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The British Einstein

Tom Feilden | 09:35 UK time, Tuesday, 10 February 2009

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

This sentiment, from John Keats "Ode on a Grecian Urn", is one that many physicists would share - which is ironic considering that Keats regarded science (and particularly physics) as a destructive force, unweaving the rainbow of God's creation.

And yet an appreciation of beauty is central to Paul Dirac's understanding of the material world. Often referred to as the British Einstein, Dirac was one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century, linking relativity and quantum mechanics for the first time and predicting the existence of antimatter.

Who? That's Paul Dirac: who alongside Bohr, Heisenberg and Schrodinger opened up the field of quantum physics, and in 1933 became the youngest theoretician to win the Nobel prize at the age of 31.

Don't worry if you've never heard of him, you're not alone. Dirac was pathologically averse to publicity. Silent and retiring, even his fellow physicists complained that he worked in a deliberately mystifying private language. At Cambridge his fellow students invented a new unit - the Dirac - for the smallest possible number of words someone could utter in an hour.

All of which might seem to make Dirac a poor subject for a biography and until now, 25 years after his death, there wasn't one. Graham Farmelo's "The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac" changes that, revealing for the first time what a remarkable man he really was.

Which brings us back to beauty. What Graham Farmelo manages to capture is how similar Dirac's methods seem to those of a poet. It was an intuitive sense of the beauty of his mathematical equations that convinced Dirac of their truth, and when colleagues ridiculed his description of the electron - because it necessitated the existence of an anti-electron - he persisted, arguing that the entire universe must be composed of equal parts matter and antimatter.

We know today, from experiments conducted in giant atom smashing particle accelerators, that Dirac was on the right track, and that the elegant simplicity of an abstract idea can be both beautiful and true.

It's a remarkable lesson coming from a man who had little time for literature, and who once remarked of an impressionist painting "this boat looks as if it was not finished".

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  • Comment number 1.

    It was with the usual feeling of weary resignation and mild irritation that I heard Professor Jim Ah-Khalili, speaking on the Today programme, make the usual glib, yet incorrect assertions concerning the practice, and supposed achievements, of modern physics. Superstring theory he tells us is one of the ‘major advances’ of modern physics, but virtually in the same breath he admits that there ‘is no experimental evidence’ for it. It was exactly for this reason, amongst others, that the physicist Peter Woit entitled his critical evaluation of the science fantasies of string theory ‘Not Even Wrong’, a view which is somewhat shared by Lee Smolin who wrote ‘The Trouble With Physics’.

    One of the ‘troubles’ with physics at the moment is that physicists are desperately trying to avoid the obvious conclusion, from the astonishingly precise experiments now performed on the ‘physical’ world, that, as the physicists Rosenblum and Kuttner clearly indicate in their recent work ‘Quantum Enigma’, at the quantum level they are confronting the fundamental level of consciousness that underlies experiential reality. But because, as physicist Professor Henry Stapp points out in his book ‘Mindful Universe’, physicists and philosophers find this idea so bizarre, despite the dramatically mounting evidence, they seem to concoct any unlikely theory rather that confront the reality of the ontological primacy of mind. Once such tactic, employed by Max Tegmark and Sir Roger Penrose amongst others, is to suggest that reality IS mathematics.

    This philosophically dubious, to say the least, claim seems to be implied by Al-Khalili when he suggests that string theory is an example of the attempt to discover what the universe is ‘made of’. String theory, however, is a purely mathematical theory; so unless you want to claim that the universe is ‘made of mathematics,’ this characterisation is severely dubious. The basic existential ‘categories’ of reality are, since the time of Descartes, ‘matter’ and ‘consciousness’, and as ‘matter’ has been clearly shown by quantum physics not to exist as an independent substantial support of reality, we really, so to speak, are left with consciousness. If one says that reality is mathematics the next question has to be as to the nature of mathematics. The answer to this is either a) marks on paper, little images on computer screens etc. or b) ideas in the minds of mathematicians. The first of these proposals, which seems to be the position of Douglas Hofstadter for instance, is obviously ludicrous, whilst the second implies that reality is, at base level so to speak, well, consciousness!

  • Comment number 2.

