On August 8, 1902, English theoretical physicist Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac was born. Dirac is best known for his fundamental contributions to the early development of both quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics.
Paul Dirac attended a technical college, which was attached to the University of Bristol. He studied electrical engineering and later on mathematics at Bristol where he graduated with first class honors. Dirac then lived at Cambridge while following his interests in general relativity and quantum physics.
During his research years, Paul Dirac managed to develop a general theory of quantum field theories with dynamical constraints and he was able to quantize the gravitational field. Today, these achievements take a great part in forming the foundations of superstring theories. In 1925, he began his early research work in quantum physics after being invited to read Werner Heisenberg’s paper on the improvements of Bohr’s and Sommerfeld’s old quantum theory. Reading Heisenberg’s work inspired Dirac, who noticed significant connections to classical dynamics. The line, Dirac was able to draw between these fields caused him to earn a Ph.D. from Cambridge after publishing his results in 1926. Following this inspiration furtherly, Dirac was later able to formulate a large part of the existing theories in quantum mechanics.
Paul Dirac proposed his famous Dirac Equation in 1928 building on the foundation of 2×2 matrices. This work depicted a relativistic equation of motion for the wavefunction of the electron. Building on this work, he managed to predict the existence of the positron, which was observed by Carl Anderson in 1932. In the following years, Dirac also became known as the founder of quantum electrodynamics and he was the first to publish his ideas on vacuum polarization. His works on quantum mechanics highly influences further generations of scientists like Richard Feynman, Julian Schwinger or Freeman Dyson. Especially in 1930, his publication on the Principles of Quantum Mechanics depicted a turning point in physics and is still used in form of textbooks on this day. In it, he comines works of Heisenberg and Schrödinger into simpler and fewer mathematical formulas.
The list of Paul Dirac’s achievements goes on and on and his influences in the world of physics are numerous. In the eyes of his colleagues, Dirac was a focused and precise working scientists, who disliked when his befriended scientists showed interest in dancing or poetry, like Oppenheimer or Heisenberg did. Dirac earned the Nobel Prize for physics along with Erwin Schrödinger and was awarded the Royal Medal. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society and a member of the Order of Merit.
At yovisto, you may enjoy an honoring lecture on Paul Dirac and his achievements by Richard Feynman at the University of Auckland.
References and Further Reading:
- Dirac at the Nobel Prize Website
- Dirac: A Scientific Biography
- “The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac by Graham Farmelo
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- Sir Arthur Eddington – The Man who Proved Einstein’s General Relativity