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The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius

4.08  ·  Rating Details ·  3,385 Ratings  ·  210 Reviews
Paul Dirac was among the great scientific geniuses of the modern age. One of the discoverers of quantum mechanics, the most revolutionary theory of the past century, his contributions had a unique insight, eloquence, clarity, and mathematical power. His prediction of antimatter was one of the greatest triumphs in the history of physics. One of EinsteinOCOs most admired col ...more
ebook, 561 pages
Published August 1st 2009 by Basic Books (AZ) (first published January 1st 2009)
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What a fantastic book I have just finished!

I always find biographies very interesting and stimulating, specially those regarding the lives of scientists. In this case, it was a biography not only of the life of the brilliant mind of Paul Dirac but also a complete story of the rise and golden age of quantum mechanics along with Heisenberg, Jordan, Pauli, Schrodinger and Born.

Dirac, the youngest theoretician ever to win the Nobel for his legacy to this field was an eccentric man, famous for not un

--The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius

Abbreviations in Notes
List of Plates
Paul Dirac won a Nobel prize for physics. He was one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics. Among other things, he predicted the existence of antimatter, discovered the magnetic monopole solutions and his work was used as some of the basis for string theory.

What does all that mean? Other than the fact that Dirac was one smart motherf----r, I couldn’t tell you. Because it’s my curse to be fascinated by theoretical physics despite being so math challenged that I could ba
Sep 24, 2016 Max rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
There are many stories in The Strangest Man. There is the story of scientific discovery and of the early quantum physics community that includes well-known names such as Einstein, Bohr, Rutherford, Oppenheimer, Schrodinger, Heisenberg, Pauli, Born and more. There is the story of an era and how science and politics interact through war, depression and deep ideological differences. Finally there is the story of a man, his scientific achievements, his distant personality, his upbringing in a dysfun ...more
Bryan Higgs
I enjoyed this book even more than I had expected to. Some background: I studied Physics up to the Ph.D. level (experimental elementary particle physics), and then left the field to pursue a career in computing. However, I retained an interest in Physics which became reactivated when I retired. As a physics student, my hero was Richard Feynman (I highly recommend "Genius", James Gleick's biography of Feynman) who was a very colorful character indeed.

However, being British, I was naturally incli
The number of "if"s, "may"s, "probably"s and "likely"s in this book is alarming; the author speculates with a frequency that in the end (actually less than half way through, for me) undermines this detailed, comprehensive biography of one of the most influential and under-appreciated humans of all history. Biography is surely supposed to be factual. Forever filling in gaps with one's own guesses as to the subject's thoughts, actions and words is not helpful, it's misleading. This flaw really dam ...more
May 15, 2017 Charlene rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I really don't know how to rate this book. It deserves 5 stars for making Dirac its sole focus and for the portrayal of his personal life. However, there were two aspects of this book that really bothered me, which I will get to in a moment. The author gave an incredibly detailed account of Dirac's personal life. Sometimes when authors include that much detail, they are adding detail for detail's sake. Not so for this book. Every detail of his life was captivating to me. However, and this is the ...more
Aug 19, 2011 Daniel rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Here is a grand, categorical statement for you: The quantum mechanics revolution of the early 20th century is the greatest achievement of the human mind to date.

I will admit to some bias here, since I'm a physicist. But really, think about it. Over the span of something like 50 years, a group of very smart human beings figured out some fundamental, non-obvious truths about how the universe works. Energy quantization? The probabilistic behavior of subatomic particles? The Heisenberg Uncertainty
Dec 18, 2013 BetseaK rated it really liked it
This biography provides vivid insights not only into the life and personality of the Nobel-prize co-winner P.A.M. Dirac, an intriguing 'hybrid' of an electrical engineer, pure mathematician and physicist, but also into the historic background of the era and the competitive atmosphere of the academic centres of the times (Cambridge, Göttingen, Copenhagen, Princeton). After reading Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate About the Nature of Reality, I was interested to find out why Dirac seem ...more
Jul 26, 2012 greg rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Strangest Man: the hidden life of Paul Dirac, mystic of the atom Graham Farmelo -- a recent biography of one of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics, brilliant mathematical thinker and borderline-autistic recluse. He was there, and part of the conversation, at the time when Bohr and Einstein debated the philosophy of quantum mechanics and the math that underlies it - a case study in Davies book [Why Beliefs Matter]. Dirac was absolutely driven by belief. He had internalized a world view ...more
Angus Mcfarlane
Dec 20, 2013 Angus Mcfarlane rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science, biography
Paul Dirac was probably the most fruitful quantum physicist involved in the revolution of Born, Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Pauli etc., yet I barely recognised his name, let alone his achievements, before reading this. The title is certainly appropriate if unfortunate. Dirac was very peculiar in his deliberate withdrawn ness, becoming a little less so as he aged, and it seems that this was also related to his academic brilliance, whether through an underlying autism or extreme single minded ness. A ...more
Sep 15, 2012 Sean rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This biography is a well constructed and complete narration of one of the greatest physicists to ever live. Paul Dirac is a perfect example of being just the right man for the job at just the right time in history. He was raised in an academic household by a hard taskmaster of a father who required nearly endless study for his children and stifled all social interactions. Though Dirac had said that the only person he ever truly "loathed" was his father, the tortuous upbringing caused him to be t ...more
It wasn't until very near the end of this book that I finally identified the niggling something that had seemed strange throughout it. Most biographies are driven by emotional narrative. To put it in Myers-Briggs terms, they're F books. This book is clearly at T. But what could be more appropriate for the biography of a man so emotionally reserved that many who knew him later speculated that he might have been autistic?

