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Paul Dirac, Autism, And Life

Paul Dirac, the inventor of quantum mechanics, in front of a blackboard of equationsBy Philip Francomb

Paul Dirac was brought up in Bristol in a street off Gloucester Road. I lived in Gloucester Road until I was ten. He went to a technical school strong in engineering drawing. I went to a technical school strong in engineering drawing. He studied maths and physics. I studied maths and physics. He was a genius. Ah well...

Despite being described as “Britain’s Einstein”, being a Nobel laureate, and holding the post at Cambridge held by Isaac Newton and now by Stephen Hawking, and his close connection with my home town; I had hardly heard of him and Bristol has done little to celebrate his connection with the city.

Dirac was irritatingly and delightfully literal. When he was asked why he had not answered a student who said that he didn't understand an equation, he replied “The student hadn't asked a question.” Dirac was probably autistic although his biographer is quick to point out:

“But one should be very careful about making this diagnosis: rather too often, people are labelled autistic on the flimsiest of evidence except that they are exceptionally reserved, focused and unsociable.” Mildly autistic behaviour is normal. It’s part of the wide spectrum of human personality traits that have built the human race. What is ‘normal’? By definition almost everyone is either above or below average in everything. The majority of men have autistic tendencies compared with the average woman. Most women would never deal with a question in the way that Dirac did because they take into account much more information than contained in the question, drawing on related knowledge and answering the question that should have been asked, often much to the annoyance of men who would actually like simple answers to the simple questions that arise in their simple minds. Most of us would assume that the student actually meant “Can you explain the equation on the board?” Except that presumably in that case Dirac would then have answered “Yes I can.”

Humans have evolved and survived through social interaction in the pursuit of peace and conquest. Aggressive and violent personalities seem to be the most celebrated in history, but achievements in technology, art and music have more often been achieved by deep thinking introverts who have had less success or concern with the social scene. We are what we are and we all have our part to play.

Dirac was one of the principal pioneers of quantum theory, which he discovered mostly by withdrawing into abstract thought and believing that if mathematics displays beauty then it probably contains truth about the natural world. “Dirac told physics students they should not worry about the meaning of equations, only about their beauty.” His main contribution, Dirac’s equation, predicted the existence of anti-matter because it holds true for positive as well as negative electrons. Only then did physicists look for and find anti-matter. He didn't know or care if his work had any practical application but almost everything in our ultra-miniature micro-electronics world depends on the work of Dirac and his colleagues in quantum mechanics.

Un-surprisingly Dirac was not conventionally religious. As the human mind developed it inevitably asked “where do we come from?” Conventional religion dodged the issue by saying that we were made by God without saying where God came from and this seems pointless to many free-thinkers. Perhaps God had the power to spontaneously come into existence and didn't need a creator, but this is rather like the big-bang theory of the creation of the universe, so you might as well just choose to believe in this instead.

It is interesting to note that scientists that can't see the need for God seem to need to believe in something, perhaps equally bizarre. Dirac, in common with many scientists from what I can see, believed in the supreme and lasting development of mankind, as if we will go on forever. Listen to many scientists and they talk sincerely and inexplicably about us eventually colonising other planets and solar systems. Not only does this seem entirely unlikely, I can't see why in the world, (this world, this parallel universe), we would want to condemn countless generations of our descendents to the appalling prospect of spending their entire lives in spaceships en-route to distant stars.

This is where scientists who have been led by unquestioning logic to accept the absurd possibility of an infinite number of parallel universes, have so completely lost sight of common sense that they are prepared to believe anything without wisdom or feeling. Human civilisation is so recent and precarious that it is most unlikely to last as long as the dinosaurs, and even their relatively robust ecosystem was too advanced to survive the mass extinction as did the insects, the fish and even the crocodiles. Due to human over-population, the present rate of species loss is probably greater than in any previous mass extinction, but fortunately our ‘civilisation’ is least equipped to survive the next major natural disaster and will be wiped out long before we colonise space. If not completely annihilated then we will be back in the Stone Age starting all over again.

I always feel somewhat sad walking down the corridors of university science blocks with pictures of the famous scientists and their major discoveries set along a time-line. It seems to imply that these discoveries will last forever, but perhaps that’s missing the point. After all, life is not an arrival but a journey of learning, a voyage of discovery. A child’s first steps are no less enchanting because countless others took them ealier. The Lego model is taken apart for the pleasure of the next budding Stevenson or Brunel.

So perhaps it’s comforting to think that in paleontological time, some evolved octopus will use base eight mathematics to discover Newton’s Laws, before taking a turn on her eight pedalled CO2 generator, in a valiant attempt to reverse global cooling and save the world for mollusc-kind. Myths of a lost civilisation of monkey people that built the massive monoliths across the gorges of the dry lands to no apparent purpose, say that they must have been visited by extraterrestrials. The only remaining records of their simple civilisation show that they knew only the numbers zero and one, and used silicon trinkets in a primitive religion dedicated to the worship of gates and windows.

Created by Hubagent on 01 January 2011.

Last updated by Hubagent on 08 October 2011.

Posted in category: COI Articles

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