P.A.M. Dirac Biography

Academic, Educator, Physicist, Scientist, Mathematician(1902–1984)
British physicist and mathematician P.A.M. Dirac made fundamental contributions to quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics. He was named co-winner of the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Synopsis

P.A.M. Dirac was born in 1902 in Bristol, England. In 1926, he developed the first complete, formal mathematical representation of quantum mechanics. His research on relativistic theory fueled the creation of the Dirac equation and foreshadowed the discovery of antimatter, and he was named co-winner of the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physics. A longtime professor at the University of Cambridge, Dirac spent his later years at Florida State University, until his death in 1984.

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Early Years and Education

Physicist and mathematician P.A.M. Dirac was born Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac to a British mother and a Swiss father on August 8, 1902, in Bristol, England. His father, a French teacher, was harsh—not only with his students, but to P.A.M. and his two siblings. As a result, P.A.M. was a shy child who would grow into a socially awkward adult.

During his time at Bishop Road Primary School and Merchant's Venturer's Technical College, Dirac showed a prodigal gift for math. He went on to study electrical engineering at the University of Bristol, graduating with first-class honors in 1921. Unable to find a job, he accepted an opportunity to study math at Bristol, and then became a mathematics research student at the University of Cambridge. He received his Ph.D. from Cambridge in 1926, and a year later he assumed a fellowship at the university's St. John's College.

Early Discoveries

As a graduate student, P.A.M. Dirac began puzzling over a mathematical equivalent of Werner Heisenberg's new quantum mechanics, and he wrote several papers explaining his use of noncommutative algebra to calculate the properties of an atom. In 1926, Dirac used the matrix approach in combination with wave mechanics to develop the first complete, formal mathematical representation of quantum mechanics. In the process he developed Fermi-Dirac statistics, which extrapolated on Enrico Fermi's earlier theories about the distribution of particles among energy states.

Quantum Electrodynamics

After concluding that the fundamental laws of atomic particles are probabilistic, Dirac shifted his attention to developing his 1927 quantum theory of radiation. His theory gave birth to the concept of quantum electrodynamics. He followed in 1928 with the presentation of the Dirac equation, the relativistic wave equation for electrons. His work also prompted him to speculate on the existence of antimatter, which was confirmed upon the discovery of the positron in 1932.

Dirac's 1930 book, The Principles of Quantum Mechanics, quickly came to be recognized as a landmark work on the subject. In the following years, he proposed the many-times formulation as a means of solving problems in his earlier theories of quantum electrodynamics, as well as the concept of vacuum polarization.

Honors and Personal Life

Named a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1930, Dirac in 1932 was appointed Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge. The following year, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, along with Erwin Schrödinger, for advancements of atomic theory. He continued to garner an array of honors over the course of his life, culminating with his admission to the Order of Merit in 1973.

Famously taciturn, Dirac was coaxed out of his shell by an outgoing Hungarian woman named Margit Wigner, the sister of accomplished physicist Eugene Wigner. The two married in 1937 and raised Margit's children from a previous marriage, Judith and Gabriel. Both children adopted Dirac's last name, and Gabriel grew up to become a famed mathematician. Margit also gave Dirac two biological daughters: Mary Elizabeth and Florence Monica.

Later Years

Dirac retired from his professorship at Cambridge in 1969. In 1971, he became a professor at Florida State University, Tallahassee, where he continued his research. Dirac retained the position until his death, on October 20, 1984, in Tallahassee, Florida.

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