Unverified psychological speculation aside, The Strangest Man is the extremel
Francis Kayiwa
Apr 14, 2010 Francis Kayiwa rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Graham Farmelo writes a book on Paul Dirac who is arguably the greatest Mathematician? Physicist? the 20th century produced. In the book we learn about a boy who learned how to speak German (which he gave up speaking because of WWII), French (which he gave up speaking because of his upbringing) and Russian. He is also famous for lengthy and uncomfortable silences despite his fluency in multiple languages. We get to know how this boy went on to explain his insightful perspective on the universe w ...more
Jan 17, 2010 David rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book isn’t about Michael Jackson! Instead, it is a biography of Paul Dirac, a British born physicist, who didn’t seem overly strange to me. He may not have been socially normal as far as “normal” is depicted in society. Farmelo ties to define Dirac’s personality from childhood abuse when his father made him talk French during their dinner conversations. Farmelo, a physicist, is good in reporting on Dirac’s life, and about his contributions to atomic theory (which weren’t as sexy as Einstei ...more
Alex V
Feb 03, 2016 Alex V rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Very thorough. This book goes into great detail about his personal life and the work he did as a fundamental physicist. The author manages to convey the importance of the work accomplished, and see how it fitted into the previous body of knowledge and the subsequent developments. You also get a good image of the environment he worked in Cambridge UK and as well the situations during the 1st and 2nd world war and life during then. You leave the book with a bit of a love for mathematics which is w ...more
Nov 13, 2009 Mary rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I would never have thought a biography of a physicist could be a page-turner. I was wrong. Dirac had a very interesting life, and Farmelo tells his story well.

If you want to learn the details of Dirac's work, this is not the book for you. His ideas are presented in very general terms, without any scary equations. But even if you never studied physics, I think you will end up with an understanding of how Dirac's work fits into the advances made during the 20th century.
A lengthy biography of an interesting man. The author offers infrequent but insightful opinion. A very good book on the history of science.
Jean Poulos
This is one of the best books in terms of detail and insight into the brilliant character of Paul Dirac 1902-1984. Graham Farmelo, a British Physicist, has obviously done in-depth research, and I understand he had access to many of Dirac’s personal papers. The book won the 2009 Costa book award. The book is less a scientific biography than other books on Dirac, it emphasizes more the development of Dirac’s personality and the story of his relationship with his relations and colleagues. I learned ...more
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Dec 23, 2011 Piotr rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: about-science
An exceptionally well-written biography of one of the greatest physicists, Paul Dirac, one of the creators of quantum mechanics. It's a rare combination of a page-turner and a book written with the English reserve.

Besides the history of an important part of physics, and its historical background (including the rise of Nazism and Stalinism, WWII and later - Cold War) one can clearly see that science is not a dry product, polished from its very beginning. It's a process, created by various people,
Feb 10, 2013 Ugh rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I've read very few biographies. I could swear I've now read three, but the only other one I can think of is the 'autobiography' of the former Arsenal midfielder Paul Merson, which I read when I was about twelve. Nevertheless, even with that lack of experience I am confident in saying that The Strangest Man is an excellent one. Dirac was not the most forthcoming individual, and yet Farmelo manages to paint a convincing portrait that seems fully-fleshed, which makes you think of Dirac as a friend, ...more
Jan 04, 2010 Terry rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science, biographies
Paul Dirac is part of a cadre of theoreticians for whom I have immense respect and admiration despite knowing nothing of the meat of their work. I can follow a Feynmann diagram but the Dirac is almost always beyond me. Dirac's mental faculties exceed mine probably by orders of magnitude and his ability to wield mathematics is vast and humbling.

