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An Interlude with Dirac

A geodesist remembers Paul Dirac’s visit to the University of Hawaii Lunar Laser Ranging Observatory

William E. Carter

2012-11MacroCarterFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageIn 1975 I was a relatively new research associate at the University of Hawaii Institute for Astronomy. One August morning I was working at my desk at the institute’s Waiakoa office, which sits about 2,500 feet above sea level, in the Kula district on the north slope of Mount Haleakala, Maui. My phone rang. The speaker informed me that she was calling on behalf of P. A. M. Dirac, professor of physics at Florida State University in Tallahassee. Professor Dirac and his wife, Margit, were going to be passing through Hawaii on a trip to Australia. Dirac had read a recent article about our lunar laser ranging (LLR) observatory, part of the NASA Lunar Ranging Experiment (LURE), and would like to visit us. It never crossed my mind that the caller was talking about the renowned British physicist who had shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Erwin Schrödinger in 1933, years before my birth, “for the discovery of new productive forms of atomic theory.”

Later that morning I mentioned the call to Don Landman, the senior solar physicist on the Maui staff, and was surprised by his immediate excitement at the prospect of meeting Dirac. I quickly got to a phone and relayed the news to John Jefferies, our director. John was obviously pleased, and instructed me to spare no effort to make the Diracs’ visit to Maui as pleasant as possible.

On the day the Diracs were scheduled to arrive, my wife, Marilyn, accompanied me to the airport to meet them. Despite never having seen pictures of them, we had no difficulty in recognizing the two among the throngs of Canadian and American tourists. He was wearing a wool tweed jacket, wool sweater vest, long- sleeve dress shirt and tie, carrying a well-worn briefcase, and had a rather battered raincoat thrown over one shoulder. Margit Dirac also defied the category of tourist in paradise; she wore her raincoat buttoned up the front and belted tightly about her waist. Marilyn and I introduced ourselves, picked up their baggage at the outdoor drop, loaded everything into our Volkswagen square-back station wagon and headed for Kula. After a quick stop to check the Diracs into the Silversword Inn on Upper Kula Road, just a half mile or so from our house, we started our drive up to the observatory.

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