Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking

By William H. Cropper | Go to book overview
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Paul Dirac

Isolation

The story of Paul Dirac's life reads like a dark psychological novel. During his childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood in Bristol, England, he was dominated by a misanthropic father. Charles Dirac had little use for social contacts, and he imposed his bleak outlook on his family. He taught French at the University of Bristol, and brought the French lessons into the home by forcing Paul to converse in French at the dinner table, while the rest of the family—Paul's mother, Florence; his older brother, Reginald; and his younger sister, Beatrice— ate in the kitchen. The roots of this domestic disaster were deep: Charles Dirac himself suffered an unhappy childhood in Switzerland and had run away from home at age twenty. Paul did not reach that extremity, but he had no love for his father; when he became a Nobel laureate in 1933, he did not invite his father to attend the ceremony. When Charles Dirac died in 1936, Paul wrote to his wife, “I feel much freer now.”

The French lessons at the dinner table left young Paul with limited verbal skills. He was, in a word, silent. “Since I found I couldn't express myself in French,” he wrote later, “it was better for me to stay silent than to talk in English. So I became very silent at that time—that started very early.” Many are the anecdotes from his later life about his unabashed silence, and his economy with words when he did say something. A colleague at Cambridge who had known him for years said, “I still find it very difficult to talk with Dirac. If I need his advice I try to formulate my question as briefly as possible.” The response would come as if from the witness stand: “He looks for five minutes at the ceiling, five minutes at the windows, and then says ‘Yes’ or ‘No.’ And he is always right.” He responded factually to direct questions, and the five-word answer might take five days to comprehend. He told Bohr, who was as voluble as Dirac was silent, that when he was young he learned that he should not start a sentence unless he knew how to finish it: not a recipe for spontaneous conversation.

In a negative way, parental dominance helped steer Dirac to his destiny. “He

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