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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index D > Paul A. M. Dirac Quotes > Mathematics

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Paul A. M. Dirac
(8 Aug 1902 - 20 Oct 1984)

English theoretical physicist known for his work in quantum mechanics and for his theory of the spinning electron. In 1933 he shared the Nobel Prize for Physics with the Austrian physicist Erwin Schrφdinger.


Paul A. M. Dirac Quotes on Mathematics (23 quotes)

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A good deal of my research in physics has consisted in not setting out to solve some particular problem, but simply examining mathematical quantities of a kind that physicists use and trying to fit them together in an interesting way, regardless of any application that the work may have. It is simply a search for pretty mathematics. It may turn out later to have an application. Then one has good luck. At age 78.
— Paul A. M. Dirac
International Journal of Theoretical Physics (1982), 21, 603. In A. Pais, 'Playing With Equations, the Dirac Way'. Behram N. Kursunoglu (Ed.) and Eugene Paul Wigner (Ed.), Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac: Reminiscences about a Great Physicist (1990), 110.
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A great deal of my work is just playing with equations and seeing what they give.
— Paul A. M. Dirac
Quoted in Frank Wilczek, ',The Dirac Equation'. Proceedings of the Dirac Centennial Symposium (2003), 45.
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A theory with mathematical beauty is more likely to be correct than an ugly one that fits some experimental data. God is a mathematician of a very high order, and He used very advanced mathematics in constructing the universe.
— Paul A. M. Dirac
In Scientific American (May 1963). As quoted and cited in The Hutchinson Encyclopedia of Science (1998), 468.
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As time goes on, it becomes increasingly evident that the rules which the mathematician finds interesting are the same as those which Nature has chosen.
At age 36.
— Paul A. M. Dirac
"Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1939), 59 122. In A. Pais, 'Playing With Equations, the Dirac Way'. Behram N. Kursunoglu (Ed.) and Eugene Paul Wigner (Ed.), Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac: Reminiscences about a Great Physicist (1990), 109-110. This quote is also on this web page in a longer version that begins, “Pure mathematics and physics are… ”.
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God used beautiful mathematics in creating the world.
— Paul A. M. Dirac
Quoted in Behram Kursunoglu and Eugene Paul Wigner, Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac (1990), Preface, xv.
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I learnt to distrust all physical concepts as the basis for a theory. Instead one should put one's trust in a mathematical scheme, even if the scheme does not appear at first sight to be connected with physics. One should concentrate on getting interesting mathematics.
— Paul A. M. Dirac
From a 1977 lecture. Quoted in Pesi Rustom Masani, Norbert Wiener, 1894-1964 (1990), 6.
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I think it is a peculiarity of myself that I like to play about with equations, just looking for beautiful mathematical relations which maybe don’t have any physical meaning at all. Sometimes they do.
At age 60.
— Paul A. M. Dirac
"Interview with T. Kuhn (7 May 1963), Niels Bohr Library, American Intitute of Physics, New York. In A. Pais, 'Playing With Equations, the Dirac Way'. Behram N. Kursunoglu (Ed.) and Eugene Paul Wigner (Ed.), Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac: Reminiscences about a Great Physicist (1990), 109.
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Just by studying mathematics we can hope to make a guess at the kind of mathematics that will come into the physics of the future ... If someone can hit on the right lines along which to make this development, it m may lead to a future advance in which people will first discover the equations and then, after examining them, gradually learn how to apply the ... My own belief is that this is a more likely line of progress than trying to guess at physical pictures.
— Paul A. M. Dirac
'The Evolution of the Physicist's Picture of Nature', Scientific American, May 1963, 208, 47. In Steve Adams, Frontiers (2000), 57.
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Let us now discuss the extent of the mathematical quality in Nature. According to the mechanistic scheme of physics or to its relativistic modification, one needs for the complete description of the universe not merely a complete system of equations of motion, but also a complete set of initial conditions, and it is only to the former of these that mathematical theories apply. The latter are considered to be not amenable to theoretical treatment and to be determinable only from observation.
— Paul A. M. Dirac
From Lecture delivered on presentation of the James Scott prize, (6 Feb 1939), 'The Relation Between Mathematics And Physics', printed in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1938-1939), 59, Part 2, 125.
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Mathematics is the tool specially suited for dealing with abstract concepts of any kind and there is no limit to its power in this field.
