Paul Dirac (1902–1984) was an English theoretical physicist and a co-recipient (with Erwin Schrödinger) of the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physics for “the discovery of new productive forms of atomic theory.”
A professor of Physics and Astronomy at Aarhaus University in Denmark, Helge Kragh is the author of several books on physics and cosmology.
Simply Charly: In 1990, you published Dirac: A Scientific Biography, which was the first full-length biography of Paul Dirac to surface, six years after his death. What first prompted you to tackle the life of one of the history’s most influential physicists?
Helge Kragh: My main motivation was that a biography of this kind would fill a lacuna for both physicists and historians of science. I thought that Dirac’s life and science were not only of great interest in their own right but also that they might be used to picture the broader developments in theoretical physics between the 1920s and 1970s. For this reason, I tried to write it in a way that did not focus too narrowly on Dirac as a scientist, but also on him as a kind of representative of the dramatic changes that occurred during his lifetime. Moreover, I did not focus on Dirac as a quantum theorist only. For example, I covered in some detail his fascinating cosmological theory based on the hypothesis of a varying gravitational constant. The hypothesis is still considered by some modern cosmologists, but in Dirac’s version, it was proved wrong, although he would not admit it. For a historian, wrong ideas are no less interesting than the right ones.
SC: In the biography, you describe Paul’s father, Charles Dirac as a “domestic tyrant” who drove Dirac to become an introvert. Do you think Charles’ influence had any bearing on Dirac’s later career as a physicist? How did Paul’s childhood and upbringing affect his work?
HK: There is little doubt that Dirac’s upbringing in Bristol, and the authoritarian (even tyrannical) attitude of his father, had a major effect on his way of thinking and (lack of) social life. It probably was a major cause why he thought and expressed himself in the independent, condensed and disciplined way that is so characteristic of his writings. While I think it affected his style of physics, I do not think one can trace some of his physical ideas back to his traumatic childhood experience in any direct way. It remains a matter of speculation whether or not he would have had these ideas had he been brought up differently.
SC: Dirac held the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge University, an academic post once held by Isaac Newton. Many have described Dirac’s grasp of mathematics as unrivaled by most physicists. How adept as a mathematician was he?
HK: Some years ago, an interesting history was published of the Lucasian Chair and its holders from Newton to Hawking, in which I wrote the chapter on Dirac (K. Knox and R. Noakes, eds. From Newton to Hawking, Cambridge 2003). It should be kept in mind that the professorship is not, and never was, a chair in mathematics in our use of the term, but in theoretical physics. Dirac evidently had a talent for mathematics, but he was not an exceptionally brilliant mathematician compared to, for example, Hermann Weyl, John von Neumann or even Max Born. He often used mathematics rather freely and without caring too much about rigor, but that was part of his personal style. Although mathematicians found his approach problematic and somewhat sloppy, it was very productive nevertheless, as exemplified by his introduction of the d-function and the Dirac matrices. Generally, his view and use of mathematics was ambiguous. He often praised the sublime power of pure mathematics, but in reality, he often used approximation methods characteristic of engineers. As I argue in my book, his adherence to what he called the principle of mathematical beauty turned out to be a blind alley.
SC: According to theoretical physicist Victor Weisskopf, “Dirac succeeded in unifying relativity theory with quantum mechanics, leading both to the concept of antimatter and to quantum field theory, a consistent way of dealing with the interaction of matter with electromagnetic and other fields.” Can you elaborate on this?
HK: Dirac was among the founders of quantum mechanics and, together with Pascual Jordan, the main inventor of quantum electrodynamics. It was, however, his 1928 relativistic theory of the electron that established him as being in a class of his own. As Weisskopf says, not only did he unify (in a sense) quantum mechanics and special relativity theory, he also drew from his theory the surprising conclusion that the electron ought to have a mirror- or anti-particle of positive charge, soon to be identified with the positron. This work, published between 1928 and 1931, was completely original and provided physics with a new foundation. He was indeed one of the fathers of quantum field theory, if not the only father. It is understandable that the Dirac memorial stone in Westminster Abbey, which appropriately is placed near Newton’s tomb, is decorated with his famous equation of 1928.
SC: Your book naturally pays close attention to the Dirac equation and Dirac’s contributions to quantum mechanics. Why was Dirac unsatisfied with his own theories of quantum electrodynamics? Do you think he was right to reject quantum electrodynamics on purely aesthetic grounds?
HK: Dirac was not the only one who worried about quantum electrodynamics (QED) in the 1930s when the theory was plagued by various troubles, in particular, that it led to measurable quantities being infinite. But his response to the troubles was different from and more radical than the response of most other physicists. He believed that a solution could only be found by a revolutionary change, not by improving the existing formalism. His own attempts failed, however, and when the so-called renormalization theory was developed by Julian Schwinger, Richard Feynman, and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga after World War II, Dirac dismissed it as a pseudo-solution. Although it eliminated the infinities, he claimed that it did so at the expense of logic and what he called beautiful mathematics. He spent 30 years or so trying to find an alternative, but with no success. So, Dirac was clearly not justified in rejecting QED on the grounds of logic and aesthetics only. On the other hand, he was not alone in feeling that the pragmatically successful theory rested on a shaky foundation.
SC: Another Dirac biographer, Graham Farmelo, has controversially posited that Dirac may have suffered from autism. Would you agree with this theory? Why or why not?
