The Strangest Man

The Strangest Man, by Graham Farmelo

This biography of Paul Dirac, the Nobel winning British physicist who pioneered quantum mechanics, is foremost a mental biography. It is the story of an intuitive, mathematical mind that, using abstract thinking alone, correctly predicted the existence of anti-matter. He did no experiments.

The author chronicles Dirac’s social behavior, his impact on others, his emotional blindness, his insistence on mathematical and theoretic purity.  Farmelo makes the case that Paul Dirac had Asperger syndrome, a form of autism.  He was mathematically brilliant, but lacked social intelligence –  the ability to ‘read’ other people as the complex emotional beings that they are, which is the hallmark of Asperger syndrome.  Weak social intelligence can seem like callousness.  Dirac’s lack of personal connection seemed to be on purpose, and people were offended and would think him mean. When someone like Dirac is also known to be very smart, what else can explain his manner? Dirac just did not give the personal regard that people seek. He did marry and have children, but his wife came to be very frustrated, and his children did not fare well. He loved watching Cher, but had no other interest in music.

People like Dirac can seem to be like sociopaths, but poor social intelligence is not sociopathy.  Sociopaths often have a very strong social intelligence, indeed a powerful ability to understand what others are feeling, what others want. This is what makes them often skillful manipulators. Their lack of empathy allows them to avoid guilt as they use others. They can convey warmth and concern, all the while acting viciously.

This was not Dirac.  He could eventually understand people, after using deliberate and careful perception, logic and analysis.  And when he did, he could be caring and loyal.

His contributions to physics were substantial.  He solved many of the important issues of early quantum mechanics, and won a Nobel Prize, but his later years were not very productive. He insisted on abstract mathematical beauty and was unable or unwilling to engage the rough promise of new experimental results.

Social intelligence uses a great amount of mental capacity, and may be the chief reason our brain’s evolved so large.  Weak social mentation can liberate other mental talents, free up ‘disc space’ for other types of mentation, such as visual or spatial thinking.  This is the story of the savant, of people like Dirac.

Dirac was lucky to arrive in Niels Bohr’s time. Bohr’s genius was leadership.  He had a great managerial intelligence, even though he was a clumsy speaker and writer. He and his loving and intelligent wife fostered an intensely supportive environment for gifted and varied personalities, some with social intelligence and empathy, and some without, Nobel minds like Schroedinger, Einstein, Pauli, Dirac, and Heisenberg. Even Bohr’s son would eventually win a Nobel Prize.

Under Bohr, these great minds unravelled, in a short few years, the mysteries of chemistry and nuclear forces and brought human knowledge to the very edge of what is knowable, a place we have yet to surpass.

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