Tag Archives: Nobel Prize

Updating the P.A.M Dirac Collection

At the beginning of the Fall 2018 semester, I began working with the Paul A. M. Dirac Collection found in the Special Collections & Archives at Florida State University. I didn’t really know what I would come across when I got started, but the photographs in this collection would end up being the very beginning of my utter fascination for the theoretical physicist.

I enjoy going to museums and reading books over studying science and math and day of the week. Maybe that’s why when I started this journey through the life of Paul Dirac I was both curious and uncertain. On an average day, I would take one box out of the stacks and start on the latest file of images. A single box could have anywhere from six to forty folders and could contain over 100 photographs. As cheesy as it sounds, each photo really does tell a story. I worked with images from the early 1900s which depicted Dirac and his family in period-appropriate dress. I saw images taken in Russia and Israel and Japan. Truly, despite the man being known for his contributions to theoretical physics, I was coming to know him for much more than that. Dirac wasn’t just a phenomenal scientist–he was a fascinating character all in his own category who traveled the world in the name of scientific discovery.


The first color images I stumbled upon in the collection. (see carnations and group photo)

The majority of the work was done through a spreadsheet where I compiled metadata for each image. Doing this not only updates the information by double checking that dates and events are accurate with a fresh pair of eyes, but it also allows for proper digitization. Organizing hundreds of photos, dealing with copyright, and learning the language of metadata has helped me in understanding how vital this work is. Although looking at these pictures and reflecting on the history behind them was one of my favorite parts of this project, understanding the importance of background work was the true takeaway. I had never truly appreciated the time and effort many individuals put in to make something on the web easily accessible for others and being able to reap the rewards of such work has helped me to understand the many layers it takes to make such content.

Snapshot image of the metadata used to digitize the collections.

After finishing my work on the Dirac Collection photographs, I moved on to his manuscripts and notes. I am still going through this work as it’s a hefty bit of information which I alone cannot decipher. Another team member is working on translating the mathematical notes which I will then compile into another document which will allow the information to be neatly transferred online for the public to view.

Before starting this project, I expected to be apathetic toward the process of having to look up and research people, places, and events in order to most accurately describe an image or document. Instead, I found that, despite what many times looked to be dull and uninspiring images, each photo had a story of its own which bled into the next and created a snapshot collection of the story of one man’s life.

Dirac’s papers now reside in Special Collections & Archives at Florida State University. You may see a complete finding aid of the collection here.

All photo credits goes to the author.

Dirac at FSU

It wasn’t until his later years that Paul Dirac moved to work for the University we call home. In September of 1970, after retiring from his position at Cambridge, Paul Dirac moved to Tallahassee, Florida where he was appointed to work as a visiting professor for Florida State University. He was 68 at the time and could have fully retired, but the continuation of his work may be an example of the overwhelming desire Dirac had for the field of science and quantum mechanics.


Tallahassee. Holiday Inn marquee welcoming Paul Dirac on his first visit to the city. (original image)

Prior to his appointment, in June of that same year, Dirac visited the city to test his endurance against the subtropical climate. In the end, he decided to move as Manci, his wife, preferred the weather to that of Cambridge. In 1972, Dirac took on becoming a full professor, a position which allowed him to continue active research and to pass on the knowledge he’d accumulated through the years. During his time at FSU, Dirac supervised a few graduate students, his last being Bruce Hellman who went on to become a physicist for the CIA.


Paul Dirac in his office with last graduate student, Bruce Hellman. (original image)

Tallahassee. Paul Dirac, Leopold Halpern, and two unidentified women together for an outdoor excursion. (original image)

When barking dogs weren’t ruining his walks, Dirac could be found in his spare time visiting the local lakes and sinkholes in an effort to combat the humidity and intense heat of Tallahassee. With a thermometer in hand, Dirac would systematically check the waters and, if they were above exactly 60 degrees Fahrenheit, he would go for a swim.

Dirac had no teaching responsibilities beyond his supervision of graduate students until 1973 when he agreed to give a series of lectures on the general theory of relativity. These lectures were given until 1980 and were used as the basis for his book General Theory of Relativity. He would go on to teach until his death on October 20, 1984, at the age of 82.

