"Paul Dirac - My father"
I am sorry that I will not be able to be present at the celebration, my mother passed away early in the morning of 9th July.
As all of those present who knew my father will remember that he was a very shy man and he always avoided interviews with the press or anyone else, and I think that this is probably why so many published accounts of his life failed to capture his personal side. For this reason, I am happy to have the opportunity to share with you some of my memories of him.
Probably the earliest memory of my father is of him teaching my sister to catch a ball in our back garden. I could not have been more than three years old at the time. Another early memory was of visiting his room in the Arts School and drawing, on what seemed to me at the time, his enormous black-board.
My father was a very quiet, gentle man who hardly ever got angry. About the only time I ever remember him angry was just after World War II. My uncle had sent us tulip bulbs from Holland. They looked beautiful blooming in the front garden. We had had some cut flowers in the house and after they died I picked a big bunch of the tulips to replace them and happily trotted inside with the bouquet of flowers. I was genuinely surprised at how angry all the grownups were.
My father had many interests apart from physics. He liked to read. Even though he read slowly. He particularly enjoyed science fiction and mystery novels.
When he was visiting the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton in the early 1930s, my uncle, Eugene Wigner introduced him to my mother. It was love at first sight and in no time they were courting. My mother introduced him to classical music. I remember as a child walking into our drawing room Cambridge, in the evening, thinking no one was there as the lights were out, only to find my father sitting quietly in the dark, listening to classical music on the radio. He never went to concerts because he found the audience coughing too distracting.
Everyone who knew my father will remember that he loved to hike. I have been told that on a visit to Russia before World War II, he climbed Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in the Caucuses, without oxygen and passed out. Every Sunday morning from as long ago as I can remember, my father took my sister and me for a hike or bicycle ride while my mother stayed at home to cook the dinner. He also loved to swim, but he would NEVER swim in a swimming pool, only in rivers, lakes, abandoned quarries, or the sea.. We used to have family outings to the Ooze in Huntingtonshire. We would rent a row boat, row up the river to the millpond to have a pick-nick and swim. After my parents moved to Florida, my father enjoyed canoeing on the Wakulla River, and swimming in the sink holes.
Another of my father's hobbies was gardening. Every Saturday and Sunday afternoon when it was not raining he would work in the garden, mowing the lawn, tending the flower beds, pruning trees, growing vegetables, and harvesting fruit from all our fruit trees. He would pick basket after basket of apples and carefully place them on shelves, on the first floor of the garage, making sure that none were touching. During World War II, I have been told that he grew mushrooms in the cellar, in the garage, and behind the garage where we later had our wood pile. We also had two large asparagus beds. I remember him preparing the second one. He dug a large trench over 3 feet deep, about 4 feet wide and over 20 feet long to remove the clay subsoil. The trench was slowly filled with organic matter, and compost from the garden. He then grew asparagus plants from seed for the new bed. The project took several years to complete. I also remember him growing peas. He would coat the pea seeds with dripping and then role them in red lead oxide powder, to discourage birds from eating the newly emerged pea seedlings. People were less conscious of environmental health hazards in those days.
I have always loved animals and never ceased trying to persuade my parents to let me have more pets. My father did not like dogs, he did not like being startled when they barked. Cats were better. I remember one black cat we had. The cat used to go in and out of the house through the shoot where coal was delivered to be stored in a small room in the cellar, next to the furnace. My father wanted to board up the hole but still leave a hole large enough for the cat. So he asked me to bring him the cat, and he measured the distance between the tips of its whiskers to ensure that he was leaving sufficient space.
My father was always willing to help me with my maths or science homework. He would explain the problem in such generic terms that I never had the problems that the other children had, of the teacher would complaining that they had used the 'wrong method' to solve the problem. My father always said that when outlining a new concept in a lecture, one should always repeat oneself several times, preferably using different words.
When I became interested in collecting fossils and mineral specimens as a teenager, he was always willing to go with me and to support my hobbies. But when I asked for advice about important matters such as 'what should I be when I grew up' he would never give advice and left me to make up my own mind. This was probably because his elder brother had wanted to be a doctor, but his father insisted that he become an electrical engineer. That plus trouble with his girl-friend lead his brother to commit suicide in his early twenties.
I would like to end by repeating that although my father was quiet and shy, he had many interests outside his work. He enjoyed spending time with his family, he loved to travel, and every summer we took long family vacations. I clearly remember him saying that no one can work hard on a serious intellectual problem for more than 4 hours a day.