Graham Farmelo “The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius”

“The strangest man” – this is how Paul Dirac was thought of by many of his friends and this how the great physicist’s biography, “The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius”, authored by Graham Farmelo, is entitled. Pathologically reticent and introverted, almost autistic, and at the same time a genius compared by his contemporaries to Newton and Einstein – this is how the author portrays him, leading us through Dirac’s life, from his unhappy family life, through the “golden 1920s” of 20th century physics, when quantum mechanics was born, to mature life and decline, when the applauded physicist retired from mainstream physics.

It is not uncommon for mathematicians and physicists to exhibit, to some extent, character traits typical of autism or its milder version, Asperger syndrome: narrow and obsessive interests, social ineptness, poor empathy, preference for predictable situation, literal-mindedness, visual thinking. While the borderline between “Asperger” and only “more nerdy than the norm” is not clear cut, Dirac demonstrated the whole range of autistic syndromes; “Dirac stories” concerning his peculiar or eccentric behavior were widely circulated among his friends. While it is not clear whether these traits were innate or shaped by his upringing (despotic father and overbearing mother), without doubt autistic-type mind strongly influenced, positively and negatively, his scientific output and style of doing physics.

A main figure in the foundations of quantum mechanics, Dirac shone as a very young star, similar to other creators of quantum theory (Born, Heisenberg, Jordan, Pauli, and Schroedinger and Bohr from the older generation), who brought about the revolution before they were even 30. It is safe to say that late 1920s and early 1930s were the “Golden Age” of 20th century physics, when the progress was lightning-fast and new discoveries lay like low-hanging fruits. In the 1940s Dirac commented bitterly, in view of problems quantum field theory was having at the time: “Then, a second-rate physicist could do first-rate work – now, it takes a first-rate physicist to do second-rate work”. Every physicist would love to live in such “interesting times”, when a new unexplored scientific territory opens up. However, the times were also “interesting” in the political sense, which, especially in Germany, did not bode well. For me, the period when quantum mechanics emerged remains the paradigm of “golden youth”, later overshadowed by dark clouds, both in science (when devising quantum field theory proved much more challenging than pioneer discoveries) and individual life, when politics and history divided erstwhile friends: Pyotr Kapitsa was imprisoned in Soviet Union, Bohr and Schroedinger fled Germany, Heisenberg worked for Hitler on nuclear bomb, Oppenheimer directed the Manhattan Project, finally, Ehrenfest shot himself.

The apex of Dirac’s brilliant career comes in the Nobel Prize of 1933. Soon afterwards Dirac marries Wigner’s sister and starts a family. Receiving the prize makes Dirac wonder whether he too will be afflicted by “Nobel disease”, the feeling that after the Nobel Prize, the best years are gone and it will be only downhill from then. Sadly, this is what happened to Dirac – after his groundbreaking work he never made a comparable contribution to theoretical physics. He wasted his talent, struggling to construct field theory not marred by infinities (he rejected renormalization as abhorrent), trying his luck in cosmology and relativity, where did not score major successes, and finally drifted away from the mainstream, remaining isolated from the new discoveries in particle physics.

Looking for reasons of Dirac’s decline, the first candidate would be his approach to physics, based on “top-down” approach, where one starts from elegant mathematical structure and uses it to predict experimental facts, as opposed to “bottom-up” methodology, fitting the theory to known experimental results. Dirac’s style brought dazzling outcomes when, based on purely mathematical considerations, he found the relativistic equation describing the electron, which predicted the existence of antimatter, found experimentally within years of his audacious prediction. Later on, however, attempts at developing relativistic theory based solely on mathematical beauty led nowhere and lead was taken by physicists inspired mostly by experimental discoveries. Dirac never acknowledged any other method than seeking beautiful theories, whose correspondence to reality was only a secondary consequence, so he never came to terms with renormalization, at best a sort of patch on quantum field theory – however, his efforts to build field theory purely axiomatically eventually failed.

