How can equations be beautiful? Graham Farmelo discusses Nobel Prize winner Paul Dirac’s life and achievements.
Paul Dirac rose from a modest background to the pinnacle to modern science.
Farmelo describes it as a bleak upbringing, with a strong emphasis on education and strict disciplinarian as a father.
At Cambridge, engineer turned physicist Dirac began producing “a beautiful vision of quantum mechanics”. Farmelo describes his papers as having “the perfection of Shakespeare sonnet”.
His breakthrough came with the Dirac equation, which combined quantum mechanics with special relativity to understand the behaviour of the electron. For Farmelo “a beautiful unity between two subjects.”
Dirac married his imagination and mathematics to predict the existence of anti-matter, the discovery that later won him the Nobel prize.
Formelo finds great beauty in the perfection of Dirac’s equation. He says an equation has “a power and compactness like great poetry. A great equation is the most highly charged form of mathematical science. It all fits perfectly together like a Rubiks cube; you can’t change it at all.”
On Dirac's gravestone was written: “because God made it so” suggesting sympathy with religion. But Farmelo argues this was his wife’s influence and that although his views softened in later life, Dirac was fiercely against religion.
Dirac’s own religion was simple: “Man can and must improve”. Seeing God’s will at odds with his science, he could not believe in miracles, “because if they happened,it would break the beauty of universal equations.”
First broadcast 22/01/10
John Higgs is the author of I Have America Surrounded: The Life of Timothy Leary, The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band Who Burned a Million Pounds, and the novel The Brandy of the Damned.
His latest book is Stranger Than We Can Imagine: Making Sense of the Twentieth Century.
Michela Wrong is a distinguished international journalist, and has worked as a foreign correspondent covering events across the African continent for Reuters, the BBC and the Financial Times.
She writes regularly for Foreign Policy magazine and the Spectator. Her first book, In the Footsteps of Mr Kurtz, based on her experiences in Africa her first book, won the PEN James Sterne Prize for non-fiction.
Her book I Didn’t Do It for You focuses on Eritrea, and It’s Our Turn to Eat tells the story of John Githongo, a Kenyan whistle-blower. Borderlines is her first novel.
Petina Gappah is a Zimbabwean writer with law degrees from Cambridge, Graz University and the University of Zimbabwe. Her debut story collection, An Elegy for Easterly, won the Guardian First Book Prize in 2009. Her debut novel is The Book of Memory.
Alok Jha is a journalist and broadcaster based in London. He is science correspondent for ITN and, before that, was science correspondent at the Guardian.
He has presented science programmes for BBC2 and BBC Radio 4. Alok received a science-writing award from the American Institute of Physics in 2014, was named European Science Writer of the year in 2008, and has been shortlisted for feature writer of the year at the annual Association of British Science Writers awards.
He is the author of How to Live Forever and The Doomsday Handbook, and his latest is The Water Book.
Helen Scales is a marine biologist, freelance researcher and broadcaster. She appears regularly on BBC Radio 4, Sky News and the BBC World Service, and has presented documentaries on topics such as whether people will ever live underwater, the science of making and surfing waves and the intricacies of sharks' minds.
Her doctorate involved searching for giant endangered fish in Borneo; she's also tagged sharks in California, and once spent a year cataloguing all the marine life she could find surrounding a hundred islands in the Andaman Sea. She is the author of a book about seahorses, Poseidon’s Steed, and her latest book is Spirals in Time: The Secret Life and Curious Afterlife of Seashells.
“The responsibility of the novelist is to be irresponsible. You do what you want, the more you upset the better”.
As a writer Howard Jacobson finds great joy in being offensive. He argues that one of the ways comedy works is to cleanse the system, “you laugh at the things you should not laugh at. You have to have a moment you break everything you believe in”.
Racist comedy too has its place, “comedy is a place you go, some of the time, to be absolutely vile. And if you aren’t going to go, where are you going to go?”
But it is part of the novelist's job never to push an ideology. Jacobson argues the first thing you must do is to overcome what you believe and that “to do so is a great aesthetic leap.”
