Why I am not Dirac

Of course, I can’t be Dirac. Dirac was one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century. I am the author of Boogie Math, a silly website about mathematics.

However, I am thinking of something else. Why don’t I have the kind of concentration that Dirac had? Or at least close to what he had.

"Please don’t," said my wife. "Don’t try!"

She knows quite a few Dirac stories. She knows Dirac was pretty much interested only in science and could spend whole days immersed in physics. Besides that, he mostly operated with two words: yes and no.

At the famous University of Göttingen, physicists sometimes played foolish games like "bobbing for apples", where professors and students tried to sink their teeth into an apple floating in beer. Or running as fast as they could with a potato on a tiny spoon. Well, Dirac never took part in such games. Actually, I’ve read somewhere that he did carry a potato on a spoon once, but I simply don’t believe it. He was known to ignore pretty much everything that wasn’t physics. At least when he was young. It was not unusual for Dirac to sit alone in the library the whole day, totally absorbed in his thoughts.

"You know, it would be really great if I could learn stuff faster," I said to my wife. "And for this, having better concentration is of course crucial! But I am so slow, I am so stupid."

"You are not totally stupid," said my wife.

"Thanks," I said. "You are very convincing."

And I tried. I tried to concentrate deeply for more than ten or fifteen minutes. But I couldn’t. And I probably have to accept it. It turns out the best way for me is to think about mathematics for fifteen minutes and then have a short stroll around the house. When I come back my head is much clearer. Trying to think about a mathematical problem for half an hour or an hour without a pause makes my head tired and then I need a much longer pause to clear it.

It also seems to work for me if I change the topic after one or two hours. Another thing that helps me a lot is to write things down. It helps me better understand the object of my study and not to divert from it.

Well, Dirac didn’t have any of these problems. But nearing his thirtieth birthday, he worked a bit less hard; he even took some time for pleasures like hiking or climbing. However, I guess his incredible ability to focus remain as strong as it had been. And to be a quantum physicist, you really need to have an extraordinary brain. For a long time, theoretical physicists tried to explain the results obtained by experimental physicists. I think this changed with Einstein – he actually predicted things. And some Einstein predictions were confirmed only many years later. With quantum mechanics, things seem to have worked that way from the beginning – theoretical physicists predict, experimental physicists confirm (or reject).

In his biography (opens new window) of Paul Dirac, Graham Farmelo says: "He [Dirac] envisioned the future of physical science as an unending series of revolutions, driven by mathematical imagination... before Einstein used non Euclidean geometry as the basis of the general theory of relativity and before Heisenberg used non-commutative algebra in quantum mechanics, these branches of mathematics were considered to be purely fictions of the mind and pastimes for logical thinkers."

It’s really beyond impressive how theoretical physicists discovered the inner workings of atoms using only pure mathematics. I was totally surprised, for example, when I read how Dirac almost needed to guess his Dirac equation (opens new window). It seems that almost divine intuition is needed for that. Although, perhaps great intuition is just a result of hours and hours of focused work of a great mind.

A brief side story: in Göttingen, physicists and mathematicians didn’t play only "bobbing for apples", but also some funny, pointless challenges. Like, how to express a whole number using the number 2 precisely four times. It’s easy for the first numbers:

1=22221 = \frac{2}{2} \cdot \frac{2}{2}

2=22222 = 2\cdot 2^{2-2}

3=2+(22)23 = 2 + (\frac{2}{2})^2

But then it starts getting harder. It seems many had a lot of fun trying to find solutions for particular numbers. Well, sure enough, Dirac found a general formula (opens new window).

"You know," I said to my wife. "I hated physics in elementary and high schools. But I think I would go study physics if I were young again."

"Sure. But before you become young again, you can perhaps try to fix those broken pipes in the bathroom. Or perhaps try to put the doors back onto the closet in our bedroom. It would do more good to the world."

"That’s what you think," I said. "I think it does a lot of good if I learn some physics too."

"Besides, you are not really interested in physics," said my wife. "I think you forgot it, but your primary interest is in the stupid details from physicists’ lives."

"I should never have told you anything about it," I said.

Because, you know, I sometimes tell my wife things like what’s the only occasion when Dirac’s wife Manci saw Dirac crying. You might know it; it was when Albert Einstein died.