The Un-Einstein; or, Paul Dirac, Possibly the 20th Century’s Single Nerdiest Man

  • Share
  • Read Later

While I was traveling last week I was lugging around an incredibly fascinating book called The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom. Dirac was one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics. He predicted the existence of anti-matter, mathematically, before there was any experimental basis for it. He won a Nobel Prize when he was 31. The main reason he’s not a household name, as far as I can tell, is that he was too nerdy even by the standards of physicists.

38037778

Niels Bohr was apparently a jolly and highly sociable individual. Feynman was positively charming. Dirac was just in another league of nerdiness. He wasn’t witty and media-friendly like Einstein. He was the un-Einstein. The Unstein.

It was famously impossible to get Dirac to answer a question with more than a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’ There was an otherworldly quality to his work that spooked even his colleagues — he spoke the alien language of quantum mechanics like a native. It was all he cared about. Einstein worried (in the case of Heisenberg and uncertainty) about whether God played dice. Dirac just wanted to make the equations balance. And if the equations worked, the universe would fill in the variables. He once remarked: “God is a mathematician of a very high order.”

He only ever wore a three-piece suit, year round, rain or shine, morning and night. The non-logic of social interactions just didn’t interest him. When he was at Cambridge someone remarked to him, ‘It’s a bit rainy, isn’t it?’ He got up, walked to the window, came back, sat down again, and said: ‘It is not now raining.'”

Or this is my favorite Dirac story. In his late 20s Dirac and Heisenberg took a cruise together to Japan. Heisenberg, who was a social animal, was getting his dance on with the ladies, and Dirac asked him, “Why do you dance?” Heisenberg replied — not unreasonably — “When there are nice girls, it is a pleasure to dance.” Dirac thought about this for 5 minutes. Then he said: “Heisenberg, how do you know beforehand that the girls are nice?”

0 comments
Sort: Newest | Oldest