Tag Archives: Paul A. M. Dirac

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.

Paul Dirac: Early Adulthood and the Start of a Scientific Career


Paul Dirac formal portrait, wearing academic cap and gown. (original image)

Paul Dirac’s record was almost flawless as an undergraduate. In three years, Dirac nearly managed to be at the top of his class in all subjects, the only flaw being a single Strength of Materials course where he ranked second. After receiving his engineering degree at the young age of nineteen, Dirac went on to Cambridge where he pursued a degree in mathematics.

While Dirac was studying and moving forward in his academics, his older brother Felix had settled in Birmingham working in a machine-testing factory. Charles Dirac had supported Paul in his education, going so far as to give him the money necessary to be sure of solvency in Cambridge. However, Charles Dirac had refused Felix his desire to study medicine as he wished. Felix earned little money as a factory worker and was unhappy with how his life was turning out.


Bristol. Florence Dirac at the grave of son Felix. (original image)

In early January of 1925, Felix left his job, stopped writing to his parents and sister, and began living from his savings. A few months later, in March, Paul Dirac received a letter at Cambridge from his aunt Nell. Felix had committed suicide. Dirac’s feelings about this occurrence are unknown, however, after returning home to his family for a short time, it appears that Dirac went back to work as usual.

It is speculated that the plummet of Dirac’s productivity in the following months was due to grief. Dirac’s focus was also making a shift during these years of study as he was transitioning from working on solvable problems to looking for new, fundamental research problems. In October of 1925, Dirac entered his last year of postgraduate studies. During this year was when Dirac first set out the mathematical basis of quantum theory parallel to the classical theory. Dirac came up with a theory which sought to describe the behavior of all quantum particles in all circumstances throughout all of time.

Only a month later, Dirac had finished writing his paper titled, “Fundamental Equations of Quantum Mechanics”. On December 1st, the same day a historical non-aggression pact between France, Germany, and Belgium called the Treaty of Locarno was signed, Dirac’s paper was published by the Royal Society. This marked the start of when Dirac became recognized in the scientific community. Though part of his results had already been discovered by German physicist and mathematician Max Born, Dirac had become a part of a collection of mathematicians and scientists which sought to crystallize quantum mechanics into a complete theory. A year later, in June of 1926, Dirac would pursue a Ph.D. where he would become the first to write a thesis on matters of quantum mechanics.   

Sources:

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

The Early Years of Paul Dirac

Formal portrait of Paul and Felix Dirac as children.

Paul (in child’s gown) and Felix Dirac. (original image)

Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac was born August 8, 1902, just a day before the crowning of King Edward the VII. Just as you’d expect, Dirac and his older brother Felix resembled each other greatly in their early years, both quiet and sporting thick black curls. Through letters from Florence Dirac, Paul’s mother, one would find that these two were exceptionally close and loved being with their father.

Graham Farmelo, writer of The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac argues that Paul Dirac most probably didn’t appreciate being brought up in an environment of unusual circumstances where he and his brother were to receive private education from their school teacher father. In a 1980 conversation with Kurt Hofer, a then Florida State University biology professor, Dirac is quoted to have confided that in his early years, he never felt love or affection.

An formal portrait of the Dirac family with Florence on the left and Charles on the right. Infant Betty, Felix, and Paul are situated between them.

Paul Dirac, Charles, Florence, Felix, and Betty in family portrait. (original image)

Throughout his life, most of Dirac’s acquaintances had no idea what his childhood was like. At home, Dirac had no photographs of his father and he kept his father’s papers locked in his desk. In his early thirties, Dirac wrote to a close friend that to defend himself against the hostilities he perceived around him he retreated into his own imagination. Perhaps this is what aided in his superior understanding of scientific inquiry.

Formal portrait of Paul Dirac sitting outside.
Paul Dirac outdoor portrait. (original image)

Around the age of ten, Dirac picked up the hobby of astronomy. Science wasn’t a subject taught at Bishop Road Primary School, however, they did have courses on technical drawing which may have provided Dirac with a foundation in the unique way he interpreted how the universe worked. Years later, the geometrical approaches found in the technical drawing lessons Dirac took in his earliest years would transfer over into the mathematical theories he would pose in relation to theoretical physics and the 20th century understanding of the atom.

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.

