Tag Archives: Paul A. M. 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.


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.


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.

Much Adieu About Something: Reflections of Our Undergraduate Assistants (Part 1)

The division of Special Collections and Archives, of Florida State University, is privileged to have the assistance of our undergraduate student assistants in addition to our graduate assistants. In coordination with our Manager of Special Collections, Lisa Girard, our undergraduate assistants may also work between Heritage Protocol and University Archives (HPUA) and the Claude Pepper Library. Our undergraduate student assistants comprise a variety of different majors, have spent many semesters in our division and are imperative to our daily operations. The first of two posts, that follow, serve as our means of honoring them as well as reflecting on their time spent here as they graduate and become alumni of FSU.

“My name is Mary Kate Downing and I’ve been an student assistant in Special Collections and Archives for the past two semesters. I’m graduating this semester, so I was thrilled to learn that I’d have the chance to write a part of a guest blog post as a way to reflect on the fantastic time I’ve had here.

Miniature New Testament Bible
One of Mary Kate’s favorite books: the miniature New Testament Bible. It is smaller than the size of a quarter (BS2085 1895 G6)

I first learned about Special Collections and Archives in spring 2015 from one of my professors, Dr. Davis Houck of the School of Communication. I was in Dr. Houck’s speech class and wanted to give an informative speech on the history of FSU’s Westcott Building and Fountain. He encouraged me to pay Special Collections a visit. I had not heard of the division before, but I wanted to do some research for my speech, so I took the plunge and walked through the fancy wooden door. Everyone I met from the division was friendly and helpful and I was able to find more than enough information for my speech. The rest of that spring semester was extremely busy, so I didn’t think too much about Special Collections again until the end of the summer when I was applying for jobs for the fall. I was looking for a part-time library job because I already knew that I wanted to be a librarian, but I had only previously worked at public libraries. With my fingers crossed, I filled out the application to work at Strozier Library checking off that I was interested in almost every division, including Special Collections. I was invited to interview for positions in three different divisions, but I was the most excited about my Special Collections interview. As you can imagine, then, I was elated to eventually be offered a position in the division!

When I started working at Special Collections and Archives, I realized that the division

Letter from Stephen Hawking to Paul A M  Dirac
Another favorite item Mary Kate worked with: a letter sent from Stephen Hawking  to Paul A.M. Dirac (1980)

didn’t only have materials related to FSU history. I learned about the huge variety of manuscripts, rare books, maps, sound recordings, ephemera, and more that call Special Collections home. I was impressed. I couldn’t believe that all of those materials were readily available for people to look at. I was so excited to be able to interact with items, ranging from a Napoleonic death mask to letters written by Dr. Seuss, on a daily basis. During my two semesters here, I’ve had the opportunity to work on a variety of different projects in three divisions of Special Collections and Archives – general Special Collections, Heritage Protocol and University Archives (HPUA), and the Claude Pepper Library.


Some of my favorite projects in general Special Collections have included different inventories, like the Dirac book cart inventory, where we went through carts of books and journals that belonged to late Nobel laureate and FSU professor Paul A.M. Dirac. As well as the vault inventory, where I made sure all the especially valuable materials in Special Collections were accounted for.


Victoria J  Lewis Scrapbook
The scrapbook of Florida State College for Women alumna Victoria J. Lewis ’44

In HPUA, my main project was creating a comprehensive timeline of FSU history using primary source documents. In searching for primary sources, I came across a lot of awesome FSU-related materials, like the enormous Victoria J. Lewis scrapbook and the 1968 edition of the FSU yearbook Tally-Ho


At the Claude Pepper Library, some of my favorite projects have included the CDA to WAV conversion, where we worked to convert CD recordings of late Florida Senator Claude Pepper to digital files, and the ongoing inventory, where I went through almost a hundred boxes of Senator Pepper’s correspondence and mementos from 1936 to 1951. I also enjoyed working with the collection of phonodiscs, which contain the original recordings of many of Senator Pepper’s speeches and interviews, and a program from the 1944 Democratic National Convention that was in one of Senator Pepper’s correspondence folders.

