How can equations be beautiful? Graham Farmelo discusses Nobel Prize winner Paul Dirac’s life and achievements.
Paul Dirac rose from a modest background to the pinnacle to modern science.
Farmelo describes it as a bleak upbringing, with a strong emphasis on education and strict disciplinarian as a father.
At Cambridge, engineer turned physicist Dirac began producing “a beautiful vision of quantum mechanics”. Farmelo describes his papers as having “the perfection of Shakespeare sonnet”.
His breakthrough came with the Dirac equation, which combined quantum mechanics with special relativity to understand the behaviour of the electron. For Farmelo “a beautiful unity between two subjects.”
Dirac married his imagination and mathematics to predict the existence of anti-matter, the discovery that later won him the Nobel prize.
Formelo finds great beauty in the perfection of Dirac’s equation. He says an equation has “a power and compactness like great poetry. A great equation is the most highly charged form of mathematical science. It all fits perfectly together like a Rubiks cube; you can’t change it at all.”
On Dirac's gravestone was written: “because God made it so” suggesting sympathy with religion. But Farmelo argues this was his wife’s influence and that although his views softened in later life, Dirac was fiercely against religion.
Dirac’s own religion was simple: “Man can and must improve”. Seeing God’s will at odds with his science, he could not believe in miracles, “because if they happened,it would break the beauty of universal equations.”
First broadcast 22/01/10
Emma Jane Unsworth is a journalist and won the Betty Trask Award for her novel Hungry, the Stars and Everything, and was shortlisted for the 2012 Portico Prize. Her short story 'I Arrive First' was included in The Best British Short Stories 2012. Emma’s latest novel Animals has won a 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize.
After fifteen years writing strategy for advertising agencies, Alex Hourston took a break to go back to university and her first love, books. She completed a Masters in English and started a PhD, but put it aside when the idea for her debut novel In My House surfaced. She is currently working on her second novel, an exploration of infidelity and emotional inheritance.
This podcast also features Naomi Alderman discussing the work of Tim Parks
Joanna Biggs is a writer and editor at the London Review of Books, where she has reported on the student protest movement, the recession in Middlesbrough, Legal Aid cuts, censorship in China, and manufacturing. She is the author of All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work.
Stevan Alcock is a writer, linguist and translator. Born and brought up in Yorkshire, he lived in Berlin for several years before moving to London where he graduated with an Honours BA in German Language and Literature from Goldsmiths College. In 2013 Stevan was awarded an MA (Distinction) in Contemporary Prose Fiction by Kingston University. His debut novel is Blood Relatives.
Gavin Francis is a GP, and the author of True North and Empire Antarctica: Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins, which won the Scottish Book of the Year Award and was shortlisted for the Ondaatje Prize and Costa Prize. He also writes for Guardian, The Times, London Review of Books and Granta. His latest book is Adventures in Human Being.
Nick Lane is a biochemist in the Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment at University College London and leads the UCL Origins of Life Programme.
His first book, Oxygen, was one of the SundayTimes Books of the Year in 2002. Power, Sex, Suicide was named as a book of the year in The Economist in 2005 and was short-listed for The Aventis Science Book Prize.
Life Ascending won the 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science Books. His latest book is The Vital Question: Why is life the way it is?
Lynsey Addario is an American photojournalist whose work appears regularly in The New York Times, National Geographic, and Time Magazine. She has covered conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Darfur and the Congo, and has received numerous awards, including the MacArthur Genius Grant and the Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting. She is the author of It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War
ZoeWilliams writes comment pieces, interviews and reviews. She is best known as a Guardian columnist, but her work has also appeared in the Spectator, NOW magazine, the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. She is the author of numerous books on parenting, and her latest book is Get it Together: Why We Deserve Better Politics.
On Wednesday 29 April the winner of the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize will be announced. In the second of two special editions of Little Atoms, Neil Denny talks to two more shortlisted writers, Henry Marsh and Marion Coutts.
Henry Marsh is one of the UK’s foremost neurosurgeons. He has been the subject of two major documentary films, Your Life in Their Hands and The English Surgeon, which won an Emmy. He was made a CBE in 2010. He is the author of Do No Harm: Life, Death and Brain Surgery, which is shortlisted for the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize.
Marion Coutts is an artist and writer. She wrote the introduction to art critic Tom Lubbock's memoir Until Further Notice, I am Alive, published by Granta in 2012. She is a Lecturer in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College and the author of a memoir, The Iceberg, which was shortlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction in 2014, and has been shortlisted for the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize.
Dr Brandy Schillace writes about culture, the history of medicine, and the intersections of medicine and literature. She is Research Associate and guest curator for the Dittrick Medical History Center and Managing Editor of the international medical anthropology journal Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry. She teaches for the SAGES department at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, and has lectured at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at the University of Manchester, the University College of Dublin, and the New York Academy of Medicine. She writes for The Huffington Post and InsideHigherEd, among other publications. She is the author of Death’s Summer Coat: What the History of Death and Dying Can Tell us About Life and Living.
