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University celebrates life and work of Nobel Prize winning scientist

Press release issued: 2 August 2002

Media release
University celebrates life and work of Nobel Prize winning scientist

Bristol University will celebrate the centenary of the birth of one of the greatest mathematical physicists of the 20th century, Paul Dirac, with a series of talks about his work and its application in research today this Thursday, August 8.

The speakers will include Graham Farmelo of the London Science Museum on Dirac's life and work, the famous science writer Paul Davies on Dirac and the fundamental constants of nature, Tony Bland from the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge on spin electronics and Sajinder Luthra from the Imaging Research Solutions Ltd, on positron emission tomography in medical diagnosis.

Paul Dirac is probably second only to Einstein in the originality of his work, and the breadth of the applications which flow from it. He was a theoretical physicist, with an important equation named after him (the only equation on a memorial in Westminster Abbey), and the 'inventor' of antimatter. His work on quantum mechanics won him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1933.

Born in Bristol, Dirac was educated at the Merchant Venturers' College (now Cotham School) and Bristol University. He graduated with a degree in Electrical Engineering in 1921, and in Mathematics in 1923. He then moved to Cambridge to study for a PhD, and later became Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, the position once occupied by Newton, and presently by Stephen Hawking. He retired from Cambridge in 1969 and moved to the Florida State University in Tallahassee, where he died in 1984.

Dirac's contributions to physics were many, including putting the theory of quantum mechanics on a sound mathematical footing. He also developed a version of quantum mechanics for the electron, which was consistent with Einstein's Relativity. He expressed this theory mathematically in what we now call the Dirac Equation. This was not only a beautiful piece of mathematics and theoretical physics, but predicted 'positrons', which were discovered soon after. They were the first example of antimatter. Although antimatter is well known as the fuel of the Star Ship Enterprise, it is not so well known that anti-electrons are used every day in real life in 'Positron Emission Tomography', or PET scans.

Dr Vincent Smith, a physicist at Bristol University and one of the organisers of the centenary celebrations, said: "Paul Dirac was a genius and was probably a better mathematician than Einstein.

"He will always be famous in the same sense that Isaac Newton is famous and I am certain his physics will be taught forever."

The celebration is seen as a boost to Bristol's bid to become European Capital of Culture in 2008. Entrance to the Dirac celebratory afternoon is open to all and is free. For more details, please contact the Public Programmes Office on Bristol 928 7172.

The Dirac celebratory afternoon will take place in the Powell Lecture Theatre, H. H. Wills Physics Laboratory, Tyndall Avenue, Bristol from 2 to 5 pm on Thursday 8 August.

The event is organised jointly by the SW Branch of the Institute of Physics and the University of Bristol, and is supported by Institute of Physics Publishing.

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Copyright: 2001 The University of Bristol, UK
Updated: Friday, 02-Aug-2002 17:11:37 BST

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