Paul Dirac

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PeterTurland
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Paul Dirac

Post by PeterTurland » Tue Dec 13, 2011 6:31 pm

Hello,

Somewhere or other on the 'Net, I read of a good biography of Dirac, so after paying my Amazon reading tax, I downloaded it onto my Kindle, fascinating, he was one of the fathers of the atomic bomb on the engineering side. He was also a chess player, I've just read a startling bit in terms of one of his quotes, one of the hardest things about quantum mechanics is describing it in a non mathematical sense, for the likes of me, because I'm sort of mathematically illiterate having left school at 15.

Well it is post WWII and he is in India and a big crowd assembled to hear him speak, so rarely for him, he used metaphor to describe quantum mathematics instead of equations. This is what he said.

"When you ask what are electrons and protons I ought to answer that this question is not a profitable one to ask and does not really have a meaning. The important thing about electrons and protons is not what they are but how they behave - how they move. I can describe the situation by comparing it to the game of chess. In chess, we have various chessmen, kings. knights, pawns and so on. If you ask what a chessman is, the answer would be that it is a piece of wood, or a piece of ivory, or perhaps just a sign written on paper, or anything whatever. It does not matter, Each chessman has a characteristic way of moving and this is all that matters about it. The whole game of chess follows from this way of moving the various chessmen."

With all the fuss about the Higgs Boson, his words give me a tiny inkling. Dirac was the instigator of 'string theory'.

His biography is called The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius.

Dr Graham Farmelo
Last edited by PeterTurland on Tue Dec 13, 2011 9:58 pm, edited 1 time in total.

John Upham
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Re: Paul Dirac

Post by John Upham » Tue Dec 13, 2011 7:26 pm

If you like the book you mention then you will enjoy:
Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman: Adventures of a Curious Character as Told to Ralph Leighton
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Ian Kingston
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Re: Paul Dirac

Post by Ian Kingston » Tue Dec 13, 2011 8:26 pm

John Upham wrote:If you like the book you mention then you will enjoy:
Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman: Adventures of a Curious Character as Told to Ralph Leighton
A superb book. Feynman also used a chess analogy to explain how we investigate the laws of physics - it's in this short video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Onz-H4NBILY

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Paolo Casaschi
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Re: Paul Dirac

Post by Paolo Casaschi » Wed Dec 14, 2011 10:16 am

PeterTurland wrote:"When you ask what are electrons and protons I ought to answer that this question is not a profitable one to ask and does not really have a meaning. The important thing about electrons and protons is not what they are but how they behave - how they move. I can describe the situation by comparing it to the game of chess. In chess, we have various chessmen, kings. knights, pawns and so on. If you ask what a chessman is, the answer would be that it is a piece of wood, or a piece of ivory, or perhaps just a sign written on paper, or anything whatever. It does not matter, Each chessman has a characteristic way of moving and this is all that matters about it. The whole game of chess follows from this way of moving the various chessmen."
O wonder how effective such an analogy actually was.
I mean, he was in India, where chess was not much popular at the time, facing a crowd coming to hear his speech, so you can assume some basic knowledge of physics: are we sure his audience had a better understanding of pawns and Bishops than of protons and electrons?
:wink:

PeterTurland
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Re: Paul Dirac

Post by PeterTurland » Wed Dec 14, 2011 8:23 pm

Paolo Casaschi wrote:
PeterTurland wrote:"When you ask what are electrons and protons I ought to answer that this question is not a profitable one to ask and does not really have a meaning. The important thing about electrons and protons is not what they are but how they behave - how they move. I can describe the situation by comparing it to the game of chess. In chess, we have various chessmen, kings. knights, pawns and so on. If you ask what a chessman is, the answer would be that it is a piece of wood, or a piece of ivory, or perhaps just a sign written on paper, or anything whatever. It does not matter, Each chessman has a characteristic way of moving and this is all that matters about it. The whole game of chess follows from this way of moving the various chessmen."
O wonder how effective such an analogy actually was.
I mean, he was in India, where chess was not much popular at the time, facing a crowd coming to hear his speech, so you can assume some basic knowledge of physics: are we sure his audience had a better understanding of pawns and Bishops than of protons and electrons?

:wink:
Mm where do I start?

I'm an autodidact, I teach myself this gives me advantages, and handicaps. One of my handicaps is no one takes me seriously including me. I have the analysis habit, simply put, I analyses everything I come across, my daughter puts it thus "dad why don't you make small talk?" I'm too busy analyzing is my answer.

Describing the universe accurately is incredibly difficult. Mathematics is one tool and language is another.

Both tools have their advantages and failings, it is far harder to lie with math, whereas with language it is part and parcel for some folk. Some people have the amazing ability to lie to themselves!

As far as my somewhat limited vision can see, all words are labels, in describing stuff. We can describe something's. form, function or dynamic of change.

The thing that comes across via Dirac's biography is that he was notoriously taciturn, yet he finds himself in India, a world famous physicist at a loss, before an adoring audience, so he resorts to a chess metaphor, a form of symbolic language that he obviously took pleasure from.

Voila, I took pleasure from his use of this metaphor, because I can now make a teeny bit more sense, of the nonsense of quantum mechanics. I'm afraid the number of Indians standing there with their mouths open, because they had no concept of chess, leaves me with little sympathy.

But in terms of trying to make some kind of sense of what seems a crazy world, I bunged into Google the terms chess and physicists and found this gem.

http://blog.chess.com/billwall/physicists-and-chess

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Matt Mackenzie
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Re: Paul Dirac

Post by Matt Mackenzie » Wed Dec 14, 2011 9:06 pm

Paolo Casaschi wrote:I mean, he was in India, where chess was not much popular at the time, facing a crowd coming to hear his speech, so you can assume some basic knowledge of physics: are we sure his audience had a better understanding of pawns and Bishops than of protons and electrons?
:wink:
The "Western" form of chess, possibly not. But that is far from the whole story, of course..........
"Set up your attacks so that when the fire is out, it isn't out!" (H N Pillsbury)

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John Clarke
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Re: Paul Dirac

Post by John Clarke » Mon Dec 19, 2011 8:44 pm

PeterTurland wrote:Mathematics is one tool and language is another.
There are those, including me, who regard mathematics as a language - a highly compressed and symbolic one that describes complex relationships between numerical quantities. Having said which, I can still enjoy Nigel Molesworth's remarks on the subject! (See pp 88-89 of How To Be Topp).
"The chess-board is the world ..... the player on the other side is hidden from us ..... he never overlooks a mistake, or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance."
(He doesn't let you resign and start again, either.)

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