The Strangest Man

Paul Dirac

By Gerald Alper

In his extraordinary book, The Strangest Man, Graham Farmelo presents what seems destined to become the definitive scientific biography of the consummate and legendary particle physicist, Paul Dirac.  Of all great scientists it was perhaps Dirac who came closest to the caricature of the ivory tower, head in the clouds genius who could only function in the world of ideas — who was so scornful of mindless small talk that he would much prefer the most protracted, eerie-seeming silence, no matter how socially excruciating. As an undergraduate at the mess hall at Cambridge, Dirac became famous for two things: his unmatched brilliance when it came to the classroom and his extraordinary refusal to participate in even the paltriest way — in the clubby atmosphere in which students sat shoulder to shoulder at the dining table — when it came to interpersonal communication. Fellow students coined a new term in his honor — a Dirac — meaning one word per hour (the smallest unit of conversation). Bets would be placed as to how many Diracs a given challenger could manage to wring from the inscrutable Dirac. 

Thus, a decade or so later, we hear about the student in the packed lecture hall, standing up in the Q and A, pointing to the huge blackboard covered with abstruse mathematical formulae and announcing, “I do not understand that upper right hand equation.” When no answer was forthcoming, when the silence that reigned in the lecture hall was becoming unbearable, the moderator, turning perplexedly to Dirac asked, “could you answer that question?” “That was not a question.” Came the frigid reply “It was a comment.”

Paul Dirac, we see, was a man who seemed to suffer from an almost pathological absence of empathy, with no immediate access, no direct or intuitive grasp of the feelings of others.

Literal minded to a fault, he lacked the ability to discriminate nuance, especially of emotion. It was things, inanimate things that he understood, especially their relationship to one another, and the more abstract the better. As for people, and the social webs they causally weave between themselves, he seemed lost for most of his life.

It was countless stories such as this that prompted Neils Bohr, the father of the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics and a life long friend and mentor to the young genius — reflecting on the enigma that was Paul Dirac — to dub him “the strangest man.”

Yet, no matter how socially malevolent Dirac could be, it paled before the helplessness that would overcome him when faced with, and forced to respond to an overwhelming family tragedy. When his older brother Felix committed suicide — and the local papers were filled with lurid stories of a “dead boy found by the bushes” — it was not personal loss but an unexpected revelation into the heart of family dynamics that most moved him: “ I did not realize,” he later wrote, “but I now know that parents care for their children. I must remember never to commit suicide.”

He could be equally at sea when it came to passions that normally fill most people with joy: the prospect of marriage and a lifelong commitment to a soulmate. In the case of Marci Wigner, the widow and younger sister of the famous  theoretician Eugene Wigner, she would be the one who would play the role of the suitor who would not take no for an answer. Protest though Dirac might —  "I am not in love with you. And have never been in love, I cannot understand finer feelings…” she was resolute that Dirac was the man for her. She must have known something because marry her Dirac did, becoming both an attentive husband and father for the remainder of his life. Not only that, domesticity apparently agreed with the famously reclusive Paul Dirac. As his lifelong friend, Kipitzka, would write to their mutual mentor the great Ernest Rutherford, “it is great fun to see Dirac married, it makes him much more human.”

When he wasn’t solving some of the most fundamental problems in 20th century physics, he might be indulging his childish love for Walt Disney films or the wacky world of American comic books. He could be inordinately happy in the company of a brilliant, extroverted conversationalist for endless hours provided it was also understood he himself might very well say not a single word. He could be spellbound by watching over and over again the Stanley Kubrik film, Space Odyssey 2001. He could sob uncontrollably when he learned of the death of his idol, Albert Einstein. He could himself became one of the pioneers in applying the insights of Einstein's foundational special theory of relativity, to his own emerging field of quantum mechanics. But he could also be perhaps the only great thinker who when he would visit the same legendary Institute for advanced studies in Princeton — could show no discernible interest in walking down the hall to meet in person the only scientist in the world who was qualified to mentor him.

