Paul Dirac
By
Louisa Gilder The New York Times, September 13, 2009
Edited by Andy Ross
At Cambridge University in 1930,
Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar took a class in quantum mechanics from Paul Dirac,
who was then 28. Dirac's class — which Chandrasekhar took in its
entirety four times, even though Dirac taught it by repeating material from
his recently published textbook word for word — was "just like a piece of
music you want to hear over and over again."
His work was sui
generis. "The great papers of the other quantum
pioneers were more ragged, less perfectly formed than Dirac's," explained
Freeman Dyson, who took Dirac's course at the age of 19. Dirac's
discoveries "were like exquisitely carved marble statues falling out of the
sky, one after another. He seemed to be able to conjure laws of nature from
pure thought."
Graham Farmelo gives us the texture of Dirac's
life, much of it spent outdoors. We follow Dirac from his pinched and chilly
childhood in Bristol, through his discovery while visiting the Bohrs in
Copenhagen of what a happy family was like, his fiercely loyal friendship
with Werner Heisenberg, his joyful beach honeymoon, his careful fatherhood,
to his death in Florida in 1984. Farmelo presents the technical matter
clearly and explores the possibility that Dirac was autistic.
Wolfgang Pauli
By Georgina Ferry The Times Literary Supplement, September 2, 2009
Edited by Andy Ross
Soon after he arrived to take up a new post in Zurich in the early 1930s,
exhausted and emerging from divorce and a breakdown, the physicist Wolfgang
Pauli checked himself into the clinic of the
psychologist Carl Jung for a course of therapy. Over the
following 25 years, the two men worked together, not just on
Pauli's emotional problems but on a quest to unify the worlds of science and
human psychology. Arthur I. Miller is not the first to mine their extensive
correspondence for insights into both men.
Pauli was a leading
member of the group of theoretical physicists, including Niels Bohr, Werner
Heisenberg, and Erwin Schrödinger, who transformed our understanding of the
way matter behaves at the subatomic level. Apart from his own discovery of
the exclusion principle, which underlies our understanding of electricity
and magnetism and for which he won a Nobel Prize in 1945, Pauli received the
grudging admiration of his colleagues for acting as their most trenchant
critic. Yet even at the height of his success he was not a happy man.
Jung prescribed Pauli a course of dream
analysis. Pauli wholeheartedly accepted the more controversial aspects
of Jung's theoretical framework, which struck a chord with his own
longstanding interest in the mystical significance of particular numbers.
In 1952 they published a book together.
Miller seems little interested in the relationship between Pauli and his
parents. Pauli's mother poisoned herself when his father left her for
another woman, but Pauli's psychological problems clearly date from before
this traumatic event. Pauli's loving second wife
Franca did at least as much as Jung to make him a more civilized member
of society.
AR I read Dirac's textbook on quantum mechanics
and found it strangely insightful. He really was an odd bird, and Asperger's
bordering on autistic is surely a correct diagnosis. Yet his equation for
the electron was amazing, brilliant, and his creation of QED was well good
enough to merit his sitting in Newton's chair at Cambridge.
As for
Pauli and Jung, I suspect that Miller mined the earlier
book by Laurikainen
that I helped Springer editor Professor Beiglböck to edit while I was at
SpringerVerlag. That book contained what were then fresh details about
Pauli's correspondence with Jung. I found Pauli a rather unsympathetic
character, and Miller's revelations about his sex life (which
Laurikainen did not discuss) may help to explain why.
