Saturday 15 January 2022

An interview with a Laconic Scientist

I came across an account of this interview in "Eurekas and Euphorias" by Walter Gratzer, but found this copy on a web page from Rutgers which has not been updated since 2004.... Dirac was famous as a man of extremely few words:


An Enjoyable Time Is Had By All

By Roundy
I been hearing about a fellow they have up at the U. this spring --- a mathematical physicist, or something, they call him --- who is pushing Sir Isaac Newton, Einstein and all the others off the front page. So I thought I better go up and interview him for the benefit of State Journal readers, same as I do all other top notchers. His name is Dirac and he is an Englishman. He has been giving lectures for the intelligentsia of math and physics departments --- and a few other guys who got in by mistake.
So the other afternoon I knocks at the door of Dr. Dirac's office in Sterling Hall and a pleasant voice says "Come in." And I want to say here and now that this sentence "come in" was about the longest one emitted by the doctor during our interview. He sure is all for efficiency in conversation. It suits me. I hate a talkative guy. I found the doctor a tall youngish-looking man, and the minute I seen the twinkle in his eye I knew I was going to like him. His friends at the U. say he is a real fellow too and a good company on a hike --- if you can keep him in sight, that is.
The thing that hit me in the eye about him was that he did not seem to be at all busy. Why if I went to interview an American scientist of his class --- supposing I could find one --- I would have to stick around an hour first. Then he would blow in carrying a big briefcase, and while he talked he would be pulling lecture notes, proof, reprints, books, manuscript, or what have you out of his bag. But Dirac is different. He seems to have all the time there is in the world and his heaviest work is looking out the window. If he is a typical Englishman it's me for England on my next vacation!
Then we sat down and the interview began.
"Professor," says I, "I notice you have quite a few letters in front of your last name. Do they stand for anything in particular?"
"No," says he.
"You mean I can write my own ticket?"
"Yes," says he.
"Will it be all right if I say that P.A.M. stands for Poincare' Aloysius Mussolini?"
"Yes," says he.
"Fine," says I, "We are getting along great! Now doctor will you give me in a few words the low-down on all your investigations?"
"No," says he.
"Good," says I. "Will it be all right if I put it this way --- `Professor Dirac solves all the problems of mathematical physics, but is unable to find a better way of figuring out Babe Ruth's batting average'?"
"Yes," says he.
"What do you like best in America?", says I.
"Potatoes," says he.
"Same here," says I. "What is your favorite sport?"
"Chinese chess," says he.
That knocked me cold! It was sure a new one on me! Then I went on: "Do you go to the movies?"
"Yes," says he.
"When?", says I.
"In 1920 --- perhaps also in 1930," says he.
"Do you like to read the Sunday comics?"
"Yes," says he, warming up a bit more than usual.
"This is the most important thing yet, doctor," says I. "It shows that me and you are more alike than I thought. And now I want to ask you something more: They tell me that you and Einstein are the only two real sure-enough high-brows and the only ones who can really understand each other. I wont ask you if this is straight stuff for I know you are too modest to admit it. But I want to know this --- Do you ever run across a fellow that even you can't understand?"
"Yes," says he.
"This well make a great reading for the boys down at the office," says I. "Do you mind releasing to me who he is?"
"Weyl," says he.
The interview came to a sudden end just then, for the doctor pulled out his watch and I dodged and jumped for the door. But he let loose a smile as we parted and I knew that all the time he had been talking to me he was solving some problem that no one else could touch.
But if that fellow Professor Weyl ever lectures in this town again I sure am going to take a try at understanding him! A fellow ought to test his intelligence once in a while.

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