It is a widely accepted fact that many geniuses are notoriously strange. The Nobel-winning British physicist Paul Dirac (1902-1984), whose birthday is on August 8, was no exception.
The scientist, who made fundamental contributions to the development of quantum mechanics, had quite a few personality quirks. By all accounts, he was often reserved and taciturn.
He once explained his lack of loquaciousness and flowery prose by saying,” I do not see how a man can work on the frontiers of physics and write poetry at the same time.”
Dirac was also—although this is not necessarily a negative trait for a physicist—overly fastidious. Yet, for all his social awkwardness, Dirac was not always aloof. In a 2009 interview with National Public Radio, Graham Farmelo, the author of the aptly-titled Dirac biography The Strangest Man, said that even though the physicist didn’t like to be photographed, he made exceptions when it suited him.
“When he went to the first big European meeting,” Farmelo related, “he made absolutely certain that he was standing right behind Einstein’s right shoulder.”
However, Dirac was not the only genius known for odd habits and behaviors. Other great scientific minds also had eccentric streaks.
For instance, the inventor of the wireless radio, Nikola Tesla, often used his own body as an electrical conductor to prove the safety of his new alternating-current lighting system.
And the brilliant logician and mathematician Kurt Gödel believed that someone was out to poison him. So he ate only the food his wife had cooked (and usually made her taste it first). When she was hospitalized for several months, Gödel stopped eating and starved to death.
Idiosyncrasies aside, given the significant contributions that Dirac and other “crazy” scientists had made to their fields, there clearly is, as Shakespeare famously said, “method in their madness.”