Tuesday, July 13, 2004


Paul Dirac was surely one of the certified great scientific ascetics of our time. He spoke less in his lifetime than what most of us speak in a day. That he was one of the greatest physicists of all time is undoubted (In fact, I remember an article in Scientific American in which the author had eloquently argued that Dirac was a greater physicist than Einstein). He made extremely fundamental contributions to Quantum Theory and is one of its founders in the true sense of the term. But what physics buffs usually remember when one says "Dirac" are the countless anecdotes about his eccentricities. A psychologist would have had a field day with this man. I suddenly got in a mood to remember a few of the many anecdotes generated about and by him:
  • Dirac's laconic nature is most well documented. Once, in the middle of a lecture, a student rose up and said to him, "Professor Dirac, I haven't understood equation no. 10". Dirac nodded and then, to the surprise of the student, simply continued writing. This happened once again. Finally, the student said, "Professor Dirac, why are you not answering my question?". To which Dirac replied "Question? Oh! I thought what you said was a statement, that you have not understood equation no.10"
  • Dirac was a visiting member at the famed Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Usually there was a common telephone in the hall where the members had their offices. Whenever there was a call for Dirac, it was amusing for the other members to hear his conversation, punctuated almost exclusively by "yes" and "no". Once Dirac wanted to submit an advance copy of a talk he was going to give to a newspaper. He was concerned that the talk might be published before he delivered it. So he walked into an office where two of his colleagues, Abraham Pais (chronicler of physicists' lives and one time assistant to Einstein) and Jeremy Bernstein (another well known chronicler of physicists' lives) were having a conversation. He told them about the problem and one of them advised him to send a note along with the talk to the newspaper saying "Not to publish in any form". Dirac heard this and stood in the doorway. After an awkward silence, (and also because they were used to this behaviour) his colleagues resumed their conversation with each other. After about fifteen minutes, Dirac finally asked them, "Don't you think that the words 'in any form' in the above phrase are redundant?"
  • My personal favourite Dirac anecdote concerns a sea voyage to Japan, on which he was travelling with his friend and colleague, Werner Heisenberg. Heisenberg was the exact opposite of Dirac. Talkative and flamboyant, he used to the take part regularly in the weekly social events on the ship, including the dances. During these events, Dirac used to quietly sit in a corner, if he came at all that is, and watch. Once, just before a dance was going to begin, he asked Heisenberg, "Heisenberg, why do you dance?". At this typical Diracian question, all that Heisenberg could say that time was "Well, when there are pretty and nice girls, then I feel like dancing with them". Dirac fell silent. After a long time, he called Heisenberg and asked him, "How do you know beforehand that the girls are nice?"

    Upon reading these statements by Dirac, what strikes me the most is that they are extremely logical and well thought about. It also makes me realise how most of us usually have no qualms about sacrificing clarity in language at the expense of elegance and even sophistry. At the same time, I also realise that it is because of this that things like poetry exist, where you say less in more words. Dirac never appreciated poetry. But we need to, if we want to express our emotions and feeling in the exquisite framework that language gives us. From that point of view, the world needs just one Dirac, no matter how badly. The irony is that, given his immense and unique talent and brilliance, there can in fact be only one Dirac...


    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Only questions about the results of experiments have a real significance
    and it is only such questions that theoretical physics has to consider
    --P.A.M. Dirac

    Occasionally, a poem may use less words to convey more meaning.

    12:03 PM  

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