Remembering Paul A.M. Dirac - Florida State colleagues recall the legendary physicist
By Gary Fineout
Today’s students who stroll across the campus of The Florida State University may only know the name of Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac from the statue that graces the front of the science library that also bears his name.
But to those who worked at Florida State when Dirac was alive, the Nobel Prize winner remains an ever-present reminder of the wonders of physics and science.
And even though Dirac had a reputation for being taciturn, his colleagues in the physics department still got a glimpse at the human side of the man who spoke lovingly of the "beautiful mathematics’’ that lies within physics.
He was the kind of man who would insist on walking everywhere, including to and from his home, located near the western edge of campus. He enjoyed long walks in the woods. Or he could be a daredevil who would take a long swim in a local lake in the dead of winter.
His intellectual curiosity was always in full force, as on the day he spent nearly an hour talking to a fellow physicist about quarks, or when he asked about football, a game foreign to the British-born Dirac. Dirac only decided to come to Florida State after first visiting the campus in June to gauge his ability to deal with Tallahassee’s notoriously hot, humid summers.
"People told him that’s not very smart, because June is the worst month of the year in Tallahassee,’’ recalled John Albright, a former Florida State physics professor. "He said he knew that, but he decided if he could get through the month of June without being cooked to death, then he would come.’’
And Dirac did come, working at FSU from 1971 until his death in 1984. It was a coup for the university, since Dirac was one of the most renowned physicists of the 20th century, winning countless honors, including the Nobel Prize in 1933 for his work on atomic theory. Dirac was a pioneer in quantum mechanics, and he predicted the existence of antimatter.
Yet despite his ability to unlock some of the mysteries of the universe, Dirac only talked when he had something to say.
"For 12 years I had lunch with Paul Dirac,’’ said Steve Edwards, dean of the faculties emeritus and former chairman of the physics department at FSU. "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.’’
Adds Albright: "Dirac was very parsimonious with words. He would not use five words when one word would do.’’
While Dirac normally worked alone, those in the physics department would look forward to daily lunches with the physicist held in the kitchen of the Keen Building.
"That’s an experience that some of us thought was too valuable to miss,’’ Albright said. "There were times you could go up there for 30 to 40 minutes and he would ust sit there quietly and not say a word. The next day he might come and have some question of his own.
’’Many in the physics department would share time outside of their offices with Dirac as well, mingling with him at parties or sharing dinner with Dirac and his wife.
"I went to parties with him, and he was quite charming at parties because he always had a twinkle in his eye about some aspect of physics that might come up,’’ said Donald Robson, a retired Florida State physics professor.
Edwards said that the reaction Dirac got from his Florida State colleagues is one of the reasons the Nobel Laureate stayed at the university until his death. They didn’t treat him differently because of all his achievements.
"He felt at home here,’’ Edwards said. "The physics faculty treated him like anybody else.’’
One constant with Dirac during most of his time at Florida State was his daily commute from his house to his office on campus. Even when weather was bad, Dirac would insist on walking. It wasn’t that Dirac didn’t know how to drive. He told Albright he preferred walking because it gave him time to think.
"The reason he didn’t want to drive a car back and forth was because he would have to think about driving,’’ Albright said. "But when he was walking he could think about physics.’’
Albright recalls how one day he was able to give Dirac a ride to neighboring Florida A&M University for a lecture, but only after engaging in a bit of trickery. After Dirac asked his fellow Florida State professors if they could give him directions to the FAMU campus, Albright came up with endlessly complicated directions in an effort to dissuade him from walking.
But Albright’s ploy didn’t last. After sitting through Dirac’s lecture, he walked up to him and then offered to take him home.
"He looked at me and smiled and said ‘I’m going to walk home,’" Albright said. "He knew where he was, he wasn’t going to get lost."