Along with Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli and Schrödinger, Paul Dirac (1902–1984) was a giant of 20th-century physics, and this rich, satisfying biography does him justice.
During the 1920s, using dazzling mathematical skills, Dirac combined Einstein’s theory of relativity with Schrödinger and Heisenberg’s theories of quantum physics. This inspired work, which predicted the existence of antimatter, remains essential to physicists probing the frontiers of knowledge. Raised in a dysfunctional middle-class family in Bristol, England, Dirac’s brilliance and oddity were apparent from adolescence. He studied engineering at a local college. Despite little mechanical ability, he quickly moved to the head of his class. He showed no interest in games, culture or socializing, made few friends and rarely spoke in class. When not in school, he preferred to study in the library. Fortunately, several teachers recognized his talents and used their influence to obtain a scholarship from Cambridge. Entering in 1923, he quickly displayed mathematical insights that laid the foundation of quantum mechanics. In 1933, he shared the Nobel Prize for physics with Schrödinger. Though he was not quite as prolific after winning the award, Dirac continued to produce original ideas and contributed modestly to atomic research during World War II.
Physics instructor Farmelo (editor: It Must Be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science, 2002) works diligently and often successfully to explain Dirac’s accomplishments, but readers who remain puzzled will still love the nuanced portrayal of an introverted eccentric who held his own in a small clique of revolutionary scientific geniuses.