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The Strangest Man by Graham Farmelo

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

This challenging book is ostensibly a biography of Paul Dirac, the English theoretical physicist who paved the way for the odd and sometimes upsetting world of quantum physics that emerged after the end of World War I.  But it is also something larger than that, a group portrait of the theorists and experimentalists that deciphered the subatomic quantum universe.  Dirac’s contributions cannot be understood outside the context of his contemporaries – Rutherford, Heisenberg, Einstein, Pauli, Bohr, Born, Kapitza, Landau, Oppenheimer, Gamow, Cockcroft, Millikan, and others.  What comes into focus is a history of the intellectual revolution that overthrew the mechanical universe of Newton and opened the doors to the mastery, both good and bad, of the atom and its infinitesimal structure.

Dirac was a purist, a mathematical theorist who was convinced that truth resided in abstractions.  He recognized that theory had to accommodate verifiable experimental evidence and observation, but only grudgingly.  He had no time nor inclination for collaborative pleasantries, held his own biological family at arm’s length, and could be so literal and humorless that he often became the butt of jokes made by his adopted family, the special fraternity of physicists who were investigating something so strange and counterintuitive that they only could effectively communicate with each other.  In a world full of nerds before that word had ever seen light of day, Dirac was the maladjusted one who made the other wallflowers feel normal.

The intense concentration that so isolated him, even from other physicists, produced spectacular results, the prediction of the neutron and positron before they had been experimentally verified.  This led him to share the 1933 Nobel Prize for Physics with the brilliant mathematician Erwin Schrodinger.  He became the youngest theoretician ever to win that honor, but he only journeyed to Stockholm to accept it after Rutherford had persuaded him that he might attract more attention to himself had he followed his original inclination and refused the prize.

Farmelo’s great accomplishment is to describe this period of intellectual ferment and to make the quantum world, one full of seeming paradoxes and apparent violations of well-accepted physical laws, comprehensible for a lay reader untrained in the subtleties of such phenomena as the uncertainty principle and the exclusionary principle.  Farmelo does this using Dirac as the focus, despite the almost complete absence of contemporary notes or diaries.  Unlike other physicists, Dirac did not jot down observations on his thought processes, and the mass of postcards that he sent to his family back in Bristol rarely contribute more to the story than an occasional comment on the weather.  Dirac’s mother and father found out about his Nobel Prize through the media; apparently their son did not think it worthy of mention in the note he sent them from Cambridge during that time.

Farmelo provides brief portraits of all the players, and sets their cerebral adventure in the context of their times, a period when the rise of Hitler in Germany made most academics afraid, and pushed not a few of them, Dirac included, into the idealistic embrace of the communists.  But what made this gathering of visionaries, almost all of whom were men, special, was not their politics, nor their times, but the excitement that ensued when the secrets of the atom and its structure were peeled away, one by one, until the subatomic world became as familiar as the Newtonian one did to previous generations.  In a year where there have been many more publicized science books by established writers like Richard Dawkins, Robert Wright, Sean B. Carroll, and Carl Zimmer, Farmelo’s biography of the “mystic of the atom” tops my list.

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

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