“Pure mathematics is the poetry of logical ideas.” – Albert Einstein

Paul Dirac (1902-1984) believed that science and poetry had little in common* while his passions revealed every point of contact. He worked like a poet, silent and solitary, penciling pure numerical verses spanning from the small to galactic large, particles to stars, habitually on a folding desk the size of a school boy’s. He was famous for saying almost nothing at all (sometimes a ‘yes,’ sometimes ‘no’), but his eyes would brighten and words would flow on the topic of nature’s beauty, the elegance of the mathematical web binding our cosmos together. Beauty and symmetry, he insisted, guided him through a fog of self-doubt, a maze of magnetic fields and particle spins to the smooth fusion of special relativity with quantum theory. After three years and an epiphany, he described every electron at any speed and focused the bright chaos of the microcosm into a single equation.

iγ.∂ψ = mψ

This poem fetched him the Nobel Prize in life and in death, it was etched on his memorial stone in Westminster Abbey, nestled next to the monument of Sir Isaac Newton. Immortalized irony lies in its negative-energy, i |unit imaginary⟩, fracturing the stable stones of what Newton and the rest of us thought was real. It signaled the presence of another world in violent harmony with ours, where every particle of matter has an antiparticle of opposite charge. Dirac revealed reality to be a sea of vibrant energy, constant creation and annihilation of particle pairs, floating in-and-out of nothingness, foaming everywhere–in our brains, bodies and the far reaches of space. He used his equation as a lens to peer across this sea and glimpse the Big Bang beyond–where a cataclysm of matter-antimatter left our universe as debris. Throughout 1925-1928, as he labored on his theory, he’d often stare into his coal fireplace at Cambridge for inspiration. He was the first man to see how something comes from nothing in the flames.

The Astronaut

“Poetry is the deification of reality.” – Edith Sitwell

In 1968, Dirac discovered the film 2001: A Space Odyssey and loved it for capturing his dreams.* He watched it in the theater three times in a day, enchanted by the ending when David Bowman screams through a mind-warping vortex of pixelated lattice lines of blinding colors, star fields and nebulas, jettisoned to an unknown side of the universe. The ‘Stargate sequence’ is composed of visual poetry, ethereal symbols without words. It depicts a journey through a worm hole as well as the dreams of a man with supernaturally deep, geometric intuitions. Bowman’s original voyage was to Jupiter to investigate the Monolith, a black cuboid in its orbit. But when his |shuttle pod⟩ lands on it, he’s portaled to another galaxy, fracturing everything he thought was real. The Monolith is a symbol for what humanity has yet to discover, just like the atom was a black box before our minds pierced it with Dirac. Bowman is the first man to see an alien world insulated by quantum forces. At the film’s pinnacle of surrealism, his pod enters a star and emerges in a hotel room decorated with Enlightenment art, within a silent simulation of televised earth. He lives the rest of his human life in a matter of minutes under the hidden eyes of supreme beings–before being transformed into an interdimensional god. He has little to say in the sequel 2010, unless it’s important. After seeing what these men saw–a physicist inside the fire, an astronaut inside the star–doesn’t silence offer solace? Their ordeals of the mind were cosmic in proportion; they returned to us with something wonderful. Messages inspired by hope and beauty, wrapped with mystery. Dirac was the purest soul in physics, his colleagues said, not a trivial bone in his body. It’s no wonder he saw his shadow in a pure human soul who transcends the mundane in a high pitched, hyperspace dream–to live forever.

*The Father of the Atomic Bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, was fond of recounting how his friend Paul once told him, “In science, you want to say something nobody knew before in words everyone can understand. In poetry, you are bound to say something that everyone already knows in words nobody can understand.”

**Reported by Paul’s sister, Mary Dirac, to Graham Farmelo, author of The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom.

Jay Hagen, 48, lives in Vancouver, Washington. When he is not at work as an Industrial Engineer for a Fortune 100 company, sifting through data and identifying cost-saving strategies, he enjoys long walks with his wife, sipping Willamette Valley wine with friends, and deep conversations that tend to veer-off into black holes and time warps or somehow involve his favorite physicist, Paul Dirac.