On the question of limits, most of the time Jacobson would argue “tough, read something else” but admits that he sometimes he does censor himself. “Demonstrably bad taste is corny; you can tell when someone is trying to hard.”
“Our sense of humour is part of our sense of intelligence. If we are solemn and tip toe around it, we deny the best part of our minds the chance to deal with the most horrible thing that ever happened.”
First broadcast on 14th December 2007
Jonathan Meades is a writer, journalist, essayist and filmmaker. His books include three works of fiction - Filthy English, Pompey and The Fowler Family Business - and several anthologies including the recently published Museum Without Walls. His latest book is An Encyclopaedia of Myself. He has written and performed in more than 50 television shows on predominantly topographical subjects such as shacks, garden cities, megastructures, buildings associated with vertigo, beer, pigs and the architecture of Hitler and Stalin. His most recent show was Bunkers, Brutalism, Bloodymindedness: Concrete Poetry, Some of these are available on The Jonathan Meades Collection DVD. See also the YouTube channel MeadesShrine. He lives in Marseille. Jonathan has been our guest on Little Atoms eight times.
“Everything that is done or written is done by someone who is half a chromosome away from being a chimpanzee. It’s not going to be any better than that.”
In this episode of Little Atoms, Christopher Hitchens explores the dangers of mans tendency towards religion and our attitudes to freedom. The ultimate fight, he argues, is against censorship.
Man created God, God didn’t create man. Hitchens describes this creation as an ineradicable problem that humanity cannot solve.
Religion takes advantage of our bad wiring and selfishness. We would be better off if we grew out of it, but until we give up wishful thinking and our fear of death, it is impossible”.
Although religion is an incurable affliction, Hitchens argues that western leaders must not dismiss the threat posed by it.
“The possible interception of messianic ideas with apocalyptic weaponry is increasingly something to be worried about.”
Our predisposition towards order and security undermines our struggle for liberty. For Hitchens, this explains why liberation struggles are so rare and so unsatisfactory.
“Most people, most of the time, have no great desire to be free. We would rather have the trouble of putting up with oppression rather than having the trouble of throwing it off.”
With the threat posed by religion and our apathy towards liberty, Hitchens believes the ultimate enemy we face is censorship. Hitchens argues that all things associated with enlightenment are worth dying for. He describes the struggle against censorship as “a fight that can be won but certainly one that cannot be lost”.
First broadcast 08/06/07
Adam Rutherford is a geneticist, writer and broadcaster, whose work includes the award-winning series The Cell (BBC4), The Gene Code (BBC4), Horizon: 'Playing God' (BBC2) as well as numerous programmes for BBC Radio 4 such as the recently launched Inside Science. Previously an editor at the science journal Nature, Adam often writes for the Guardian and has given numerous prestigious lectures, as well as appearing in the 'Uncaged Monkeys' tour. His first book is Creation: The Origin of Life/The Future of Life.
Interview one first broadcast on 16th October 2009.
Interview two first broadcast on 12th July 2013.
Charlotte Higgins studied Classics at Balliol College, Oxford and is the Guardian's chief arts writer. She is the author of a number of books, including Latin Love Lessons and It's All Greek to Me. Her latest is Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain, which was shortlisted for the 2013 Samuel Johnson Prize. Also this week, writer Seth Mnookin on the Richard Stark "Parker" novels.
First broadcast on 12th April 2014.
Aarathi Prasad is a biologist and science writer. She has appeared on TV and radio programmes, including as presenter of Channel 4's controversial ‘Is It Better to Be Mixed Race?' and ‘Brave New World with Stephen Hawking', as well as BBC Radio 4's ‘The Quest for Virgin Birth', and written for Wired, the Guardian, and many other publications. Previously a cancer genetics researcher at Imperial College London, she subsequently moved into the worlds of science communication and policy, in areas including passage of the human-animal chimaera stem-cell bill in the UK Parliament. Aarathi's first book is Like a Virgin: How Science is Redesigning the Rules of Sex.
First broadcast on 12th October 2012.