Lesley Fleming

I put my hat upside down on the empty stool next to me.A magenta light ran diagonally between the rows of colorful liqueurs.The bartender said something to me, but I couldn’t hear him over the juke box and I turned my palms up.Black booths on the far wall were also filled.The wall above the booths was a giant mirror with the same intense magenta bars of light cutting across diagonally.The bartender held an empty glass in one hand, his other hand on one of the four spigots, and lifted his brows in question.I didn’t care what brand he gave me.I nodded and he filled the mug and placed it in front of me.Paul Dirac, mathematical genius of a very high order, one of the fountainheads of the quantum revolution in physics in the twentieth century, had created this equation in Southern England in the early twentieth century, and since that time it has been written down and examined and tested millions of times.It is as fundamental to our understanding of the microcosm as Einstein’s field equations are for the macrocosm.What if he were the one asking the questions about my ultimate belief structures?Would I tell him that an elder had handed over the village truth to me?Would I say I had invented a private theory about the world?I would say simply that the universe could now understand itself in a deeper and more subtle way because of Dirac’s equation.His equation is a watershed in the history of humanity’s investigation of nature.It represents the biggest advance in science since the work of Isaac Newton.Paul Dirac had discovered something profound regarding movement in the universe.Newton had done that.Dirac was investigating the movements of elementary particles.He was searching for the mathematical structure that connects their movements the way sinews connect our bones.Dirac crossed into a new domain of mentality.His knowledge of matter needs to be considered the culmination of many millennia of human reflection.Because of that history of reflection and because of his innate genius, Dirac became the opening into which the dynamics of the universe could press into human experience.By his knowledge of matter, and through his profound reflection on the way it interacts, Dirac provided the spaciousness of mind in which the dynamism could reflect upon itself.In order for Dirac to understand his own work, he had to demolish several structures of belief.He did not understand his own equation because he approached it with false beliefs that hid its significance.But the more he studied it, the more it pointed at strange things beyond the capacity of his modern mind to understand.The initial conundrum concerned energy.Some of the elementary particles in his equation seemed to have negative energies, an absurd idea.He feared he had produced nonsense and reworked his derivations, looking for his error.But it was not the equation that was wrong.It was his mind that was wrong.He rode the mathematical symbols as if they were a magic carpet ride into realms never visited by any of his ancestors.After repeated journeys, and after intense debate with other founders of quantum mechanics, he finally realized the equation was showing him a new form of matter.A form of matter so strange it needed to be designated antimatter.These hitherto unsuspected particles possessed a bizarre and troubling feature.If one of them encountered a particle of regular matter, both would annihilate.Both would vanish from existence and a photon of light would be created in their stead.The response was indeed mixed.One year later, in 1932, Carl Anderson found some antimatter.He allowed cosmic rays to pass through a cloud chamber with a magnet wrapped around the device and studied the paths the particles took.He noticed that one of them curved in exactly the same way as an electron, but in the opposite direction.Other particles of antimatter were soon discovered.His theory and its verification have altered the history of thought in an irrevocable way.Dirac had deconstructed the belief that matter was indestructible.Rather than thinking of matter as a kind of perduring grit, quantum physicists began imagining matter as an excitation, as a flame, as a luminous flash.His equation showed something more.Rising up in Dirac’s reflections was the unnerving suspicion he had discovered the ultimate source of the universe.His equations revealed the existence of an unmanifest realm, which he identified as a kind of sea. His words morphed over time into the phrase now used in contemporary physics, quantum field.Whether depicted by the metaphor of a watery sea or a terrestrial field, this was a realm that created electrons and protons and neutrons.And it was a realm that pervaded the universe.In every cubic inch anywhere in the entire universe, protons and other elementary particles were sprouting forth out of this quantum field, a realm that was untouchable by hand, unseeable by eye.A realm of infinite generativity.Fitful because this was an advanced and therefore fragile wave that was becoming aware of how space teems with a primordial creativity.Dirac no doubt had profound moments of entering into and actually living in such cosmic creativity.But just as certainly, he would collapse back into the conventional assumptions that space is simply a container in which various objects moved about.Other experiments quickly confirmed the results so that the investigation, which had begun as mathematical speculation, was now established with empirical data.A new understanding had appeared.Dirac’s vision was that of an effervescent matter with roots in a primordial potency.Quantum physicists now saw that even the superclusters of galaxies, the largest known structures in the universe, were not inert objects.He was too humble for that.He was pointing to his conviction that an intelligence beyond his own suffused the order in the universe.His equation revealed a dynamic order of the cosmos.

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