John Heilbron on Dirac: "interest only in the numbers"
On the 14th of this month, I posted an entry that focused on three curious intellects, including the mind of Paul Dirac, and I quoted a review by Louisa Gilder, "Quantum Leap," of Graham Farmelo's recent biography, The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom.
In my heart of hearts, I still have a soft spot for the history of science, and vividly recall reading John Heilbron's biography of Max Planck, which I read and discussed with John himself since he was one of my professors at Berkeley, so I sent John a note about the Dirac book:
You might be already aware of this review and the book, too, but just in case you've not seen either, I've pasted the review and a link below.John replied:
I'm reminded of your book on Max Planck, which likewise brings a rigorous man of science alive. Dirac seems a whole lot odder -- some suggestion that he might have been autistic, it seems.
Thank you very much for the reference, which my wife also fished out of the torrent of information that passes me by every day.When I first met John, I thought that he himself was interested mostly in the numbers. He had been working on a doctorate in physics when he switched over to history of science under the influence of Thomas Kuhn (who included an acknowledgement to John in his famous book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). But John turned out to be much more than a numbers man, as his book on Planck shows.
I once lectured to an audience that included Dirac. I showed a few tables that illustrated something or another, easily the dullest part of the talk. He showed interest only in the numbers.
In fact, John is the man who informed me of how I could switch my dissertation topic from history of science to early Christianity while still, technically, remaining a doctoral student in his program . . . though that may have simply been his most opportune moment for getting rid of me since I was clearly not best suited for history of science. At any rate, I've forever been profoundly grateful to the man.
For an interesting interview with John, see the You Tube video on "Science and History," from the series Conversations with History, hosted by Harry Kreisler, in UC Berkeley's Institute of International Studies.