HK: Farmelo argues at some length that Dirac was most likely autistic and, what is more interesting, that this explains his success as a theoretical physicist. But he also admits that one should be very careful in making the diagnosis, and my feeling is that he has not been careful enough and cannot be, given the limited amount of evidence. After all, no psychiatrist ever diagnosed Dirac. It is an interesting hypothesis, and it may even be true, but it has no real explanatory power. It is an attempt to explain genius by using a not well-defined psychological label. I suspect that one could use the label or other similar labels to explain the mental characteristics of whatever kind of genius one wants. It is a psychological theory of everything. There have been similar claims that Newton and Einstein suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, and that this accounts for their unusual intellectual powers. I can only say that I am skeptical.
SC: Dirac was much beloved in the scientific community: he was friends with Einstein and Werner Heisenberg, and several scientific medals were named after him. What was Dirac’s influence on younger scientists like Richard Feynman and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga? How is he remembered today?
HK: I wouldn’t call him “much beloved” but rather “much respected,” and I don’t think he can be called a friend of Einstein’s. Given his status and scientific importance, Dirac’s influence on younger physicists was remarkably small. He was plainly uninterested in influencing the younger generation, or anyone else, and as a teacher and supervisor, he was generally unhelpful. Nevertheless, through his famous and much-used textbook Principles of Quantum Mechanics, he did exert a considerable impact on students and the course of physics in general. But he was of little help to students, who were often discouraged by his taciturn and unapproachable character. Of course, his scientific papers in the 1920s and 1930s were highly influential, but Dirac as a person was not. During his 40-year’s career as a professor in Cambridge, he had only a few doctoral students. And none of them seems to have benefitted much from his supervision. He has the elevated status today in the physics community for the same reasons as Einstein: they both changed the course of fundamental physics.
SC: One of the most famous quotes about Dirac comes from Wolfgang Pauli, who once quipped that “There is no God, and Dirac is His prophet.” What did Pauli mean by this seemingly contradicting statement? Is this indicative of Dirac’s idea of religion?
HK: In spite of being almost completely absorbed in physics, in his younger days, Dirac also had some interest in political and religious questions. As far as I can judge, he had little interest in religion and even less understanding of it. According to Heisenberg’s recollections, in discussions with him and Pauli during the famous 1927 Solvay conference, Dirac stood up for the cause of extreme rationalism, rejecting not only a creative God, but also any other notion of religion. It was in this context that Pauli is to have said as quoted in the question. Pauli presumably meant that Dirac’s fanatical atheism was itself of a religious nature, or a substitute for religion. While there is some evidence that Dirac was an atheist in his youth, we know very little of his view later in life. Apparently, he did not remain a hard-core atheist and he even, at one occasion, discussed the chances that God might exist. Characteristically, he judged the possibility on the basis of physics and the probability of intelligent life in the universe. I think one can safely assume that he had no appreciation of religion in the standard sense of the Christian tradition. That does not make him an atheist, though, and his wife Margit Dirac later asserted that he was not. Farmelo has some further information in his book, but it does not conflict with the stated assessment.
SC: Dirac was a prolific author, with over 190 publications to his name. Which of his works do you consider to be the most important? Which would you recommend to those readers interested in his life and theories?
HK: I have always been particularly impressed by his 1931 paper in which he used the new linear wave equation (the Dirac equation) to argue that the anti-electron is not the proton, as he had originally thought, but a new elementary particle, a positive electron. This paper is immensely rich, both from an ontological and methodological point of view, and it includes innovative mathematical reasoning, as well as hidden metaphysical assumptions. He sets out attempting to explain the fine-structure constant, and ends up with predicting not only the positron, but also the existence of magnetic monopoles. Incidentally, his friend George Gamow later said that this was the last important paper in physics (with which I do not agree). Most of Dirac’s publications are highly technical, and many of them inaccessible to non-physicists. His Nobel lecture of 1933 is a recommendable exception. Late in life, he wrote his recollections in a volume edited by Charles Weiner (History of Twentieth Century Physics, New York, 1977, pp. 109-146), which is a valuable source to both his life and science. However, it should be read as what it is and not as an indisputably true story. Contrary to many other famous physicists, Dirac never wrote a popular science book aimed at a general readership.
SC: In writing the biography, what resources did you find useful to draw on for research? Are there any other biographies or works about Dirac that you would recommend other than your own?
HK: First of all, I relied on the primary sources, published as well as unpublished. These include Dirac’s publications, of course, all of which I studied (although I did not understand all of them). I went to various archives to find relevant letters and notes, which to historians are the most authentic kinds of sources. And then I used a wide variety of secondary sources, for example in the form of physicists’ recollections, which are often useful but for obvious reasons should be used with care. In addition, I had talks with a few physicists who had known him, including Hans Bethe and Rudolf Peierls, and I corresponded by letter with a few others. Another valuable resource is newspaper articles and book reviews, and also the transcripts of interviews conducted with Dirac and other physicists by the people at the American Institute of Physics. This rich resource can now be consulted online, but when I wrote the book, it was more difficult to get access to the material. At the time I started preparing my book Dirac was still alive, living in Florida, so I made a couple of attempts to contact him and confront him with various questions concerning his life and career. Unfortunately, he never replied, which discouraged me from further attempts. Much to my regret, I have never met him. Among the other works on Dirac, Farmelo’s book is most interesting and easy to read. It is in part based on sources I was unaware of, and it includes much more material on Dirac’s personal life than my book. The other literature consists mostly of memorial volumes or articles of a scholarly and scientific nature that may not be of immediate interest to the general reader. Compared to fellow physicists such as Heisenberg, Einstein, and Feynman, relatively little has been written about Dirac. Although he is known among physicists, of course, he is not well known to the general public.