Caitlin Doughty was born and raised in Hawaii. She moved to California after gaining a degree in Medieval History from the University of Chicago. She is now a licensed funeral director living and working in LA. She is also a writer, performer and film-maker and is the creator of 'The Order of the Good Death', an online community of artists, actors, poets, musicians and directors who are committed to staring down their death fears through art. Caitlin is the author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, And Other Lessons From the Crematorium.
On Wednesday 29 April the winner of the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize will be announced. In the first of two special editions of Little Atoms, Neil Denny talks to three of the shortlisted writers. This week: Miriam Toews, Scott Stossell and Sarah Moss.
Miriam Toews was born in 1964 in the small Mennonite town of Steinbach, Manitoba. She has published four novels and a memoir of her father, and is the recipient of numerous literary awards including the Governor General's Award, the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award (twice), and the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. Her latest novel is All my Puny Sorrows, which is shortlisted for the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize.
Scott Stossel is the editor of The Atlantic magazine and the author of the New York Times bestseller My Age of Anxiety: Fear, Hope, Dread, and the Search for Peace of Mind which is shortlisted for the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize.
Sarah Moss was educated at Oxford University and is currently an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Warwick. She is the author of two novels; Cold Earth and Night Waking, which was selected for the Fiction Uncovered Award in 2011. She spent 2009-10 as a visiting lecturer at the University of Iceland, and wrote an account of her time there in Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland, which was shortlisted for the 2013 RSL Ondaatje Prize. Her latest novel, Bodies of Light, was published by Granta Books in 2014, and is shortlisted for the 2015 Wellcome Book Prize.
Christopher Bollen lives in New York City. He regularly writes about art, literature, and culture. He is the author of Lightning People and is currently the Editor at Large at Interview Magazine. His latest novel is Orient.
Zoe Pilger is an art critic for the Independent and won the 2011 Frieze International Writer's Prize. She is currently working on a PhD at Goldsmith's college. Eat My Heart Out is her first novel. Also this week, writer Frank Swain on Gattaca.
First broadcast on 22nd March 2014.
Susan Pinker is a developmental psychologist and award-winning newspaper columnist who writes about psychology and social science in the Globe and Mail. She has worked as a clinical psychologist for twenty-five years and has taught at McGill University in Montreal. Known for her progressive and thought-provoking work, her previous book The Sexual Paradox took an unflinching look at the gender gap. Her latest book is The Village Effect: Why Face-to-Face Contact Matters.
Gary Wilson is the presenter of the popular TEDx talk The Great Porn Experiment and hosts the website Your Brain on Porn, which was created for those seeking to understand and reverse compulsive porn use. He taught anatomy and physiology for years and has long been interested in the neurochemistry of addiction, mating and bonding. Gary Wilson is the author of the book Your Brain on Porn: Internet Pornography and the Emerging Science of Addiction.
Susan Pinker portrait by Susie Lowe
Andrew Scull is Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Science Studies, University of California, San Diego. He has previously taught at the University of Pennsylvania and at Princeton.
His many publications include Museums of Madness; Social Order/Mental Disorder; The Most Solitary of Afflictions: Madness and Society in Britain, 1700–1900; Masters of Bedlam; Madhouse: A Tragic Tale of Megalomania and Modern Medicine; and Madness: A Very Short Introduction.
He has also published numerous articles and reviews in leading journals, including the TLS, The Lancet and Brain. He has held fellowships from (among others) the Guggenheim Foundation and the American Council of Learned Societies and in 1992–93 he was the president of the Society for the Social History of Medicine. His latest book is Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity.
Dr. Dennis C Reuter is a New Horizons co-investigator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and the instrument scientist for Ralph, the New Horizons color imager and infrared spectrometer. New Horizons launched on 19 January 2006 and is scheduled to fly-by Pluto and its moons in July 2015. This is another interview recorded by Little Atoms for audio installation Mind's Eye,which will be coming to Manchester, Bristol and Bradford over the coming months.
Dr Hannah Fry is a mathematician and complexity scientist from University College London’s Center for Advanced Spatial Analysis. Fry also regularly presents the Number Hub strand of BBC Worldwide’s YouTube channel, and regularly appears on radio and tv in the UK, most recently Climate Change by Numbers on BBC4. Her first TED talk attracted more than 500,000 views and evolved into her first book, The Mathematics of Love.
Jon Ronson is an award-winning writer and documentary maker. He is the author of many bestselling books, including Frank: The True Story that Inspired the Movie, Lost at Sea: The Jon RonsonMysteries, The Psychopath Test, The Men Who Stare at Goats and Them: Adventures with Extremists. His first fictional screenplay, Frank, co-written with Peter Straughan, starred Michael Fassbender. Jon’s latest book is So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.