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 long-standing 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 Springer-Verlag. 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.