FDR Phonodiscs
The National Political Campaign of 1944 pamphlet and records that Mary Kate worked with at the Claude Pepper Library

After graduation, I will be earning a master’s degree in Library and Information Science from the University of South Florida and working part-time in the Youth Services Department at a public library in the Tampa area. I’ll miss FSU’s Special Collections and Archives, but I plan to look for another special collections or archives position in the near future. If I could tell people who are unfamiliar with Special Collections and Archives one thing about the division, it would be to come check it out! Don’t be intimidated by the door that separates the Special Collections Reading Room from the rest of Strozier Library. There’s so much you can learn, and the librarians and archivists are some of the coolest people on campus.”

Rest in Peace Professor

Yesterday was the 31st anniversary of Paul Dirac’s death. As has become tradition, faculty and staff from the FSU Libraries, where we hold the physicist’s papers, and students from the Physics departments visit Dirac’s grave to clean it and plant flowers. Learn more about this in a post later this week but for now, we honor Professor Dirac.

Headstone of Paul and Margit Dirac in Roselawn Cemetery, Tallahassee.
Headstone of Paul and Margit Dirac in Roselawn Cemetery, Tallahassee.

Commemorating Paul A. M. Dirac

On October 20, 1984, Paul A.M. Dirac passed away in his adopted home of Tallahassee, Florida.

Dirac moved to Tallahassee to teach at Florida State University in 1971 after visiting in June of that year to make sure he could handle the heat of Florida’s summers. He also appreciated the faculty of the growing physics department at FSU and that his colleagues treated the Nobel Prize winner like he was simply one of their own.

Paul Dirac is pictured in his office with his last graduate student, Bruce Hellman.
Paul Dirac pictured in his office at FSU with his last graduate student, Bruce Hellman. [See Full Description]
In a 2009 Florida State Times article, former colleagues remembered the at times eccentric physicist during his time here. He loved to walk, saying it gave him time to think and appreciated his daily “commute” to his office at FSU. He was also a man who spoke only when he had something to say. Steve Edwards, Professor Emeritus, Dean of the Faculties and Deputy Provost Emeritus., Ph.D., remembered, “for 12 years I had lunch with Paul Dirac. It was very enlightening, although on some days it was perfectly all right to sit there for an hour and not say anything to each other.”

Dirac is buried at Roselawn Cemetery in Tallahassee. Memorials to his memory in his childhood home in Bristol, England and in Saint-Maurice, Switzerland where his father’s family was from, can also be visited. In 1995, a commemorative stone for Dirac was added to Westminster Abbey in London, England. It is inscribed with the Dirac Equation.

Happy Birthday Paul Dirac!

Paul Dirac Shown on a Country Road, June 1927
Paul Dirac shown on a Country Road, June 1927

Born on August 8, 1902, Paul A. M. Dirac would go on to be a Nobel Prize winning physicist, sharing the prize with Edwin Schrödinger in 1933 for their work in atomic theory. Dirac’s work over his academic career at Cambridge and later at Florida State University was in quantum mechanics. His Dirac Equation, which describes the behavior of fermions and predicted the existence of antimatter, was among his many contributions to the field over his lifetime. In 1971, he moved to Tallahassee, Florida to work at Florida State University. He died in Tallahassee on October 20, 1984.

His papers now reside in Special Collections & Archives at Florida State University. You may see a complete finding aid of the collection here. Among his papers are his early works in mathematics, his handwritten dissertation on quantum mechanics and other drafts of his publications along with family papers and photographs. Special Collections also holds the Dirac Equation as written out on the chalkboard by Dirac himself. We’re currently working on a re-housing project and several digitization projects with the Dirac papers. A small portion of the Dirac Papers are already available in the Florida State University Digital Library.

Look for more on his collection and life on this blog as we complete more digitization projects with his collection. In the meantime, a very happy birthday to Dr. Dirac!