Graham Farmelo had quite a task for himself and he some-what met it. I found Paul Dirac fascinating from the start and generally love even mediocre scienc
Jesper Hauge
Oct 30, 2015 Jesper Hauge rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science
Jeg forfremmer lige denne kommentar til en egentlig anmeldelse.

En lang og grundig bog der indeholder meget indgående beskrivelser af Diracs privatliv. Forfatteren har en underliggende hypotese om at Dirac i dag nok ville have fået en diagnose i Autisme/Asperger spektret, og han bruger en stor del af bogen på inddirekte at underbygge denne hypotese. De sidste kapitler hvor han så fremfører hypotesen og forsøger at underbygge den, virker dog en anelse tynde.

Når det er sagt er det også en dejligt g
Jose Angel
Mar 09, 2013 Jose Angel rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: side-table
Si alguien me preguntara cuál es el libro que mejor explica la gran aventura científica que significó el desarrollo de la Mecánica Cuántica, mi respuesta sería esta vez vez independiente del nivel de conocimientos técnicos del interlocutor: “The Strangest Man. The Hidden life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom”, de Graham Farmelo.

Y es que el lector que posea conocimientos avanzados en Física, no se verá defraudado por simplificaciones y errores de concepto; el autor, escritor y profesor de Física
Mar 21, 2016 Geoffrey rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
Fascinating read about one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, considered by many to be the best physicist after Einstein. An interesting man. The writer tries to make a case that Dirac may have been autistic, but the argument is only half-hearted, although interesting. I did appreciate that the writer nuanced Dirac's contributions to science with his own often self-critical perceptions. He also succeeds in giving a sense of some of the complexities of scientific discoveries, and the ...more
Jennifer Brickner
I decided to read this biography on my Kindle because he lived in Tallahassee (pictured in the book) in my town. I like to read books about those gifted in Physics like my son. I have to say that I stayed up late reading this book and was really swept away. I bought the paperback for my son to read and take to college. We went to see his marble statue at FSU at the Paul Dirac Science library (next to the Physics building) and went up to the fourth floor and saw pictures of his Nobel prize and ot ...more
I'm sure it is difficult to write an accessible biography of a man whose accomplishments are in a field (quantum mechanics) few of us can really understand. Farmelo conveys facts and tries to explore motivation, including a chapter exploring the possibility that Dirac was autistic. From my other reading and experience, it does seem likely that Dirac had Asperger's Syndrome. He was a quirky focused man with no gift for small talk. My favorite biographies allow me to almost get inside the head of ...more
Mohammed A
Dec 27, 2013 Mohammed A rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The book is well written and presented! Not to mention that it is inspiring and informative. I like how Dirac had a unique (kind of eccentric) personality, yet he was a great physicist. He was popular for his short and precise answers. One of the many stories that I like is the one that occurred after he presented a lecture at a conference. One colleague raised his hand and said: I don't understand that equation. After a long silence, the moderator asked Dirac if he wanted to answer the question ...more
Dec 09, 2009 Mark rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A wonderfully written biography of a fascinating, odd, brilliant and pioneering theoretical physicist. The title of the book is perhaps not the best, certainly from the perspective of the portrait painted by Graham Farmelo, as he consistently places Dirac in the position he should enjoy; a major force during the infancy of quantum physics, whose insights and 'tools' are still relevant and in use today. This book can be enjoyed by all. It is not a book FOR physicists, rather a book about a physic ...more
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Science and Inquiry: December 2013: "The Strangest Man" 22 146 Jan 03, 2016 10:51AM  
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  • No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman
  • Thirty Years that Shook Physics: The Story of Quantum Theory
  • The Many Worlds of Hugh Everett III: Multiple Universes, Mutual Assured Destruction, and the Meltdown of a Nuclear Family
  • Feynman's Lost Lecture: The Motion of Planets Around the Sun
  • Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking
  • Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics
  • Disturbing the Universe
  • The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan
  • The Character of Physical Law
  • Feynman's Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life
  • Charles Darwin: Voyaging
  • Strange Beauty: Murray Gell-Mann and the Revolution in Twentieth-Century Physics
  • The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces
Graham Farmelo is a senior research fellow at the Science Museum, London and associate professor of physics at Northeastern University, US.
More about Graham Farmelo...

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“During the meeting in Delhi with Dirac on 12 January 1955, Nehru asked him if he had any recommendations for the future of the new republic of India. After his usual reflective pause, Dirac replied: ‘A common language, preferably English. Peace with Pakistan. The metric system.” 3 likes
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