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The Life and Works of P.A.M.


Paul A. M. Dirac

Richard Kaye
ELEC 424-81
Spring 03
04 March 2003


Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac

Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac was born August 8, 1902 at 15 Monk Road
Bishopston, a suburb of Bristol, England. His parents were Charles Adrien Ladislas Dirac
and Florence Hannah, who were married in Kingdown, another suburb of Bristol. Paul
had an older brother named Reginald Charles Felix, and a younger sister named Beatrice
Isabelle Marguerite. All three children of Charles Dirac were registered as Swiss citizens
of the commune of St Maurice in the canton of Valais (Taylor, 3).
Pauls father, Charles, was a very distant man to his children. He remained
isolated from his family in Switzerland and they were not informed of his first children or
marriage. Charles was a cold, social tyrant who kept his children in a virtual antisocial
prison. He despised any social contacts and enforced that behavior upon his children.
Paul Dirac was quoted in a 1962 interview saying, In those days I didnt speak to
anybody unless I was spoken to. I was very much an introvert, and I spent my time
thinking about problems in nature. This lack of social contact with Paul and his siblings
had a profound effect on his character throughout his entire life (Kragh, 2). Paul was
completely separated from the outside world and was forced to grow up in a world
lacking culture and social stimulation.
Through the earlier years of Pauls life, he remained shy with other boys and
absolutely terrified of girls. He continued with this behavioral pattern even when he
moved out of the house to live at Cambridge University in 1923. He avoided all sports,
and when he attempted them, he had little to brag about. He spent most of his time alone
in the library, where he concentrated on mathematics and physics with a religious fever
instead of socializing. His fathers influence could only be compensated for in this


manner. Paul displays how socially isolated his life was when he said, I never saw a
women naked, either in childhood or youthThe first time I saw a women naked was in
1927, when I went to Russia with Peter Kapitza. She was a child, an adolescent. I was
taken to a girl's swimming pool, and they bathed without swimming suits. I thought they
looked nice (Kragh, 3). This lack of social stimulation unconsciously drove him to focus
on engineering and mathematics.
Pauls first Engineering education was in 1918 at the Engineering College of
Bristol University, where he studied electrical engineering. He did not really want to
become an engineer, but it seemed to be the most natural and smooth career. He
discovered that he really enjoyed the mathematics in the engineering courses. From 19211923, Dirac studied applied mathematics under several teachers from Cambridge. The
teachers noticed his abilities and recommended that he continue his education at
Cambridge. He completed his work at Bristol with excellent results and received a grant
from the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR). This enabled him to
attend Cambridge in the fall of 1923. He could have attended in 1921, but his father
would not pay for it. Thanks to (DSIR), he could pursue his true interests in mathematics
(Kragh, 8).
Within a short period of time, Dirac transformed himself from a student to a
scientist. Just after 6 months at Cambridge, he submitted his first scientific paper that
dealt with statistical mechanics suggested by his supervisor, Fowler. This was his debut
paper that was an exercise like most debut papers. It was then that he decided to become
a research physicist. He published seven papers within two years and established a name
for himself in the local physics community. His early works appeared in most recognized


British journals. His approach in the papers was to criticize a known result based on
established theories in order to better understand it. The ideas were laid out in Dirac's
doctoral thesis, Quantum mechanics, for which he was awarded a Ph.D. in 1926. He also
became Fellow of St. Johns College a year later after he moved to the University of
Gottingen in 1927, where he interacted with fellow students J.R. Oppenheimer, M Born, J
Frank and I Tamm. Dirac felt that it was not enough just to be published locally. He felt a
deeper calling to conjure original ideas in which his first seven publications laid the
groundwork for in his mathematical and theoretical aspects of quantum mechanics. While
in Gottingen, he published two papers that established the subject of quantum
electrodynamics. This theory remains as the most successful theory in the domain of
particle physics today, the model on which all other quantum field theories have been
patterned to (Taylor 8).
Some familiar concepts bearing Dirac's name are the Dirac Delta function and the
Fermi-Dirac statistics. The Dirac Delta function is a purely mathematical structure
representing a value of zero at every location on the Cartesian plane except at the origin,
but infinite at the origin. Its integrated value is finite, that is, having the value of one.
Dirac initially employed the function in 1927 in a paper demonstrating that the quantum
mechanics of Werner Heisenberg and the wave mechanics of Erwin Schrdinger, which
were two different ways of expressing the behavior of atomic particles and were
equivalent to each other (Scribner 3).
From an early age, Dirac was fascinated with the theory of relativity and by the
end of 1927, he had finally thought of his celebrated relativistic theory of the electron.
This original concept was a big breakthrough that came in 1928, when Dirac combined


the theories of quantum mechanics and special relativity. The resulting Dirac equation
below (Equation 1), still used today, was able to explain the mysterious magnetic and
"spin" properties of the electron. This was a major landmark in the history of science.
Equation 1