Regrettably, some part of Dirac’s failures could be blamed simply on psychology and life events – after starting a family he had, naturally, less time for work and after first successes he could have, even unconsciously, rested on laurels, knowing he had already secured a foremost place in the pantheon of great physicists (or, brutally speaking, got old, since blunting of one’s ambition is the first symptom of senility). Moreover, Dirac shared his ideas very reluctantly, a true loner – without intellectual contact with peers, even the greates genius might eventually burn out. It is unfortunate that even though after marriage Dirac opened up to people around him and led a life more balanced than from the time of his obsessive work on quantum mechanics, he almost grew more passive, satisfied with his family and social position.

A closer look at Farmelo’s book provokes a few questions. When describing relationships between physicists, the author pays much attention to competition, yearning for prestige and acclaim, oneupmanship etc. It is interesting whether the prevalence of such motivations is common to all men or stems from the fact that at the time, physics was a male occupation – the academic community, as well as e.g. the political system, ran by women could look entirely different. For a long time I’ve been puzzled what makes mountain hiking and climbing so popular among physicists – Dirac was an avid climber and I feel that this popularity of climbing is not just a coincidence or subjective feeling. Also, studying the origins of quantum mechanics invites the question of describing the dynamics and structure of newly emerging scientific fields as well as factors which contribute to scientists’ achievements and failures in given time and place – although it is debatable whether the history of science up to now yields any discernible patterns (on the individual level – how to choose the most promising field, on the social plane – how to create an environment fostering the qualitative development of science).

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Robert Caro “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York”

New York at the dawn of 20th century – a city deep in administrative chaos and corruption, where an orderly budget is quite a recent invention, party bosses from Tamanny Hall wield absolute power and everything, from a janitor’s job to electing the city administration and million dollar contracts, rests upon connection, palm-greasing and loyalty to the (Democratic) Party. In such political reality one Robert Moses – the governor’s young advisor – carves out for himself a seemingly unimportant niche, construction of public parks. 30 years later the niche had grown into a sprawling empire, and his creator – into a despotic emperor. On the space of over 1000 pages Robert Caro depicts the biography of a man who, thanks to his creativity, genius, lust for power and utter lack of morals, rose from an ordinary clerk to the ruler of New York, the eponymous “power broker”, man who controlled mayors, built bridges, cut the city with expressways, welcomed tributes and crushed his enemies, transforming New York to his whim.

Moses began his career as an enthusiastic, almost dogmatic idealist, faithful to the idea of honest administration and professional civil service free from political pressure. Hired by a reform-minded mayor to fix the New York administration, which he finds in miserable condition, Moses single-handedly devises an all-encompassing reform plan, promising the New York a modern and efficient civil service. The plan gets scrapped – the mayor loses fight with the “Tamanny Hall tiger”, and embittered Moses ends up without a job. This first lesson – that even the most idealistic plan is useless if not backed by political clout and real, tangible power – soon bears fruit. Connections secure Moses the position of advisor to the New York governor, Al Smith, where he quickly learns the nuts and bolts of political play. Smith orders Moses to oversee the construction of public parks, which the New York’s population desperately needs. Moses’ genius transforms this post, to a regular clerk nothing more than an administrative chore, into the foundation of his future “state within a state”, an institution completely independent, politically and financially, from the public opinion, voters subsequent mayors and governors.

From the very beginning Moses demonstrates an exceptional talent and creative energy. His minds constantly springs with ideas of new public projects – huge parks, gigantic bridges and freeways – designed in meticulous detail, each and every one of them almost a work of art. The grandeur of his vision makes architects and engineers doubt its practicality, but for Moses nothing is impossible. He works incessantly, morning to midnight, building with lightning speed, almost obsessively. During Moses’ reign New York overshadows, in terms of number and scope of public projects, every other state – architects and constructors from all around the world come to New York to learn the “Moses’ method” at his feet.

