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The Strangest Man
April 28, 2012 2:51 AM   Subscribe

The trend of mathematics and physics towards unification provides the physicist with a powerful new method of research into the foundations of his subject, a method which has not yet been applied successfully, but which I feel confident will prove its value in the future. The method is to begin by choosing that branch of mathematics which one thinks will form the basis of the new theory. One should be influenced very much in this choice by considerations of mathematical beauty. [1939]

The physicist Paul Dirac had a passion for mathematical beauty. The talk quoted above, The Relation between Mathematics and Physics, was given in 1939 and is available as part of the material posted from the Dirac Centennial Celebration at the University of Cambridge in 2002. More about his life is available in the (long) transcripts of his oral history interviews with the American Insitute of Physics.

Via Graham Farmelo, author of The Strangest Man, a biography of Dirac.
posted by smcg (8 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
Dirac's insistance on finding a rigorous solution to renormalization paved the way for many tools from real analysis to find applications in PDE and elsewhere.

It isn't nearly so easy dreaming up toys like lossy waveform compression, i.e. mp3s, if you lack the ambient cultural knowledge that Dirac's δ function makes sense.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:57 AM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]



posted by euphorb at 6:28 AM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


The physicist awoke with a start, turned on the light, put on his glasses, opened his notebook and started to write. The equation he wrote took up less than a page.

There was a flash of light and an old, dapper gentleman appeared. "Ah, I see you've figured it out! I knew you would be the one."

"God?"

"Well, I was. Now I'm retiring. You're God now."
posted by double block and bleed at 6:51 AM on April 28, 2012


Er, what if I'm particularly infatuated with mathematically repellent objects?
posted by LogicalDash at 7:19 AM on April 28, 2012 [2 favorites]


LogicalDash is right. I'm building a physical theory in which we all live on the Alexander horned sphere. WHO'S WITH ME?
posted by escabeche at 7:38 AM on April 28, 2012 [3 favorites]


BTW, if anyone is thinking about getting The Strangest Man, I'd recommend against it, unless you're really, really, really interested in the day to day personal life of a fairly introverted mathematician. At times, it's kind of like reading an unedited journal of everything he ever did. Random conversations with family and friends and so on. It spends way, way, way more time on what is basically boring and mundane personal stuff than it does talking about his work, which would have been way more interesting to me.
posted by empath at 11:44 AM on April 28, 2012


I really like this quote:

the mathematician plays a game in which he himself invents the rules while the physicist plays a game in which the rules are provided by Nature, but as time goes on it becomes increasingly evident that the rules which the mathematician finds interesting are the same as those which Nature has chosen.

Dirac predicted the existence of antimatter not based on any experimental evidence whatsoever, but because he thought the equations that govern the electron would be more beautiful if they had certain symmetries. The relationship between mathematics and Nature really is amazing.
posted by jpdoane at 6:05 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


Dirac predicted the existence of antimatter not based on any experimental evidence whatsoever, but because he thought the equations that govern the electron would be more beautiful if they had certain symmetries.

Well, his equation had two answers. One of which was the electron. The other was the positron. But there's a whole bunch of particles that are hypothesized right now based on no evidence whatsoever, just because they make for beautiful symmetry.
posted by empath at 6:18 PM on April 28, 2012 [1 favorite]


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