Sunday, December 26, 2010

Fumiko Yonezawa Reviews the Japanese Edition of The Strangest Man


The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Mystic of the Atom (Basic Books/Perseus Book Group), written by Graham Farmelo, was the winner of the Costa Book Award for Biography and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Science and Technology, in the year 2009 of its publication. This book was also selected as one of the best books of 2009 by The Economist, The New York Times Book Review and Amazon.com. The Japanese edition of the book was published by Hayakawa Shobo, Tokyo, in September 2010. The translator was Michiyo Yoshida. The Japanese title is not the literal translation of the original but means, "The Sea of Quantum, Dirac's Abyss: The Highly Gifted Physicist's Glorious Achievements and Reticent Life."

Fumiko Yonezawa's review of the Japanese edition has appeared in The Akahata. This is the first review of it I have seen in the mass media. Fumiko Yonezawa is Professor Emeritus of Keio University, the first woman President of the Physical Society of Japan and one of the laureates of L'ORÉAL-UNESCO for Women in Science Award 2005, for her pioneering theory and computer simulations of amorphous semiconductors and liquid metals.

The Akahata or Shimbun Akahata (literal translation, Newspaper Red Flag) is the daily organ of the Japanese Communist Party in the form of a national newspaper. Started in 1928, Akahata has a 16-page daily edition and a 36-page Sunday edition, and the total circulation is 1.68 million (quoted from "Shimbun Akahata," Wikipedia, 7 December 2010 at 20:41). I subscribe to two newspapers in order to get deep and balanced view of politics in Japan; one is the "national newspaper," The Asahi, and the other is this Akahata. The latter often carries more excellent articles not only in politics but also in science and culture than "national newspapers." The review by Yonezawa has been printed on one of two-page "Books" column of the issue of Sunday, December 26, 2010, of the daily edition.

The title of the review in literal translation is "The group of scientists depicted elaborately," though the treatment of the book is centered on Paul Dirac. First, she introduces Dirac as a British theoretical physicist and one of the contributors to the establishment of quantum mechanics. Then, she praises his mathematical method of describing quantum mechanics as the most beautiful and his book Quantum Mechanics as the most outstanding among similar books. Especially, she notes that Dirac's book does not have any diagrams, includes a minimum necessary number of equations and many explanations by words like a book of philosophy. She even devotes a paragraph to describe how she enjoyed Dirac's book in her student days, being enchanted by and intoxicated with the beauty of the system he developed.

Next comes a brief introduction of Dirac again (namely, "he got successful results in young days and received Nobel Prize at the age of 31"), and the book being reviewed is mentioned as the biography of Dirac, consisting of more than 600 pages in the Japanese edition. Yonezawa writes that she liked the detailed depictions of the group of scientists in the ages of the formation of quantum mechanics and succeeding to it (the title of the review comes from her words here). She mentions about Dirac's extreme reticence and infers that only the truth of nature and equations would have been swirling in his brain. She quotes the following episode as contrary to this character of Dirac: When Peter Kapitza, a scientist friend of his from Russia, was forbidden to depart from the Stalinist Soviet Union, Dirac was busy trying to collect signatures from physicists for the request of release.

Finally, Yonezawa refers to Dirac's belief, "Physical laws must mathematically be beautiful," and concludes that everything of the physicist Dirac is described in this book. This is a relatively short review but invokes the readers' interest in the person of Dirac quite well so as to make them want to read this book.

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