Dirac, a fusion of genius and madness, according to Einstein

anecdotes from the life of physicist Paul Dirac
Paul Dirac Famous Anecdotes

Paul Dirac, one of the most famous scientists of the 20th century, was a very quiet man. So much so, that his colleagues at Cambridge jokingly defined a unit of speech called "dirac", which meant one word per hour!

But whenever he did speak, Dirac used to extend his abstract thinking to interpret the world literally. This inevitably led him to being an anecdote generator throughout his life and many stories about him abound.

Why do you dance?

In 1929, Dirac and Heisenberg were on board a ship to Japan for attending annual science conference. Werner Heisenberg who happened to be quite a ladies man, used to dance with the young girls on the ship before dinners, while Dirac used to sit watching.

One such evening, Dirac asked, "Heisenberg, why do you dance?"

"When there are nice girls, dancing with them is a pleasure," Heisenberg replied.

Dirac pondered this notion for a while, then blurted out: "But, how do you know beforehand that the girls are nice?"

Heisenberg burst out with laughter.

Physics versus poetry

Dirac and Oppenheimer spent some time together in Göttingen. The two young physicists from different parts of the world had become good friends. In one of these days, Dirac noticed that Oppenheimer wrote poetry.

Dirac asserted, "Robert, I do not understand how a man can work on the frontiers of physics and write poetry at the same time."

Paul Dirac, Robert Oppenheimer Poetry Anecdote

"Why not?" Oppenheimer asked.

"In physics, you want to tell something that nobody knew before, in words which everyone can understand. In poetry, however, you go on to describe something that everybody knows about, in incomprehensible ways."

Oppenheimer was left too confused to respond to that.

Dirac went on to say, "The two are incompatible!"

His comments would strike people as odd at first but they would quickly realize that Dirac made perfect logical sense.

Finish this sentence

Once, Dirac and Bohr were seated in the same room. Niels Bohr, known for being a perfectionist, was writing a scientific paper while mumbling at the same time as was his habit.

After some time, Bohr became really frustrated and stopped. He complained, “I do not know how to finish this damn sentence!”

Dirac retorted, "I was taught at school, never to start a sentence without knowing the end of it."

Dirac said something so profound, with such a straight face, that Bohr went on to comment, "Dirac was the strangest man who ever visited my institute!"

I have an equation

American physicist, Richard Feynman, born in 1918, grew up idolizing Dirac. About 40 years later, they met in Poland at a conference. Richard Feynman, by then a theoretical physicist himself, was building upon Dirac's great work.

Paul Dirac and Richard Feynman in Poland discussing QED

Feynman, the chatty one, spoke at length, as he wanted to describe new ideas to his hero. Dirac, perhaps intimidated by Feynman's over-enthusiasm, remained quiet all along.

Feynman started to see that it was extremely difficult to get anything out of Dirac. But then, after a long silence, Dirac says, "I have an equation. Do you have one too?"

Dirac also went on to explain as to why he spoke so little, “There are always more people willing to speak than there are to listen.”

That wasn't a question

In 1932, Dirac was appointed the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. During one lecture in class, a student raised his hand and said, "I don't understand the equation on the top-right-hand corner of the blackboard."

Dirac simply nodded his head in agreement and continued unabated. When asked again, he expressed puzzlement because he thought the student had simply uttered a fact and not asked a question.

Summing up

Paul Dirac knew not when to say what. He remained merry in his own company but suffered agonies if forced into any kind of socializing or small talk.

His colleagues  in Cambridge described him as a “lean, meek, shy young fellow who goes slyly along the streets, walks quite close to the walls, like a thief, and is not at all healthy.”

Albert Einstein once commented on Dirac: "I have a lot of trouble with Dirac. This balancing on the dizzying path between genius and madness is awful!"

Dirac quantised the gravitational field, formulated the most logically perfect presentation of quantum mechanics and predicted the existence of anti-matter. At the same time, he was also equally famous for his strange, unapologetic behavior.

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