORLD WAR II: Berkley, 2009)
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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Ursiform on October 22, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Having learned of this book through a review in The Economist, I ordered a copy of the UK edition rather than wait for the US edition. Despite that, I have only now finished it, having several times set it aside to read other books. And I would seem to be the idea audience for a biography of Dirac: my (now long ago) dissertation involved a generalization of the Dirac Equation.

The early and mid 20th century was a time of great progress in understanding fundamental physics, with the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics established and their initial combination achieved, the latter in large part through Dirac's work. (The reconciliation of quantum mechanics and the general theory of relativity remains, prominently, to be accomplished.)

Several physicists of that period led interesting lives, and their biographies are surprisingly popular despite the lack of broad interest and general education in physics in the US. Two, Einstein and Feynman, are publishing mainstays. In addition to being great physicists, they were also interesting people. They said clever things, wrote clever articles and books, hobnobbed with important people, spoke out on causes, and got mixed up with various women. All great fodder for books. Other great physicists of the century weren't as colorful, but many still managed to be interesting.

Dirac, by contrast, was reticent and taciturn. He could be silent in social situations, and monosyllabic in answering questions. He largely worked by himself. Not so much material for an enthralling biography. (The author speculates, reasonably, that Dirac fell somewhere in the spectrum of what we now call autism.)

His childhood was wretched, with a distant but demanding father and an unhappy mother. His brother committed suicide.
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121 of 140 people found the following review helpful By Fibonacci on September 13, 2009
Format: Hardcover
This book, while highly informative and very readable, has, in my view, three irritating flaws. One is poor editing. In the first chapter, Dirac's parents have two children on one page, three on the next, but the third isn't born until a few pages later. At the other end of the book, Dirac's wife is a manipulative shrew on one page, on another a loving wife. Such inconsistencies abound between the covers of this very long book. Indeed, my second concern is its length. Farmelo, like even those closest to Dirac, had little access to his inner life so he tries to create one, of sorts, by describing ad minutum what Dirac would have heard on the radio on this or that day, what he would have seen from this or that window, etc etc etc etc. The real Dirac was, however, lost in thought and likely heard or saw none of it. The book could be cut by a third. Third and most important is Farmelo's superficial discussion of Dirac's view of beauty in science and his (the author's) misleading distinction between "top-down" and "bottom-up" science; space does not permit me to say more about this, but beware. It is true that the book has many excellent qualities, but since other reviewers are extolling its praises without qualification, someone needs to say it isn't perfect.
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