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The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom

3.90  ·  Rating details ·  7,523 ratings  ·  313 reviews
'A monumental achievement - one of the great scientific biographies.' Michael Frayn

The Strangest Man is the Costa Biography Award-winning account of Paul Dirac, the famous physicist sometimes called the British Einstein. He was one of the leading pioneers of the greatest revolution in twentieth-century science: quantum mechanics. The youngest theoretician ever to win the N
Hardcover, 539 pages
Published August 1st 2009 by Basic Books (AZ)
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Mar 20, 2019 rated it it was amazing
The Joys of Eccentricity

Scientific method, like human nature, is a term of approval or disapproval not a description of anything real. We use such terms as if we knew what they mean; but they are largely without any definite content. Their primary function is one of propaganda, sometimes professional, often religious, always tendentious. Taking such terms seriously - except to dismiss them - is usually bad for human beings and other living things.

This aptly-titled biography of the prominent 20th
Dirac was one of the most extraordinary thinkers of the 20th century - indeed, of all time - and this book makes a valiant attempt to tell you about his life. The problem is that the interesting things happened inside Dirac's head, and no one knows what was going on there. Dirac didn't like to talk unless he had something to say that he thought would be worth listening to, which was the case most of the time. When he'd come up with an idea that passed his test, he'd usually just write it down fr ...more
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
Sep 24, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: physics
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
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
E. G.

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

Abbreviations in Notes
List of Plates
May 15, 2017 rated it liked it
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
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
Mar 25, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
Paul Dirac, the man Oppenheimer described as a Theoreticians Theoretician, was one of the key figures in quantum physics. Considering just how reserved Dirac was it it impressive that the author managed to write 500+ page book about him. Of course because of this, his story is mostly told through his ground braking work on quantum mechanics and through his friends and colleagues, and their reactions to his cold exterior (a lot of amusing anecdotes here).

He only spoke when he knew exactly what h
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
Sep 24, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Excellent biography of one of the geniuses of quantum theory. It goes into great detail on his personal life and character as well as on his results and methods. A bit more scientific background on the results would have been most welcome tough.

Like Einstein, Dirac believed that mathematical beauty trumps experimental results anytime. While that helped him in the first part of his career, it probably prevented him to achieve even more in his later years.

Still, he would have been delighted by t
Feb 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The author reveals the most human part inside Dirac. Also, give us an accurate view through his achievements in quantum physics. We can see that even he, a great scientist, had have errors in physics.

Amazing book !!
Dec 18, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 22, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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
Jashan Singhal
Feb 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
The book progressed just like Dirac's career. High and then a steady low. Farmelo has made a great attempt in making the readers aware of the life of one of the founding fathers of Quantum Mechanics, whose contributions I feel are over-looked when compared with Schrodinger or Heisenberg (although he shared the Nobel Prize with both of them). But as Dirac himself said, a theoretical physicist dies at the age of 40, same was the case with him more or less. The book got drab post Second World War, ...more
Todd Martin
Jul 04, 2010 rated it really liked it
Shelves: biography
Paul Dirac was a Nobel Prize winning British physicist who made fundamental contributions to quantum mechanics and predicted the discovery of anti-matter. He was also a social misfit with the emotional depth of a carrot. His awkwardness and literal thought process drives many of the anecdotes strewn throughout “The Strangest Man” by Graham Farmelo.

I won’t claim that the life of a physicist is terribly exciting, and Dirac’s was perhaps less interesting than most, but Farmelo expands his narrativ
Jul 26, 2012 rated it liked it
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 rated it really liked it
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 rated it it was amazing
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
Jan 17, 2010 rated it it was amazing
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 rated it it was amazing
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 rated it really liked it
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
Mar 21, 2016 rated it really liked it
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
Alex V
Feb 03, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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 rated it really liked it
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.
Dec 04, 2009 rated it it was amazing
A lengthy biography of an interesting man. The author offers infrequent but insightful opinion. A very good book on the history of science.
Stephie Williams
Apr 21, 2014 rated it really liked it
It always seems interesting to read about the scientist behind major discoveries. Farmelo does a good job bring Dirac to life.
Kevin Orrman-Rossiter
Apr 25, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: lucid-science
Physicists of note can sometimes seem quintessentially different to even ordinary scientists, whether it is the other-worldliness of Einstein, the wise-cracking genius of Feynman, the bizarre existence of Hawking, or the world changing works of Newton. P. A. M. Dirac is right at home in this elite company. One of the youngest physics Nobel prize winners, holder of the Lucasian Chair in Mathematics at Cambridge, renowned for developing the relativistic theory of quantum mechanics, and predicting ...more
Doctor Moss
Nov 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
The title of Farmelo’s book comes from Niels Bohr, who told a colleague that Paul Dirac was “the strangest man” to ever visit Bohr’s institute in Cophenhagen. Bohr’s comments related not only to Dirac’s unusually spare social interaction style but also to his iconoclastic style of thinking. In a field that is historically dense with collaborations and exchanges of findings and methods, Dirac was an extreme outlier, as someone who rarely talked at all, infamous for one word responses even in conv ...more
Nov 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
I am not fan of biographies (an aside - I wonder how lives of the subjects have been so interesting to fill books of a genre which are not less then 300 pages at least, mine could hardly fill not even no. of pages half my age) but reading up on lives of great pioneers, especially eccentric ones, cannot be chore as you get to know not only about their life but also about the story behind their discoveries and the science of it all and the whole backstory and related stories of it.

And of course i
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Graham Farmelo is a senior research fellow at the Science Museum, London and associate professor of physics at Northeastern University, US.

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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.” 5 likes
“When Dirac was an old man, younger physicists often asked him how he felt when he discovered the [Dirac] equation. From his replies, it seems that he alternated between ecstasy and fear: although elated to have solved his problem so neatly, he worried that he would be the latest victim of the 'great tragedy of science' described in 1870 by Thomas Huxley; 'the slaying of a beautiful theory by an ugly fact'. Dirac later confessed that his dread of such an outcome was so intense that he was 'too scared' to use it to make detailed predictions of the energy levels of atomic hydrogen - a test that he knew it had to pass. He did an approximate version of the calculation and showed that there was acceptable agreement but did not go on to risk failure by subjecting his theory to a more rigorous examination.” 3 likes
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