— Paul A. M. Dirac
The Principles of Quantum Mechanics (1930, 1981), Preface, viii.
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One might describe the mathematical quality in Nature by saying that the universe is so constituted that mathematics is a useful tool in its description. However, recent advances in physical science show that this statement of the case is too trivial. The connection between mathematics and the description of the universe goes far deeper than this, and one can get an appreciation of it only from a thorough examination of the various facts that make it up.
— Paul A. M. Dirac
From Lecture delivered on presentation of the James Scott prize, (6 Feb 1939), 'The Relation Between Mathematics And Physics', printed in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1938-1939), 59, Part 2, 122.
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Pure mathematics and physics are becoming ever more closely connected, though their methods remain different. One may describe the situation by saying that the mathematician plays a game in which he himself invents the rules while the while the physicist plays a game in which the rules are provided by Nature, but as time goes on it becomes increasingly evident that the rules which the mathematician finds interesting are the same as those which Nature has chosen. … Possibly, the two subjects will ultimately unify, every branch of pure mathematics then having its physical application, its importance in physics being proportional to its interest in mathematics.
— Paul A. M. Dirac
From Lecture delivered on presentation of the James Scott prize, (6 Feb 1939), 'The Relation Between Mathematics And Physics', printed in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1938-1939), 59, Part 2, 124.
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The fundamental laws necessary for the mathematical treatment of a large part of physics and the whole of chemistry are thus completely known, and the difficulty lies only in the fact that application of these laws leads to equations that are too complex to be solved.
— Paul A. M. Dirac
'Quantum Mechanics of Many-Electron Systems', Proceedings of the Royal Society (1929), A, 123, 714-733. Quoted in Steven M. Bachrach, Computational Organic Chemistry, Preface, xiii.
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The mathematician plays a game in which he himself invents the rules while the physicist plays a game in which the rules are provided by nature, but as time goes on it becomes increasingly evident that the rules which the mathematician finds interesting are the same as those which nature has chosen.
— Paul A. M. Dirac
In Ian Stewart, Why Beauty is Truth (2007), 279.
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The physicist, in his study of natural phenomena, has two methods of making progress: (1) the method of experiment and observation, and (2) the method of mathematical reasoning. The former is just the collection of selected data; the latter enables one to infer results about experiments that have not been performed. There is no logical reason why the second method should be possible at all, but one has found in practice that it does work and meets with reasonable success.
— Paul A. M. Dirac
From Lecture delivered on presentation of the James Scott prize, (6 Feb 1939), 'The Relation Between Mathematics And Physics', printed in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1938-1939), 59, Part 2, 122.
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The research worker, in his efforts to express the fundamental laws of Nature in mathematical form, should strive mainly for mathematical beauty. He should take simplicity into consideration in a subordinate way to beauty It often happens that the requirements of simplicity and beauty are the same, but where they clash, the latter must take precedence.
— Paul A. M. Dirac
From Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1939), 59 122. In A. Pais, 'Playing With Equations, the Dirac Way'. Behram N. Kursunoglu (Ed.) and Eugene Paul Wigner (Ed.), Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac: Reminiscences about a Great Physicist (1990), 110.
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The steady progress of physics requires for its theoretical formulation a mathematics which get continually more advanced. ... it was expected that mathematics would get more and more complicated, but would rest on a permanent basis of axioms and definitions, while actually the modern physical developments have required a mathematics that continually shifts its foundation and gets more abstract. Non-euclidean geometry and noncommutative algebra, which were at one time were considered to be purely fictions of the mind and pastimes of logical thinkers, have now been found to be very necessary for the description of general facts of the physical world. It seems likely that this process of increasing abstraction will continue in the future and the advance in physics is to be associated with continual modification and generalisation of the axioms at the base of mathematics rather than with a logical development of any one mathematical scheme on a fixed foundation.
— Paul A. M. Dirac
Introduction to a paper on magnetic monopoles, 'Quantised singularities in the electromagnetic field', Proceedings of the Royal Society of Lonndon (1931), A, 133 60. In Helge Kragh, Dirac: a Scientific Biography (1990), 208.