Recapping Archives Month at FSU

October is a special month for those us in the archives. It’s an entire month to celebrate our collections and, more importantly, our work which is often shrouded in mystery. Even for our co-workers in libraries. So, archivists have embraced American Archives Month, held every October, as a way to share what it is we do.

Visitors to our FSU Faculty & Staff Open House on October 26, 2018
Visitors to our FSU Faculty & Staff Open House on October 26, 2018

For us here in Special Collections & Archives this year, we started October by participating in #AskAnArchivist day on October 3, 2018, by staging a takeover of the FSU Libraries twitter feed, answering questions and participating in discussions that happened all over the Twittersphere. You can check out the hashtag #AskAnArchivist and the FSU Libraries twitter page to catch up on those tweets.

We had some celebration of the month here on the blog. We opened a new exhibit on protest in poetry, highlighted our Artist Book and Napoleon collections, shared a new digital collection available in our digital library, talked about our new records on FSU presidents, and looked for the spooky side of Special Collections for Halloween.

Special Collections & Archives hosted our first Open House for Archives Month this year for our faculty and staff here in FSU Libraries. We hope to grow this event in the coming years so more people on campus and in the community can come and see our collections and talk to us about our work.

Lastly, we also had our annual tradition of visiting Paul Dirac’s gravesite and cleaning the headstone. Dirac, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, retired to Tallahassee and taught at FSU while he lived here. Upon his death, his papers and collections came here to FSU and is a cornerstone collection to our History of Science materials.

Cleaning Dirac's headstone at Roselawn Cemetery, October 30, 2018
Cleaning Dirac’s headstone at Roselawn Cemetery, October 30, 2018

 

Celebrating Paul Dirac

Paul Dirac Teaching
Paul Dirac lecturing at blackboard, Iowa City, Iowa.

Paul Dirac was an English theoretical physicist who provided remarkable insight towards the development of quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics. His discoveries led to him now being famously known as the father of modern physics and a Nobel Prize Winner. These discoveries constitute his own formula, known as the Dirac Equation, to describe the behavior of fermions, which are subatomic particles, and predicted the existence of antimatter, which are corresponding particles of ordinary matter.

paul dirac in front of house (madison)
Paul Dirac standing in front of house

His contribution to the study of physics and society is commemorated on this day, the day of his death, in 1984 at the age of 82. On October 19th, the day before the anniversary of his death, several librarians and students from the physics department go out and clean his headstone at Roselawn Cemetery and plant flowers to honor the man who spent his last decade at Florida State University teaching physics students and conducting further research.

paul dirac in office at FSU
Paul Dirac in his office at Florida State University

 

 

 

 

 

 

The FSU Special Collections & Archives houses The Paul A.M. Dirac Papers that consists of correspondence, books, manuscripts of scientific papers, calculations, photographs, framed certificates, and realia. A window is even dedicated to Paul Dirac within the Heritage Museum located in Dodd Hall, to remember his work and honor his footprint within physics.

dirac-award.png
Maharishi Award conferred upon Dr. Paul A. Dirac

Finishing up the “Shoebox Papers” of Dirac

The following is the second of two posts from Dr. Kathy Clark, a professor here at FSU in the College of Education. You may see the first post here. For the past several years, she’s been involved in the digitization and description of a set of papers in the Dirac Collection that are known collectively as the “shoebox” papers. These materials are available online and will shortly benefit from enhanced description from Dr. Clark.

I should say that the “we” in this case are an incredibly bright and talented young man, Emmet Harrington, and myself. Emmet was an undergraduate honors student, who selected my project as part of the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP) at FSU. Although his UROP commitment was only one year, Emmet continued on the project for a second year, and his work was funded by the HOMSIGMAA grant. Emmet graduated from FSU in May 2016, with a bachelor’s degree in Mathematics. He began the Ph.D. in mathematics program at Michigan State University in Fall 2016. Emmet’s work on the “shoebox papers” project was invaluable, and he was responsible for three key aspects of the project work.

Using substitutions to simplify polynomial equations
Using substitutions to simplify polynomial equations. From the “Shoebox Papers.”

