Gregory Benford describes [at Centauri Dreams] an evening he had with Paul Dirac, Stephen Hawking and Martin Rees. It is very interesting and discusses the great scientists attitude to science fiction and the value of it to them. It also discussed how Dirac made his greatest discovery.
Paul Dirac won a Nobel in 1933 for the first relativistic theory of particles, the Dirac equation and predicted antimatter. “The great papers of the other quantum pioneers were more ragged, less perfectly formed than Dirac’s,” my friend Freeman Dyson had said to me when I [Benford] was in graduate school. Freeman had taken Dirac’s Cambridge quantum mechanics course as a precocious 19-year-old. Of Dirac’s discoveries, Freeman said, “His papers were like exquisitely carved marble statues falling out of the sky, one after another. He seemed to be able to conjure laws of nature from pure thought.”
Freeman Dyson considers Paul Dirac as an intellectual hero.
Dirac was a slight man and autistic, widely known as hard to draw out. He said this concentration proved crucial to his success as a theoretical physicist, for he could remain focused on a problem for a long time. He also could order information about mathematics and physics in a systematic way, employing his visual imagination and determination. Decades later, I [Gregory Benford] saw medical practice focus on this supposed disorder, “fixing” it with drugs and therapy. How many geniuses have we lost this way ?
Benford asked Dirac how he concentrated solely on his research. “I don’t talk,” he said with admirable brevity and a smile. He also said he only stopped work on Sunday, when he took long strolls alone. He had struggled to find the Dirac equation for months, getting nowhere, then took his usual Sunday walk—and the entire solution came to him when he was crossing a small bridge. He hurried to a nearby pub, asked for lunch and wrote the equation on the back of the menu so he would not forget. He seldom looked directly at anyone, but this time he stared me in the eye. “There it was, out of nowhere.”
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