An Interlude with Dirac
A geodesist remembers Paul Dirac’s visit to the University of Hawaii Lunar Laser Ranging Observatory
We moved back to the mainland in 1976, and the Diracs’ visit to Maui rarely crossed my mind until I read the Scientific American article on Dirac nearly two decades later. I was surprised to learn from it that Dirac had had an unhappy childhood, which was attributed to the tyrannical behavior of his father, whose death he not only did not grieve but wrote off with the statement “I feel much freer now.” The article also contains this quote from Margit Dirac:
It is the irony which only life can produce that Paul suffered severely from his father, who had the same difficulties with his family. Paul, although not a domineering father, kept himself too aloof from his children. That history repeats itself is only too true in the Dirac family.
A year or two ago, I learned of Graham Farmelo’s biography The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, and sent off immediately for a copy. The book offers detailed accounts of both the personal and professional sides of P. A. M. Dirac’s life, and I found it both fascinating and sad. It was difficult for me to reconcile the man that I had so briefly met and immediately liked with the “awkward” and “extremely taciturn” man (in the words of physicist Walter Elsasser) described by those who had known him much longer and more intimately. Marilyn, our three girls and I did not find him strange, but rather an intelligent, warm, grandfatherly man with whom we greatly enjoyed sharing a couple of days on Maui.
- Dirac, P. A. M. 1978. Directions in Physics. Edited by H. Hora and J. R. Shepanski. New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
- Farmelo, Graham. 2009. The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac. New York: Basic Books.
- Hovis, R. Corby, and Helge Kragh. 1993. P.A.M. Dirac and the beauty of physics. Scientific American 268:5, pp. 104–109, May.
- Tuan, San Fu. 2003. Dirac and Heisenberg in Hawaii. Indian Journal of History of Science 38:1, pp. 59-66.
- Williams, James G., Slava G. Turyshev and Dale H. Boggs. 2004. Progress in lunar laser ranging test of relativistic gravity. Physical Review Letters 93:26, p. 1101.