“Bristol produced the greatest British scientist of the past century, but there isn’t much to mark that fact. Even the suggestion of naming a school after him got turned down” – Graham Farmelo
Above: Dirac in regulation “genius-at-blackboard” pose (l); and Farmelo’s biog (r). The map below links to a google map at http://bit.ly/9YvBWO
Bristol is a multi-textured and somehow mysterious city, full of layers both metaphorical and physical in its piling up of history and hills. It’s a place I’ve not yet tired of exploring, and after reading Graham Farmelo’s gripping biography of brilliant Bristolian Paul Dirac,“The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius” (Faber), I had one more route to map. Dirac, who foresaw string theory and anti-matter, is considered the greatest British physicist since Newton, and as paradigm-shifting as Darwin. Yet though he was born and educated in Bristol there’s very little to commemorate him there, so I decided to compile all the relevant locations I could discover on a Google map. The most interesting source I found was a blog by Hamish Johnston, “My Neighbour Paul Dirac” – the comments include some first-hand reminiscences, plus clarifications by Graham Farmelo. There is also a good article featuring an interview with Farmelo in This Is Bristol. For those who haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it: peruse this un-paywalled Guardian review then pop over to Amazon to purchase. For those who have read it, below is a clutch of Dirac-centric locations. Nearly all are stunningly dull, but that’s apt for a scientist who was widely believed to have no personality.
DIRAC’S BRISTOL HOMES
Home 0: 42 Cotham Rd, Bristol BS6
• Dirac’s parents’ first home (Farmelo, p9). Not exactly compelling as he wasn’t even born at this time.
Home 1: 15 Monk Rd, Bristol BS7
• Dirac was born here in 1902 (Farmelo, p10) when the houses were very new, and left in 1913. The plaque outside was dedicated the same day as the Small Worlds sculpture, below, and wrongly says Dirac left the house in 1923; see the magisterial correction by Graham Farmelo on Hamish Johnston’s blog – he explains that it took him “years to pin down” the correct 1913 date.
Home 2: 6 Julius Rd, Bristol BS7
• Dirac’s family moved here in 1913 (Farmelo, p18). Apparently the current owners were incredibly helpful while Farmelo was researching his book, whereas the owners of of 15 Monk Road (see paragraph above) wouldn’t let him in.
DIRAC’S BRISTOL EDUCATION
School 1: Bishop Road Primary School, Bristol Road, Bristol BS7
• Dirac’s primary school, where he first learned about maths and technical drawing. Bizarrely, one of his co-students was the young Carey Grant, then known as Archie Leach. “There was an age difference of two years between them, so I’m sure they must have encountered each other at school,” says Farmelo. “I’m also sure Dirac would never have spoken a word to him.” The school still exists and recently won a “dream playground”.
School 2: Merchant Venturers’ School, Unity Street, Bristol BS1
• Merchant Venturers’ was Dirac’s secondary school. However, having lent out my copy of Farmelo’s book, I’m not entirely clear if he studied at these original Victorian Gothic premises, which are now swanky but contentious flats, or at Cotham School, below, which was also once part of Merchant Venturers’ operations.
School 2 (?): Cotham School, Cotham Lawn Road, Bristol BS6
• Dirac’s secondary school, Merchant Venturers’, later became known as Cotham Grammar School, then in 2001 simply Cotham School; but I’m not sure if Dirac studied at this site, or the original Merchant Venturers’, above. Whatever, Cotham School has a Paul Dirac Building, which was apparently a lab when it was Cotham Grammar. By 2009 it housed art activities, but due to asbestos the school is being redeveloped, and the Paul Dirac Building may be demolished and rebuilt.
University 1: University of Bristol, Tyndall Avenue, Bristol BS8
• Bristol’s attractive university area, full of gardens and grand buildings, is worth exploring in its own right. It was here that the fast-tracked Dirac came to study mathematics at the age of 16, before going on to Cambridge and the wider world – he ended up winning the Nobel Prize, marrying a Hungarian widow and becoming a prof in America.
DIRAC’s BRISTOL TRIBUTES
Above: Dirac House (l) and Dirac Road (r). Exciting!
Tribute 1: IOP Dirac House, Temple Back, Bristol BS1
• Named after Dirac: a nondescript millennium-style building housing the Institute of Physics Publishing.
Tribute 2: Dirac Road, Ashley Down, Bristol BS7
• Also named after Dirac: a boring new-build road way out of town.
Tribute 3: Small Worlds, @Bristol, Anchor Road, Harbourside, Bristol BS1
• “Small Worlds” is an easily-missed pointy memorial sculpture by Simon Thomas, composed of “concentric cones which create a scaled path through space pointing towards the ever smaller worlds studied by Dirac,” accompanied by a tribute plaque in the pavement. Located outside annoyingly-named kids’ science exhibition @Bristol, it was unveiled by Professor Sir Michael Berry of Bristol University Physics Department in 2001. The best thing about @Bristol used to be that you could point the electronic telescope outside to Uranus, a word which it then spelled out on a giant LED sign for all to see (well, it always made me laugh), but then it stopped working. Dirac: genius; me: moron. Sigh.