Dirac Equation preserved on a chalkboard
Dirac Equation preserved on a chalkboard

New Addition to the Paul A. M. Dirac Papers

Florida State University Libraries Special Collections and Archives announce additions to the collection of the papers of Nobel Prize winner Paul A.M. Dirac — the father of modern physics. In May, his daughter, Monica Dirac donated new materials that will offer researchers further insight into the scope of Dirac’s life and work.

The new materials, most of which are from the early part of Dirac’s career, consist of family documents and professional papers, including letters, family photos, postcards, travel books, souvenirs, brochures, published materials, conference and event information, and legal documents.

The correspondence, especially that between Dirac and his wife Margit, discuss his travels, his career and colleagues, and their courtship. Other items, including postcards and travel brochures, document Dirac’s travel throughout the United Kingdom and United States as well as more exotic destinations. He visited Hungary, Margit’s homeland, often, as well as Germany, Denmark, and Sweden. He also made a few trips to the Soviet Union and Japan.


Dirac at a conference in Israel, 1979

This addition to the Paul A. M. Dirac Papers also includes a variety of materials relating to both Dirac’s death in 1984 and events that occurred after his death. In addition to condolence letters written to Margit, there are obituaries and articles about his life from newspapers and magazines all over the world. There is also information about conferences held and awards given in his honor, for example the Dirac Medal awarded by the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, and documentation of the opening of the Dirac Science Library here at FSU in 1989. These materials help to illustrate the lasting impact Paul Dirac had both at Florida State and in the international physics community as a whole.


Paul Dirac and his daughter, Mary, in Stonybrook, NY, 1966

Dirac’s legacy lives on as students and faculty work in the Dirac Science Library and pass by his statue on campus. Despite being world-renowned for his work in physics, Dirac led a “rather opaque life,” according Graham Farmelo, author of “The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac.”  With the addition of these personal and professional papers to FSU Libraries Special Collections, researchers, biographers and scholars will have new avenues of insight into Dirac’s mind and work.

The new materials will be processed, preserved, and made available as a part of the existing Paul A.M. Dirac Papers at Florida State University. For more information on Paul Dirac and his papers, see the finding aid for the collection here.

Professor Paul A. M. Dirac

Paul Dirac was one of the most influential physicists of the 20th century, as well as one of the most notable professors to teach at Florida State University. Dirac, who was of Swiss descent, was born, raised, and educated in Bristol, England. After completing a degree in engineering at the University of Bristol Dirac went on to study physics at St. John’s College at Cambridge. He completed a Ph.D. in 1926 and then he served on the faculty of St. John’s College for several years. It was during this time that he formulated the famous “Dirac Equation” and wrote The Principles of Quantum Mechanics, a seminal work in the field. During the 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s Dirac continued his research and traveled widely, spending time at the Institute for Advanced Research at Princeton where he met his future wife Margit Wigner, the sister of fellow physicist Eugene Wigner. Over the course of his career Dirac collaborated and had personal relationships with other influential physicists such as Niels Bohr, Erwin Schrödinger, Robert Oppenheimer, and Albert Einstein.


After a brief time at the University of Miami, Dirac accepted a position at FSU in 1972, and he remained here until his death in 1984. He taught classes and continued to work on his research during his time at FSU and he was one of the first Nobel Prize Winners to accept a faculty position at Florida State*. Dirac’s legacy on campus and in the Tallahassee community includes the Dirac Science Library, and the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory located on Paul Dirac Drive in FSU’s Innovation Park.  In addition, FSU Special Collections and Archives house Dirac’s personal papers. This vast collection includes materials about Dirac’s personal and professional life, including paper and lectures given by him, as well as his correspondence with other well-known physicists. Of special interest are Dirac’s handwritten notes and notebooks.

For more information on Paul Dirac, see the Paul A. M. Dirac Papers finding aid.

*This blog post previously stated Dirac was the only Nobel prize winner on FSU’s faculty. This information was incorrect and the error was corrected on July 31, 2013.