W + eV

p + A mc = 0

The m and W are the electrons mass and total energy respectively, p = ih is the
momentum operator, and are four 4 x 4 matrices which satisfy

i = = 1
i j + j i = 2 ij

i + i = 0

With these relationships, the movement of an electron in an atom could be described and
calculated. He was finally able to incorporate relativity into his equations, which was his
most outstanding achievement in fundamental physics. The relationship is as follows:
Equation 2
H +

It was immediately realized that it required the electron to have spin h/2, which appeared
mysterious and became seen as a consequence of special relativity (Taylor 9). The next


year, Dirac found the four-component wave equation for the electron, which was based
on Schrodingers wave equation. In 1930, Dirac published the first edition of his classic
book, Principles of Quantum Mechanics, and was elected Fellow of the Royal Society.
The book is now in its fourth edition and has been reprinted many times. In 1931, Dirac
used his equation to predict the existence of a particle with the same mass as the electron,
but with positive rather than negative charge. This "anti-particle", now called a positron,
was detected in 1932 and all particles are now known to have anti-particles. Dirac
continued to publish important papers on the quantum theory of fields and gravity
throughout his career (Rogers, 7).
In 1933, when advised that he won the Nobel Prize with Erwin Schrdinger,
Dirac's initial reaction was to decline the award because of his dislike of publicity.
However, when Ernest Rutherford, winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1908, told
Dirac that refusing the prize would guarantee more publicity than its acceptance, Dirac
reluctantly agreed to the award (Scribner, 5). In his Nobel Prize lecture, Dirac postulated
the existence of a negative proton or antiproton. High-energy particle accelerators now
regularly generate antiprotons, antineutrons, and antimesons. The collision of a
conventional particle and its antiparticle results in annihilation of both, with the release of
electromagnetic energy in the form of photons. Dirac's equation opened the entire field of
antimatter physics. He was awarded the Royal Society's Royal Medal in 1939 and the
Society awarded him their Copley Medal in 1952 (Notable 4).
In addition to quantum mechanics and its later-related advanced formulation,
characterized as quantum electrodynamics, Dirac took a deep interest in cosmology and,
in particular, the role of gravitation in the evolution of the universe. His interest in


cosmology continued to the end of his life. Dirac traveled widely and was visiting
professor at a number of universities in the United States, including Michigan,
Wisconsin, Princeton, and Miami. In 1969, Dirac retired from his post at Cambridge and
moved to the United States. He stayed briefly at the Center for Theoretical Studies of the
University of Miami before accepting an appointment as professor of physics at Florida
State University in Tallahassee in 1972. He continued to travel, write, and speak during
the next decade. After 1982, however, his health began to deteriorate and he died in
Tallahassee on October 20, 1984 (O'Connor, 4).
From 1932 to 1969, he held what is probably the most prestigious university
appointment in science in the world, the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge,
which is now held by Stephen Hawking. Stephen Hawking gave an address on November
13, 1995, when a plaque was dedicated in Westminster Abbey (rest place of Sir Isaac
Newton) commemorating Paul Dirac. The austere beauty of the plaques design
reflected in some ways the qualities of Diracs unique intellect (Taylor, ix). His name is
well known and his principles are still in practice today throughout the studies of
electrical engineering and physics worldwide.


"Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac."The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Volume 1:
1981-1985. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1998.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group.
O'Connor, JJ and E F Robertson,
Taylor, J.G., Tributes to Paul Dirac , 1987
Kragh, Helge, 1944. Dirac: a scientific biography. Cambridge [England]; New York:
Cambridge University Press, 1990.
"Paul Dirac." Notable Scientists: From 1900 to the Present. Gale Group, 2001.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group.
Rodgers, Peter, editor of Physics World, The Institute of Physics,