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The trend of mathematics and physics towards unification provides the physicist with a powerful new method of research into the foundations of his subject. … The method is to begin by choosing that branch of mathematics which one thinks will form the basis of the new theory. One should be influenced very much in this choice by considerations of mathematical beauty. It would probably be a good thing also to give a preference to those branches of mathematics that have an interesting group of transformations underlying them, since transformations play an important role in modern physical theory, both relativity and quantum theory seeming to show that transformations are of more fundamental importance than equations.
— Paul A. M. Dirac
From Lecture delivered on presentation of the James Scott prize, (6 Feb 1939), 'The Relation Between Mathematics And Physics', printed in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1938-1939), 59, Part 2, 122.
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Theoretical physicists accept the need for mathematical beauty as an act of faith... For example, the main reason why the theory of relativity is so universally accepted is its mathematical beauty.
— Paul A. M. Dirac
'Methods in Theoretical Physics', From A Life of Physics: Evening Lectures at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, Trieste, Italy. A Special Supplement of the IAEA Bulletin (1968), 22.
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There are, at present, fundamental problems in theoretical physics … the solution of which … will presumably require a more drastic revision of our fundmental concepts than any that have gone before. Quite likely, these changes will be so great that it will be beyond the power of human intelligence to get the necessary new ideas by direct attempts to formulate the experimental data in mathematical terms. The theoretical worker in the future will, therefore, have to proceed in a more direct way. The most powerful method of advance that can be suggested at present is to employ all the resources of pure mathematics in attempts to perfect and generalize the mathematical formalism that forms the existing basis of theoretical physics, and after each success in this direction, to try to interpret the new mathematical features in terms of physical entities.
At age 28.
— Paul A. M. Dirac
Proceedings of the Royal Society (1931), A133, 60. In A. Pais, 'Playing With Equations, the Dirac Way'. Behram N. Kursunoglu (Ed.) and Eugene Paul Wigner (Ed.), Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac: Reminiscences about a Great Physicist (1990), 109.
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There is thus a possibility that the ancient dream of philosophers to connect all Nature with the properties of whole numbers will some day be realized. To do so physics will have to develop a long way to establish the details of how the correspondence is to be made. One hint for this development seems pretty obvious, namely, the study of whole numbers in modern mathematics is inextricably bound up with the theory of functions of a complex variable, which theory we have already seen has a good chance of forming the basis of the physics of the future. The working out of this idea would lead to a connection between atomic theory and cosmology.
— Paul A. M. Dirac
From Lecture delivered on presentation of the James Scott prize, (6 Feb 1939), 'The Relation Between Mathematics And Physics', printed in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1938-1939), 59, Part 2, 129.
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What makes the theory of relativity so acceptable to physicists in spite of its going against the principle of simplicity is its great mathematical beauty. This is a quality which cannot be defined, any more than beauty in art can be defined, but which people who study mathematics usually have no difficulty in appreciating. … The restricted theory changed our ideas of space and time in a way that may be summarised by stating that the group of transformations to which the space-time continuum is subject must be changed from the Galilean group to the Lorentz group.
— Paul A. M. Dirac
From Lecture delivered on presentation of the James Scott prize, (6 Feb 1939), 'The Relation Between Mathematics And Physics', printed in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1938-1939), 59, Part 2, 123.
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[There is] some mathematical quality in Nature, a quality which the casual observer of Nature would not suspect, but which nevertheless plays an important role in Nature’s scheme.
— Paul A. M. Dirac
From Lecture delivered on presentation of the James Scott prize, (6 Feb 1939), 'The Relation Between Mathematics And Physics', printed in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1938-1939), 59, Part 2, 122.
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See also:
  • 8 Aug - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Dirac's birth.
  • The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom, by Graham Farmelo. - book suggestion.
  • Booklist for Paul Dirac.

Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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