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Arbie's Unoriginally Titled Book Blog

It's a blog! Mainly of book reviews.

Currently reading

Armageddon Outta Here
Derek Landy
Progress: 74/479 pages
V for Vendetta
David Lloyd, Alan Moore
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Woken Furies
Richard K. Morgan
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Introduction to Topology
Bert Mendelson
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A Student's Guide to Lagrangians and Hamiltonians
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Complete Poems, 1904-1962
E.E. Cummings
Progress: 166/1102 pages
The Complete Plays and Poems
E.D. Pendry, J.C. Maxwell, Christopher Marlowe
She Stoops to Conquer and Other Comedies (Oxford World's Classics)
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Progress: 164/448 pages

The Strangest Man, Graham Farmelo

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life Of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius - Graham Farmelo

The number of "if"s, "may"s, "probably"s and "likely"s in this book is alarming; the author speculates with a frequency that in the end (actually less than half way through, for me) undermines this detailed, comprehensive biography of one of the most influential and under-appreciated humans of all history.Biography is surely supposed to be factual. Forever filling in gaps with one's own guesses as to the subjects thoughts, actions and words is not helpful,it's misleading. This flaw really damages what could have been a definitive biography.


Since Dirac is not at all famous outside the physics community, I will mention why I think this is a travesty and redress the problem to a tiny extent: Your life has been root-and-branch influenced by Dirac's work. Yes, he was a Professor of theoretical physics working in a notoriously abstract, abstruse and just plain difficult field (quantum mechanics) that you may feel has nothing to do with your daily life - but you would be wrong if you think that. I know this because you simply would not be reading this without humanity having grasped the theory of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics underpins all of solid-state electronics - everything that makes modern computers, phones and the world wide web function would not be possible without it. You would not be reading this without the understanding of the world Dirac made such enormous contributions to. Heard of anti-matter? Dirac predicted its existence. Dirac's work underlies all our fundamental theories of how matter behaves; "particle physics", "the Standard Model", "Quantum Field Theory", whatever labels you might have heard it given, it is extra-ordinary the extent to which our current approaches to it relies on the work of Dirac. Quantum Mechanics has had more effect on modern society than any physical theory since the classical electromagnetism of the 19th Century that allowed for the distribution of power and lighting by electricity. Dirac has had more practical influence than any other 20th Century scientist - in my view he beats Einstein by a distance in this regard, despite Einstein's own contributions to the quantum revolution and the ever increasing importance of General Relativity to our daily lives. (Your car satnav couldn't work without GR).


Having mentioned Einstein leads me to why I'm reading about Dirac: if you've been paying attention to my reviews of late you will have noticed that I am retrospectively trying to determine whether Darwin, Einstein and Dirac were autistic, in preparation for a talk I am giving in July about the influence of autism on science and society. I concluded that both Darwin and Einstein had some form of autism. I have also concluded that Dirac was autistic. The evidence is overwhelming, even stronger than is the case for Einstein, which I found very compelling. The evidence in Darwin's case is weaker, but for me ultimately convincing. Now consider the impact those three people have had on the contemporary educated person's life, society and world-view. That's what autism has done.


Farmelo devotes a chapter towards the end of this book to the theory that Dirac was autistic. I caution readers about this chapter. It is heavily influenced by the views of two people who have each contributed to hugely inaccurate public misconceptions of what autism is and how autistic people think: Simon Baron Cohen and Temple Grandin.

Taking Baron Cohen first: he not only perpetuates the utterly false notion that autistic people lack empathy but whilst doing so re-enforces negative stereotypes about sex and gender using arguments and deceptions that don't so much break scientific ethics as atomise them. Temple Grandin, herself autistic, has repeatedly made the mistake of assuming that all autistic minds work in exactly the same way. Most famously, she assumed that, because she is a visual thinker, all autistic people must be visual thinkers and that this is a distinguishing feature, separating neurotypicals from autistic folk. When a tsunami of evidence that, to the contrary, not all autistic people think that way and a lot of neurotypical people do think visually crashed down upon her, she graciously accepted her error - but the misconception persists in the public mind and she's made similar errors about autistic thinking based on exactly the same false principle that if she's autistic and thinks in a particular way, all autistic people must do so.

Farmelo's chapter also perpetuates the notion that autistic people are emotionless; nothing could be further from the truth. The consensus view is that a fundamental aspect of autism is the inability to regulate emotion. This explains, for example, the tendency for autistic people to have "meltdowns" which are clearly an expression of extreme emotion.


Overall, then, this thoroughly researched biography is flawed by a lack of truly rigorous honesty, without actually outright falsifying anything, and a foray into psychological theory which is superficial and perpetuates numerous fallacious negative stereotypes about autism. This is a great shame because Dirac and the reading public deserve better.