Paul Dirac

Black and white photograph of a moustached caucasian man in a dark suit.
Paul Dirac, circa 1933. Public Domain

English theoretical physicist Paul Dirac is known for a wide range of contributions to quantum mechanics, particularly to formalizing the mathematical concepts and techniques needed to make the principles internally consistent. Paul Dirac was awarded the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physics, together with Erwin Schrodinger, "for the discovery of new productive forms of atomic theory."

General Information

  • Full name: Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac
  • Born: August 8, 1902, in Bristol, England
  • Married: Margit "Manci" Wigner, 1937
  • Children: Judith & Gabriel (Margit's children whom Paul adopted) followed by Mary Elizabeth and Florence Monica.
  • Died: October 20, 1984, in Tallahasee, Florida

Early Education

He earned an engineering degree from the University of Bristol in 1921. Though he received top marks and was accepted to St. John's College in Cambridge, the scholarship of 70 pounds that he earned was insufficient to support him living in Cambridge. The depression following World War I also made it hard for him to find work as an engineer, so he decided to accept an offer to earn a bachelor's degree in mathematics at the University of Bristol.

He graduated with his degree in mathematics in 1923 and got another scholarship, which finally allowed him to move to Cambridge to begin his studies in physics, focusing on general relativity. His doctorate was earned in 1926, with the first doctoral thesis on quantum mechanics to be submitted to any university.

Major Research Contributions

Paul Dirac had a wide range of research interests and was incredibly productive in his work. His doctoral thesis in 1926 he built on the work of Werner Heisenberg and Edwin Shrodinger to introduce a new notation for the quantum wavefunction that was more analogous to previous, classical (i.e. non-quantum) methods.

Building off of this framework, he established the Dirac equation in 1928, which represented the relativistic quantum mechanical equation for the electron. One artifact of this equation was that it predicted a result describing another potential particle that seemed like it was precisely identical to an electron, but possessed a positive rather than negative electrical charge. From this result, Dirac predicted the existence of the positron, the first antimatter particle, which was then discovered by Carl Anderson in 1932.

In 1930, Dirac published his book Principles of Quantum Mechanics, which became one of the most significant textbooks on the subject of quantum mechanics for nearly a century. In addition to covering the various approaches to quantum mechanics at the time, including the work of Heisenberg and Schrodinger, Dirac also introduced the bra-ket notation that became a standard in the field and the Dirac delta function, which allowed a mathematical method for resolving the seeming discontinuities introduced by quantum mechanics in a manageable way.

Dirac also considered the existence of magnetic monopoles, with intriguing implications for quantum physics should they ever be observed to exist in nature.

To date, they have not, but his work continues to inspire physicists to seek them out.

Awards and Recognition

  • 1930 - elected a Fellow of the Royal Society
  • 1933 - Nobel Prize in Physics
  • 1939 - Royal Medal (also known as the Queen's Medal) from the Royal Society
  • 1948 - Honorary Fellow of the American Physical Society
  • 1952 - Copley Medal
  • 1952 - Max Planck Medal
  • 1969 - J. Robert Oppenheimer Memorial Prize (inaugural)
  • 1971 - Honorary Fellow of Institute of Physics, London
  • 1973 - member of the Order of Merit

Paul Dirac was once offered a knighthood, but turned it down as he did not wish to be addressed by his first name (i.e. Sir Paul).