    I totally agree with you on that. String theory is a major advance of nothing. It makes no real predictions, and it is totally unprovable. Although it tries to treat particles as little strings that vibrate in umpteen different dimensions, really it is nothing more than mathematical make-believe said to mimic whatever real physicists do discover. It is a mathematical reinterpretation of reality. A mathematical storybook in progress, that they can write or reedit to say anything they want, and never be proven wrong. It is a magic curtain that people with no talent can stand behind, do no real work, and yet demand respect and money for, like in the wizard of OZ. You will find no real Einstein, British or otherwise, supporting made up stuff like that. It can’t even really be defined as a true theory.

    As for the question marks in your post, I know that you were writing parenthesis. I am guessing that you used an Apple to write your post. I don’t know why, but this forum doesn’t support Mac programs too well. It would be nice if they made this site more MAC compatible.

  • Comment number 3.

    "I am guessing that you used an Apple to write your post. I don?t know why, but this forum doesn?t support Mac programs too well." Dusty Matter Post 2.

    Apostrophes, hyphens and other symbols turning into question marks also occurs if you use MS Word in Windows on a PC as well. (The XHTML in the Blogging software translates those as commands for a ? .)

    I find the best workaround is to type in WordPad (in Accessories in the Windows program menu) and copy and paste into the comments box.

    Macs should have a basic text editor that only uses Text or RTF formats. (There probably are some free ones you can download from the Web.)
    WordPad is a RTF (rich-text-format) text editor and uses different quote marks etc to those in text editors with more advanced features.

    WordPad doesn't have a spellchecker, but you could copy and paste into Word for a final spellcheck - or use the Firefox browser and install the dictionary and on-line spellchecker, this allows you to spellcheck in the comments box before you click on 'Post Comment'.

  • Comment number 4.

    Thanks SheffTim.

  • Comment number 5.

    Its purely anecdotal, but I've heard Dirac described as 'Autistic'.

    If this were the case it could explain his behaviour and how he interpreted the world around him.

  • Comment number 6.

    How does all this relate to potentially major scientific breakthroughs in our time, NOW. A well known Einstein saying is (more or less) that "That we can't solve problems the significant problems of our time at the same level of thinking that created them. We have to move to a higher level of thinking." What’s more, numerous researchers on scientific and mathematical breakthroughs, from Laski to Koestler and others, state that these breakthroughs come from non-rational experiences, which are then rationalised and crammed down into linear, logical content as that is the way we communicate them – but that is not the way we ‘see’ them or truly understand them. As someone who has spent years in dedicated work in the 'sustainability' field, what is overwhelmingly clear is the utterly inadequate and essentially pathetic response at the level of humanity as a whole, and science in particular, most notably within the ‘leading’ western nations, to an overwhelmingly significant problem of our time. To me Einstein’s quote above is enormously relevant to the issue of sustainability and climate change, with these both being mos coherently explained as symptoms of a neurological condition described by Tony Wright (Left In The Dark), who seems the closest we may have to a current English Einstein, albeit it in a different general field to Einstein but one that is an even more significant field relative to humanity’s very existence, all we experience, everything we perceive think and do, both as individuals and as a species.
    Wright may be seen as ‘quirky’ in his behaviour. He may also be seen to have chosen a seemingly strange route to communicate his theory to the scientific world, which would otherwise ignore him because of lack of conventional credentials and avoidance of a traditional, very limited and limiting academic route to scientific exploration. What’s more he may seem as retiring and difficult to work with, as difficult to appreciate or as difficult to understand as Einstein or Dirac. But perhaps if we put our minds to it we may actually realise that is more a reason to take him seriously than to dismiss the most challenging, potentially significant and genuinely new scientific theory to emerge since Darwin. Can we bring ourselves to a higher level of thinking in how we assess and respond to such a theory, or are we stuck forever in the same level of thinking that created and is continuing to create the significant problems of our time?

  • Comment number 7.

    I thought it was excellent to even have a feature about Paul Dirac. Science programmes seem to get lost in the Radio 4 schedules. Anyway, my 14 year old son was bumbling along in his normal morning manner & heard the magic term "anti-matter". He thought it was just something he'd heard on "Star Trek". We had a little chat (very little - this was very early in the morning) but I managed to convince him that he should stick with maths, which he is struggling with, because biology is chemistry & chemistry is physics & physics is mathematics! This is the kind of logic that 14 year old boys can engage with, especially if it means radically smaller reading lists that his "artistic" mates.

    Good work, Tom. Well done.


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