Enormous public projects would have been impossible without the second kind of genius, which Moses had in abundance. His extraordinary talent with politics and bureaucracy, allowing him to find ways of extending his power in ostensibly peripheral places, shows early on, during his studies, when Moses, rejected as a Jew by social elite, creates a niche in academic community, running his own literary journal. Soon he becomes known as “the best bill drafter in Albany” – using manipulation, legal deception and downright fraud, he transforms the post of park administrator into an independent center of power. Blessed with irresistible charm, he skillfully exploits people using disinformation, lies and any dirty trick to make real his ideal of power – absolute, concealed from the public and responsible to no one.

Moses was a born despot. The first dose of real power – a true drug, and Moses was a user – liberates him from any idealism he once had, as well as morality. At first power serves only as means to an end, “getting things done” and making his visions come real, but soon it becomes an end in itself. Moses tolerates no dissent, destroys his opponents completely and with undeniable joy, often ruining careers for even moderate criticism. Whoever opposed Moses, no matter how brilliant an engineer he was, could be sure that he would never find job in New York again. Moses would resort to all sort of foul play, from false insinuations to accusations of Communist sympathies (a deadly weapon in the 30s), to crush his opponent. His critics derided him as “the most unethical man in the US” and his political system – the most corrupt political machine New York ever witnessed (Moses himself boasted that “nothing I have ever done was tainted by legality”).

The only criterion Moses uses to decide where and what to build is his own personal vision. Needs of New York’s residents matter only as far as they fit his schemes. Thus, he would split Bronx with a gigantic highway, resulting in urban decay and destruction of many prospering neighborhoods, whose residents had to resettle in slum areas. He wouldn’t hesitate to tear down a neighborhood to avoid building road through some influential businessman or politician’s lot. While in the beginnings of his career Moses was lauded by the public opinion (he was the only person who could build parks and roads fast enough to meet the city’s needs), later he was a classical example of a despot isolated from reality. Surrounded by loyal sycophants, he forced projects deaf to rational arguments, acting on whim; he builds more and more roads, even when it became clear that only mass transit and subway can alleviate nightmarish traffic jams. Always despising lower classes, he rejects plans for buses and public transport, intentionally building viaducts low enough so that buses would not be pass through (!).

Moses’ success would not have been possible without the sympathy from media and public opinion. In his early years, when Moses and his superiors needed voters’ support, he created his reputation of an independent, incorruptible civil servant, above politics and money (indeed, he never received salary), man who fought inefficient bureaucracy and got things done (making sure not to reveal his methods). When building parks made him famous, idealist and reformers knowing him from the past considered him “one of us”, long after he shed his old ideals. Up to 1950s nobody had challenged the myth of Moses the brilliant politician, Moses the savior – later, when the facade began to fade, he was powerful enough to ignore the press and the public. His decline and fall from power in the 1960s was brought about not by any democratic process, but by Nelson Rockefeller – a man as ruthless and powerful as Moses himself.

Although Robert Caro tries to describe Moses’ life as impartially as possible, it is hard not to feel disgust towards the book’s main character and his methods. Moses’ style and concept of power – authoritarian, based on secrecy and deception – does not align with any democratic, or even quasi-democratic, standard purportedly present in USA. Combined with grandeur of his visions, Moses would feel much more at home in Soviet Union during Stalin’s reign. “The Power Broker” is a brilliant (and extremely well written) treatise on technology of acquiring and exercising political power – in this respect, it is on a par with other positions from my “handbook of politics” (including “The Wire” and David Halberstam‘s books).

