Sunday, February 28, 2010

Paul Dirac - Best Story EVER in Physics

There may be better stories than the one I will copy'n'paste from the Wiki entry on Paul Dirac, below,but if so I haven't heard them.

Heisenberg recollects a friendly conversation among young participants at the 1927 Solvay Conference about Einstein and Planck's views on religion. Wolfgang Pauli, Heisenberg and Dirac took part in it. Dirac's contribution was a poignant and clear criticism of the political purpose of religion, which was much appreciated for its lucidity by Bohr when Heisenberg reported it to him later. Among other things, Dirac said:[21]
I cannot understand why we idle discussing religion. If we are honest—and scientists have to be—we must admit that religion is a jumble of false assertions, with no basis in reality. The very idea of God is a product of the human imagination. It is quite understandable why primitive people, who were so much more exposed to the overpowering forces of nature than we are today, should have personified these forces in fear and trembling. But nowadays, when we understand so many natural processes, we have no need for such solutions. I can't for the life of me see how the postulate of an Almighty God helps us in any way. What I do see is that this assumption leads to such unproductive questions as why God allows so much misery and injustice, the exploitation of the poor by the rich and all the other horrors He might have prevented. If religion is still being taught, it is by no means because its ideas still convince us, but simply because some of us want to keep the lower classes quiet. Quiet people are much easier to govern than clamorous and dissatisfied ones. They are also much easier to exploit. Religion is a kind of opium that allows a nation to lull itself into wishful dreams and so forget the injustices that are being perpetrated against the people. Hence the close alliance between those two great political forces, the State and the Church. Both need the illusion that a kindly God rewards—in heaven if not on earth—all those who have not risen up against injustice, who have done their duty quietly and uncomplainingly. That is precisely why the honest assertion that God is a mere product of the human imagination is branded as the worst of all mortal sins.

Heisenberg's view was tolerant. Pauli, raised as a Catholic but soon to leave that church had kept silent after some initial remarks, but when finally he was asked for his opinion, jokingly he said: "Well, I'd say that also our friend Dirac has got a religion and the first commandment of this religion is 'God does not exist and Paul Dirac is his prophet.'" Everybody burst into laughter, including Dirac.[21]


Many young men, rabid in their enthusiastic embrace of atheism, change their points of view on religion in their later years. Dirac later said: "God used beautiful mathematics in creating the world." Amen to that.


PlatoHagel said...

Projective Geometry

When one is doing mathematical work, there are essentially two different ways of thinking about the subject: the algebraic way, and the geometric way. With the algebraic way, one is all the time writing down equations and following rules of deduction, and interpreting these equations to get more equations. With the geometric way, one is thinking in terms of pictures; pictures which one imagines in space in some way, and one just tries to get a feeling for the relationships between the quantities occurring in those pictures. Now, a good mathematician has to be a master of both ways of those ways of thinking, but even so, he will have a preference for one or the other; I don't think he can avoid it. In my own case, my own preference is especially for the geometrical way. See:Projective Geometries

Steven Colyer said...

Thank you Plato. Dirac is one of my favorites. I look forward to reading Farmelo's biography, "The Strangest Man", about Dirac, someday. There are SO many good quotes attributed to him. Another of my favorites is what Dirac said to Feynman upon being introduced to him:

"(pause) I have an equation. (pause) Do you have one?"


Jérôme CHAUVET said...

Hello Steven and Plato,

The interesting thing we learned from Dirac's view-point about the Nature is that the seek for mathematical perfection in a theory may lead to predictability. The article he wrote about the electron's relativistic equation is pure mathematics, i.e., his claimed choices in building up his model are algebraic arguments, but though has he provided us with a means with which to demonstrate the existence of positive electron. My sense is however that he may have had experimental facts in mind, even if presenting a work made of pure mathematical statements, which may in turn explain why it worked so well.

Or maybe there is in his success something one cannot quite comprehend.


Steven Colyer said...

Yes, I believe you're right. Without experimental evidence, beginning with Rutherford's observation of particles bouncing BACKwards in collisions (because they hit the nucleus), we wouldn't have our current knowledge.

Quantum Theory has long depended on experimental results. I don't think all the Philosophers in all time could have logically deduced the realities of the realm of the small.

Dirac's gift (and Heisenberg's, Schrodinger, et. al.) was to make sense of those results.

But he was a very strange duck. Not as strange as Michael Jackson, no person outside of a mental institution was as strange as MJ. But would you believe #2?

This is my 2nd favorite story, also a Dirac story, also from Wiki, enjoy:

An anecdote recounted in a review of the 2009 biography tells of Werner Heisenberg and Dirac sailing on a cruise ship to a conference in Japan in August 1929. "Both still in their twenties, and unmarried, they made an odd couple. Heisenberg was a ladies' man who constantly flirted and danced, while Dirac—'an Edwardian geek', as [biographer] Graham Farmelo puts it—suffered agonies if forced into any kind of socializing or small talk. 'Why do you dance?' Dirac asked his companion. 'When there are nice girls, it is a pleasure,' Heisenberg replied. Dirac pondered this notion, then blurted out: 'But, Heisenberg, how do you know beforehand that the girls are nice?'"

Jérôme CHAUVET said...

I often heard and read about Dirac's weak communication skills. Though he had a French name (Paul Maurice Adrien Dirac sounds like coming from Bretagne, i.e., French Britain), he was British, which may explain a lot... Besides, Dirac has been an archetype for that kind of scientists whose spirit are not embedded in reality, and are thought to be freaks for this reason. Has he had a family with children, or has he been a pure lonesome scientist? Women always bring you back to reality, so I wonder if this could be another explanation :)


Steven Colyer said...

His father was Swiss and quite strict. I look forward to reading Farmelo's book someday, maybe when I'm 70. Too much to read before then.

Women are stabilizing, yes, they probably keep us from killing each other. ;-)

Unknown said...

I just stumbled across your blog site. I'm 74 years old and read Farmelo's biography of Dirac when I was 70. My suggestion to you: don't wait until you're 70. It's a fascinating read.

Steven Colyer said...

Thanks, I did read it last year and highly recommend it.