*Physicist Paul Dirac (August 8, 1902--October 20, 1984) Photo: www.nobelprize.org *

October 20 marks the 37th death anniversary of the great physicist Paul Dirac. In order to write a reasonably sophisticated post about him I have been re-reading about his extraordinary work. Albert Einstein had described Dirac's work as “the most logically perfect presentation of quantum mechanics”.

One immediate difficulty that I have run into for over four and half decades of having read on these grand cerebral themes of physics such as quantum mechanics is that while I completely understand the language, I struggle to understand the concepts that the language describes. There are great moments of lucid comprehension of what is being said by these cerebral giants of our world but that vanishes quickly. The passage of time has not particularly improved my comprehension.

The way I understand is that between 1905, when Einstein gave us the Theory of Relativity and the 1920s when Quantum Mechanics was pioneered Isaac Newton's mechanics was shown not to work both for matter moving at speeds approaching the speed of light (Relativity) as well as at microscopic levels where particles such electrons move very rapidly (Quantum Mechanics). That is the area where Dirac's genius blossomed.

As his Nobel Prize biography of 1933 describes, "The importance of Dirac’s work lies essentially in his famous wave equation, which introduced special relativity into (Erwin) Schrödinger’s equation. Taking into account the fact that, mathematically speaking, relativity theory and quantum theory are not only distinct from each other, but also oppose each other, Dirac’s work could be considered a fruitful reconciliation between the two theories."

Incidentally, Schrödinger shared the 1933 Nobel with Dirac.

To come to my original point about understanding the language of what these giants say but not even reasonably comprehending the substance of it has been a problem for me all my adult life. I certainly understand way better than the average Joe or the average Chhaganbhai but that comprehension is so middling that it frustrates me. In my older years, I have made peace with the fact that getting the full measure of what these brilliant minds tell us will always elude me.

When one reads papers by any of these grandees of physics one feels terribly left out and one also feels like an interloper separated by a 100 percent transparent but impenetrable glass wall. It is not a ceiling for me; it is a wall.

I will, of course, produce something reasonably clever on Dirac's death anniversary on October 20 but I would do so acutely aware that I am just being glib.