In spite of being such a fanatical loner, there was in Paul Dirac, as Graham Farmelo shows in his brilliant book, a well of deep feelings rarely expressed but waiting to be tapped. Such an occasion occurred toward the end of the 1933 annual meeting of leading particle physicists at the renowned Neils Bohr Institute for physics in Copenhagen. Although deeply depressed, the normally exuberant and highly respected Paul Ehrenfest had managed to get through the meeting. When Dirac who very much liked him, thanked him for his participation, Ehrenfest seemed overcome by emotion and for a few moments was speechless. Then, bowing and sobbing, he said, “what you have said, coming from a young man like you, means very much to me because, maybe, a man such as I feels he has no force to live.” Dirac’s first thought was that Ehrenfest should “not be allowed to travel home alone.” He then decided Ehrenfest did not really mean to say “maybe” but had meant to say the less ominous “sometimes.” So he did not intervene when a still weeping, speechless Ehrenfest, leaning onto Dirac's arm managed to get into a waiting taxi.

It was the last time Dirac would see Ehrenfest. Shortly thereafter word came that Paul Ehrenfest had shot himself in the head after first fatally wounding his son, who had Down’s syndrome. It would be one of those rare times a grief-stricken Paul Dirac could not control his emotions. Desperately needing to sort out his thoughts, Dirac wrote Bohr a four-page letter, describing in particular his ominous final moments with Ehrenfest. Of all the Dirac’s surviving letters this, according to Farmelo, is perhaps the most emotionally  forceful — displaying “the fluency of a novelist” and a sensitivity to “emotional nuance” few of “ his colleagues would have believed.”

What are we to make of the profound wall between emotion and thought that existed in Paul Dirac? How does someone with a towering intellect become so alienated from the world of feelings? It is a question that Graham Farmelo endlessly considers in his deeply felt, magnificently honed portrayal of an extraordinary man. Finally, at the end of the book, as though determined to arrive at closure, Farmelo presents his conclusion. He is “all but certain” that Dirac was autistic, and that his behavior traits as a “person with autism were crucial to his success as a theoretical physicist.” This, I admit, for me, was a disappointing conclusion to an otherwise marvelous book. It is as though suddenly at the end of the book, the quantitative instincts of Graham Farmelo —who after all is a senior research fellow at the science Museum in London — take over and he yearns to capture Dirac’s famously enigmatic personality in the psychiatric equivalent of a reductive equation.

But what then happens to the incomparably rich, if bafflingly strange personality of Paul Dirac, someone unlike any other most of us have ever encountered? Can such a creature really be captured within the perimeter of a simple behavioral diagnosis? How, for example from my psychodynamic viewpoint might someone regard Paul Dirac? First it might be pointed out there is a world of difference between someone who might have certain traits resembling those of an autist, and someone who, in their daily comportment, acts like an autist. From that standpoint, Paul Dirac could not be more unlike the real-life character upon whom Rain Man was based. A person who, it should be remembered — although he could faultlessly rattle off the historical events occurring on thousands of randomly chosen dates — could not tie his own shoelaces, dress himself properly, or live on his own and who, although a physically mature man who lived well past his forties needed to rely on his devoted father for constant daily care. Ironically it is Graham Farmelo himself whose stunning scientific biography, The Strangest Man, makes the differences between Paul Dirac and the typical autist clearer that anyone.

The reader who is interested in my latest ideas on this subject should see my new book, God and therapy: What we believe when no one is watching (iBooks).

Published March 10th, 2016

Gerald Alper is an internationally recognized psychotherapist who is the author of 20 books.  These include besides the celebrated Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Patient, The Paranoia Of Everyday Life, The Dark Side Of The Analytic Moon, The PuppeteersThe Elephant In The Room: The Denial of The Unconscious Mind, and more recently the just published God And Therapy: What We Believe When No One Is Watching (I Books, Alper). He's been a Fellow of The American Institute of Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis since 1985, a reviewer for The Journal of Contemporary Psychology, a contributor of articles and essays to leading professional journals, a frequent guest author appearing on public access radio programs throughout the United States and Canada.  His classic paper, A Psychoanalyist Takes the Turing Test, was included in the 2004 pioneering interdisciplinary anthology by Italian neuroscientist Franco Salzone who brought together seminal papers from both psychoanalysis and neuroscience. He lives with his wife in New York, stays in close contact with his two grown sons who remain hunkered down in Los Angeles and has been a practicing psychotherapist in Manhattan for the past 25 years.