In particular, Emmet first reviewed the scans of the original items that I identified in 2012 for their mathematical content, and this was necessary work for metadata entry. Emmet also selected interesting problems, which we would ultimately highlight and discuss during a workshop as part of the Seventh European Summer University in Copenhagen in 2014. Finally, Emmet spent a great deal of time cropping images from the original images (of the “shoebox papers” that I selected in 2012), for the purpose of focusing on particular aspects of Dirac’s mathematical doodlings found in the “shoebox papers.” We felt this was an intriguing first project for the purpose of highlighting one aspect of the Dirac Papers at FSU. For example, because of Dirac’s reputation as a Nobel prize-winning physicist, we purposefully investigated the collection for examples of pure mathematics, since Dirac first began his academic life in the field of mathematics.

Finally, Emmet and I submitted a short paper to the BSHM Bulletin: Journal of the British Society of the History of Mathematics, in which we tell the story of our work together, and in which we highlight examples from our investigation into the “shoebox papers” (Clark & Harrington, 2016).

In closing, I want to publicly express my appreciation to HOMSIGMAA’s interest in the Dirac Papers at FSU. I greatly appreciate Dr. Amy Shell-Gellasch’s encouragement to me to seek funding for this project, and for assisting me over the years as we’ve tried to accomplish what we set out to do. I am also supremely appreciative of the assistance and encouragement of Dean Julia Zimmerman, Associate Dean Katie McCormick, Digital Archivist Krystal Thomas, and Studio Manager Stuart Rochford, all of the FSU Libraries. Without them, this work would not have been possible. I am especially grateful for their patience with me, as they have waited a very long time for me to finish my part of this work so that it can be shared with the world.

References

Clark, K. M., & Harrington, E. P. (2016). The Paul A M Dirac papers at Florida State University: A search for informal mathematical investigations. British Society for the History of Mathematics Bulletin, 31(3), 205-214.

The “Shoebox” papers of Paul A.M. Dirac

The following is the first of two posts from Dr. Kathy Clark, a professor here at FSU in the College of Education. For the past several years, she’s been involved in the digitization and description of a set of papers in the Dirac Collection that are known collectively as the “shoebox” papers. These materials are available online and will shortly benefit from enhanced description from Dr. Clark.

In early 2012 I was curious what sort of materials were available in the Dirac Papers held at Florida State University (FSU), and began to page through various boxes and folders of the different series. I tried to narrow my initial search a bit by looking for mathematical papers, problems, calculations, and the like. And, after many months of visiting the Special Collections & Archives, I settled upon a deeper investigation into what was noted as “shoebox papers.”

Listing permutations of five elements chosen from five
An example from the “Shoebox Papers”

The “shoebox papers” were apparently just that: accumulated – yet mostly unsorted – pages or scraps of paper that contained some form of mathematical doodling (as we have referred to previously in Clark and Harrington, 2015). The initial intent of our work with the “shoebox papers” was two-fold: we wanted to investigate mathematical problems and concepts that were present in the papers, and we were interested in sharing a small part of the Dirac Papers with scholars and researchers who may have an interest in the collection. The project that was generously funded by the History of Mathematics Special Interest Group of the Mathematical Association of America (HOMSIGMAA) in 2013 and 2014 had several components, and this short communication provides a brief overview of the project work.

The funds provided by HOMSIGMAA were used for both preservation and digitization project work. At the same time that I began investigating the Dirac Papers collection, FSU Libraries were in the process of redesigning and launching a more comprehensive digital library platform. In doing so, FSU digital archivists, librarians, and administrators sought to highlight several of the library’s more interesting, and in many ways, precious holdings. Thus, scanning materials in order to digitally archive them was a priority. One of the collections needing such digital preservation were the Dirac Papers; however, the collection is quite extensive, and beginning with a project to highlight particular specimens (of mathematical interest) also coincided with the work that we had begun in Fall 2013.

In the next post, Dr, Clark will look at the work of her talented student assistant and what they accomplished with the digitized versions of the “shoebox” papers.

References

Clark, K., & Harrington, E. (2015). Deciphering the doodlings of the “shoebox collection” of the Paul A. M. Dirac papers. In E. Barbin, U. T. Jankvist, & T. H. Kjeldsen (Eds.), Seventh European Summer University on the History and Epistemology in Mathematics Education (ESU-7) (pp. 735-744). Copenhagen, Denmark: Danish School of Education, Aarhus University.