Victory on Home Ground

Maulana Wahiduddin Khan | Soulveda |  January 17, 2023

Paul Dirac, who died in November 1984, was known to the world as the developer of the mathematics of the quantum mechanical theory—in effect the physics of the smallest part of the atom. He received his initial education, however, not in the field of mathematics, but in that of electrical engineering. Though he obtained a first-class degree at the Merchant Venturers Technical College, he did not excel in this subject. As J.G. Crowther wrote in his obituary: “His teachers did not consider him a genius.” (The Muslim, Islamabad, November 23, 1984).

It was only when he entered the mathematics department of Bristol University, and then went on to St. John’s College to continue his studies in the same field, that “it was perceived that he had extraordinary intellectual powers.”

In the field of mathematics, Dirac was on home ground. His success as a physical mathematician was phenomenal. Following Werner Heisenberg’s publication of the idea of a new quantum mechanics in 1925, Dirac independently went to work on creating an appropriate new mathematics for handling it. The result was his p-q number theory, completed in 1928, a “highly original and extremely elegant mathematical technique” in which “he showed how the theories of quantum mechanics and relativity could be combined.” In 1930 he published his textbook of quantum mechanics, which immediately became a classic. In 1932, at the incredibly early age of 30, he was appointed Lucrasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, the chair Sir Isaac Newton had once occupied—a fitting post for one whom Niels Bohr called “the most remarkable scientific mind since Newton.”

Dirac was not successful in electrical engineering, but when he entered his own domain—mathematics—he thrived and showed amazingly innovative genius. Like Dirac, everyone has a domain of his own in which he can excel. Failure in one field is no reason to lose hope: there is always another field awaiting one, in which the flower of one’s destiny can flourish and thrive.