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Koh Aik Khoon
Picture shows Paul Dirac (L) and Richard Feynman. Dirac was extremely taciturn while Feynman was noisy and boisterous. Dirac was shy and not a skirt chaser while Feynman was outgoing and flirtatious. Both however, were great physicists in their own right. — Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia
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IN terms of character and temperament, Paul Dirac (co-winner of the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physics) and Richard Feynman (co-winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics) were an antithesis of each other.
Dirac was extremely taciturn while Feynman was noisy and boisterous. Dirac was shy and not a skirt chaser while Feynman was outgoing and flirtatious.
Both, however, were great physicists in their own right.
Dirac had an equation named after him. Feynman had no equation to his credit but his squiggly graphical representations of interactions between elementary particles and photons are called Feynman diagrams.They are not in the league of physics equations.
What happened when the two superstars met? Were there any interactions at all? Did they in the worst case scenario avoid each other?
They met in the autumn of 1961 at the Solvay meeting. In the book The Strangest Man by Graham Farmelo, both of them, according to the author, had the following Pinter-esque exchanges:
Feynman: I am Feynman.
Dirac: I am Dirac. [Silence]
Feynman: (Admiringly) It must have been wonderful to be the discoverer of that equation.
Dirac: That was a long time ago. [Pause]
(Editor’s Note: The equation was formulated in 1928)
Dirac: What are you working on?
Dirac: Are you trying to discover an equation for them?
Feynman: It is very hard.
Dirac: (Concluding) One must try.
From this conversation, one could see that Feynman adored Dirac for his work.
He wanted to be close to him, that’s why he broke the ice. Knowing Dirac as a shy man, he knew how to draw Dirac out of his shell by highlighting his achievement.
Surprisingly, it was Dirac who had the last word. Feynman showed measured deference.
As a matter of interest, Dirac, via his work had proposed the possible existence of magnetic monopole. Wolfgang Pauli (1945 Nobel laureate in Physics) ever so caustic had dubbed him the “Monopoleon”.
Brain Clegg in his book 30-Second Quantum Theory reported that in another occasion when Dirac and Feynman met, the former appeared more condescending.
Dirac asked Feynman point blank: “I have an equation, do you have one, too?”
We know from Graham Farmelo that Dirac had never ever nominated Feynman for a Nobel Prize. He did not nominate any of his Cambridge colleagues either.
The only one he had ever nominated was his Russian friend, Pyotor Kapitz, who was the co-winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics.
*Dr Koh Aik Khoon is a Fellow of the Institute of Physics Malaysia. After he began writing for a local daily in 1988, he never looked back. His topics are mainly on Science and Higher Education. He has humanised top scientists like Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Paul Dirac, Stephen Hawking, among others, in his pieces. Some of his articles have been compiled into a book entitled ‘Musing from the Ivory Tower’.