A minor shortcoming of the book is that Caro fails to convincingly explain how it was possible for the “Moses myth” to pass unchallenged for over 30 years, even though the press was relatively independent of his influence (although he had personal connections with the owners of “New York Times”, which often served as propaganda tool). If the public opinion had become aware of his schemings, Moses’ career would have certainly broken or at least come to halt. Since Caro does not mention any cases of media being intimidated or manipulated, the blame is on the public (for whom parks were more important than legality or morality of their creator) and the press, which lacked criticism and diligence (with the exception of a group of brave journalists uncovering Moses’ wrongdoings in the 1960s, in an effort not unlike the legendary work of Woodward and Bernstein a decade later). The book is also a bit too long (and it was abridged from over 3000 pages to a mere 1100) – Caro has a wonderful pen, but still, leaving out some one or two hundred pages would do the biography no harm.

As a side remark, I dream of a science fiction novel (even a space opera) which would describe politics, power plays etc. at the level of precision matching that of Caro or Halberstam. Most SF novels focus on technology and its consequences for individual of social life – it would be very interesting to see how SF ideas affect the political relations, style of exercising power etc. (is the “space empire”, a space-opera standard, different in structure from the court of Hajle Selasje or the bureaucratic “state within a state” of Moses?) Alas, I don’t see any authors capable of this task – apparently, it’s time to ditch mathematics and start writing….

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Jonathan Israel “A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy”

I have just finished reading a book drawn from Cosma Shalizi‘s recommendations: “A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy” by Jonathan Israel. About 200-odd book is a an introduction, or rather a summary, to the grand, three volume history of the Radical Enlightenment that is currently in production. The author is a historian who, apart from Enlightenment, studied e.g. European Jews and the history of Netherlands (the latter is covered in a 1200 pages long tome “The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall, 1477-1806”, which I once almost borrowed).

The main thesis of the book concerns the role that Radical Enlightenment, the intellectual movement that emerged from the French encyclopaedist group, including philosophers such as Holbach, Diderot and several less known thinkers, played in the intellectual and political life of the 18th century Europe. Emphasis is put on the impact of “revolutionary” philosophical writings that paved the road for “liberal” revolutions at the end of century – American, French and Dutch. However, the focus is not on revolutions or any particular economic and political events, treated in a rather cursory way, but on dichotomy between Enlightenment’s “mainstream” – the works of Locke, Voltaire, Hume, Kant, Montesqieu, Burke and Adam Smith, virtually all important philosophers and writers – and radical “subversives and troublemakers” (Holbach, Diderot, Thomas Paine). Calling these gentlemen “saboteurs” is not an exaggeration – their writings were at best semi-legal and their doctrine, as politically, morally and religiously dangerous, was fought by monarchs, led by the “Enlightened king” Frederick the Great, and ancien regime’s intellectual henchmen, with Voltaire as ringleader, blistering the radicals for amorality and atheism (Voltaire himself subscribed to a variant of deism which today would be termed “intelligent design”).

I found quite surprising that ideas we usually associate with “Enlightenment values” – democracy and abolishment of monarchy, repealing class privileges, equality before law, religious tolerance, personal freedom, restraining monarchs’ powers, anticlericalism, pacifism, ethical universalism – were clung to in their full extent only by a small bunch of thinkers who were considered dangerous radicals. Most intellectualists, including individuals as acclaimed as Voltaire and Kant, were content with the “soft version” of Enlightenment, i.e. appealing for more religious equality, restricted democracy and regulating international affairs, but with the political and economical system left intact (including class inequalities, dominance of aristocracy and clergy etc.) A thoroughly conservative position. Only a few subversives – outside France gathered in underground secret societies (e.g. the Illuminati in Germany) – urged to oppose the marriage of throne and altar, censorship and religious discrimination, vowed for democratization of public life. Ideas we now take to be the foundation of democratic society were treated by almost all rulers and intellectualists (including fathers of modern economy – Adam Smith and Anne Turgot) as perilous and subversive.

As interesting as the content is, the book suffers from verbosity and at times wanders off into generalities. Nonetheless, it presents an interesting angle on history of ideas we now take for granted, and of course provides lots of “to read/learn” fodder (the French Revolution, history of 18th century America and Netherlands).

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