Biographies of scientists are often deadly dull. Most famous scientists lived rather uninteresting lives apart from their work, and biographers often fail to convey the excitement of that work. A notable exception to the dull-existence rule was evolutionary geneticist J.B.S. Haldane, a real character (check out the poem he wrote about his rectal cancer) who had a terribly exciting life; but his biography, JBS by Ronald Clark, doesn’t really lay out why he’s famous. Or, when biographers try to do that, the writing is turgid. I’ve dutifully endured many deadly scientific biographies, including the acclaimed Subtle is the Lord: the Science and Life of Albert Einstein, by Abraham Pais. I even had trouble finishing the Pulitzer-winning biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.
Until now, the only biography that I thought combined great writing and a full and accurate account of scientific achievement was Janet Browne’s magisterial two-volume life of Darwin. (This isn’t just my pro-evolution bias: it really is a scientific page-turner.) But now I’ve found another.
I’m giving two thumbs up to a splendid new life of P. A. M. Dirac (1902-1984) by Graham Farmelo: The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom. Yes, the title is a bit wonky, for Dirac was no mystic (he was in fact a militant atheist), but he was a strange and brilliant character who, along with Heisenberg, was a major architect of quantum physics. Dirac’s life was hardly exciting: he was a laconic, antisocial man, and even his physics colleagues couldn’t pry more than a few words out of him. He had a tyrannical father, a fawning mother, and his brother committed suicide, all of which may account for Dirac’s asociality. His real life was in his head, but what a head! Somehow Farmelo manages, without burdening the reader with equations, to convey the wonder of Dirac’s accomplishments and turn his life into a triumph of the ill.
For me, the high point of Farmelo’s tale is Dirac’s prediction, from first principles, of the existence of antimatter. It turned out that one of his quantum-mechanical equations, the famous “Dirac equation,” predicted the existence of antimatter: particles the size of electrons but with a positive charge. For several years Dirac’s colleagues poo-pooed this prediction, for there was no evidence of antimatter. Dirac even thought that his equation might be wrong. But cloud-chamber experiments conducted by Carl Anderson at Caltech finally confirmed the existence of the predicted “positrons.” In 1933, at the age of only 31, Dirac shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Erwin Schrödinger.
Throughout his life, Dirac insisted that the truth about nature was approached better through equations than experiments, and it still amazes me—in fact, I find this unbelievable—that Dirac accepted the existence of antimatter simply because it was demanded by his equations. The notion that, with minimal input from observation or experiment, equations themselves can tell us what is real about the universe is something completely alien to a biologist.
Get this book; you won’t be disappointed.
Below is one of my favorite science photos. It shows Dirac (left) having a “conversation” with Richard Feynman at a relativity meeting in Warsaw in 1962. The lanky Dirac, with an impossibly small head atop a stretched-out frame, leans back as the garrulous Feynman gesticulates.
And a Dirac anecdote:
At the question period after a Dirac lecture at the University of Toronto, somebody in the audience remarked: “Professor Dirac, I do not understand how you derived the formula on the top left side of the blackboard.”
“This is not a question,” snapped Dirac, “it is a statement. Next question, please.”
I’ve read only a few biographies as engrossing as Farmelo’s, and none (except for Browne’s) dealing with scientists. Just to note my favorite non-scientific biographies: two are by Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, and his still-in-progress biography of LBJ, The Years of Lyndon Johnson ( The Path to Power, Means of Ascent, and Master of the Senate). And my all-time favorite biography is a real masterpiece, and, sadly, will always be unfinished: William Manchester’s The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill. There are two volumes, Visions of Glory, 1874-1932, and Alone, 1932-1940. It’s a great tragedy that Manchester died before finishing the third (and probably not the last) volume, one that would have described Churchill’s greatest achievement, shepherding Britain through World War II.