16 September 2011
Paul Dirac was born in Bristol, England, in 1902. Despite later notability for his work in theoretical physics, the original extent of his study was electrical engineering. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering in 1921. In 1926, he obtained his Ph.D. in mathematics from St. John’s College at Cambridge. This proved to be a productive course of study as “Dirac's work has been concerned with the mathematical and theoretical aspects of quantum mechanics” (Paul), rather than conducting experiments.
Before receiving his Ph.D., Dirac had already gained notoriety as a researcher. “It is remarkable that Dirac had eleven papers in print before submitting his doctoral dissertation” (O’Connor). He published a series of papers concerning both quantum mechanics and relativity, culminating in his 1930 theory of holes. This theory predicted the existence of a particle having the same mass as an electron with the same magnitude of charge, though positive rather than negative. This particle, dubbed the “positron”, was found in practice two years later in an experiment done by physicist C.D. Anderson, validating Dirac’s expectation.
Perhaps Dirac’s greatest contribution to modern physics is the Dirac equation, which describes fermions (such as protons, neutrons, and electrons) in a way that reflects both quantum mechanics and special relativity. The Dirac equation is essentially a modified form of the Schrödinger equation, developed years earlier by Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger. Under the Schrödinger equation, there were inconsistencies between relativity and quantum mechanics. In the view of the Nobel Prize biographers, “Dirac's work could be considered a fruitful reconciliation between the two theories.”
Dirac’s litany of awards includes his inductions into the Royal Society in 1930, into the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1961, and his reception of the Royal, Copley, and Max Planck Medals....