The work that Dirac put forth on the subject of quantum mechanics and quantum theory is still an inspiration to physicists today. Dirac’s spirit and the spirit of mathematical beauty, of which Dirac was quite enamored, still persists through science as we know it as theories, he put forward such as that of the single magnetic pole, the magnetic monopole, have not been proven but are enthusiastically looked upon as possibilities for the future of scientific discovery. Dirac’s papers can and should still be read and studied. As it was so eloquently put in The Strangest Man by Graham Farmelo, the more you read Dirac the more you understand quantum mechanics and the brilliant mind of one of the leading pioneers of the fascinating subject.

Sources:

Farmelo, Graham, The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius, Faber and Faber 2009.

1925-1933: The Years That Count


Paul Dirac lecturing at blackboard, Iowa City, Iowa. (original image)

There is no question as to whether Paul Dirac was a great scientist. From his keen eye for mathematical beauties to his contributions as a pioneer in quantum mechanics, one can only argue that Dirac was anything but ordinary.

Dirac’s peak was between the years of 1925 and 1933. Despite being only one of many theoreticians who aided in the discovery of quantum mechanics, Dirac’s contribution was entirely special. He created a clear vision for quantum mechanics as it became a new branch of science and as Freeman Dyson puts it, “His great discoveries were like exquisitely carved marble statues falling out of the sky, one after another” (Farmelo 428).


Paul Dirac with W. Heisenberg (with newspaper) in street. (original image)

During this time, Dirac held an 1851 Research Fellowship from the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 which allowed him to fund his research for the next three years. He also made close connections with theoretical physicist and quantum mechanics pioneer Werner Heisenberg starting in 1925, which would start a fifty-year friendship. At the young age of 24, Dirac completed his Ph.D. and produced the first thesis on quantum mechanics ever to be produced.

Unlike other quantum theoreticians, whose papers were hard on the eyes and imperfectly formed, Dirac’s book The Principles of Quantum Mechanics gave this new field a fine, polished look. He presented quantum mechanics as if it were a work of art—and to him it most surely was. In 1933, Dirac was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics alongside Erwin Schrödinger for “the discovery of new productive forms of atomic theory” which arose from his years of research.

Despite being somewhat of an unknown face in a scientific community where intellectual giants such as Einstein and Darwin are most remembered, Dirac can be “counted as one of the greatest of all scientist” because the notions which were put forth by him are still being developed and continue to contribute to modern thinking (429). Today, scientists can smash together particles at high energies. They have created a huge particle accelerator at CERN which can recreate the conditions of the universe to within a millionth of a millionth of a second of the beginning of time. Dirac acted as a stepping stone for the scientific community by taking the position of a co-discoverer and by authoring the action-principle formulation of quantum mechanics.

Sources:

Farmelo, Graham, The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius, Faber and Faber 2009.

Celebrating Dirac’s Nobel Prize

This December is the 85th anniversary of Paul Dirac’s Nobel Prize for Physics. Dirac was an English theoretical physicist who became a fundamental contributor to the development of quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics. The Dirac Equation, which was formulated in 1928, described the behavior of fermions, or subatomic particles, and predicted the existence of antimatter.

In 1933, just a few years after the creation of this equation, Dirac became the youngest theoretical physicist to receive the award. He received the Nobel Prize for Physics alongside Erwin Schrödinger, an Austrian physicist who, like Dirac, developed a number of fundamental results in quantum and atomic theory. Dirac’s discoveries led to him being famously known as the “Father of Modern Physics.”

Telegram from the Royal Swedish Academy of Science informing Paul Dirac that he and Professor Schrodinger are being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics
Telegram from the Royal Swedish Academy of Science informing Paul Dirac that he and Professor Erwin Schrodinger are being awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, 1933. See original item here.

FSU Special Collections & Archives houses The Paul A.M. Dirac Papers which contains photographs, correspondence, books, manuscripts of scientific papers, and calculations. Images of Dirac with famous individuals within the scientific community such as Albert Einstein or Werner Heisenberg and dozens of letters to Dirac after his receiving of the Nobel Prize can also be found in the collection. You can also explore more of the collection’s Nobel Prize materials, as well as other digitized materials, in DigiNole, FSU’s digital repository.

Written by Michaela Westmoreland, an Editing, Writing, and Media undergraduate student working as a Library and Museum Assistant with the Special Collections & Archives of FSU’s Strozier Library. This semester, she has been working directly with The Paul A.M. Dirac Papers to create metadata records for the photographs of the collection for future digitization.