Sunday, 15 February 2009

Was Dirac the Stig?

I've just finished reading Graham Farmelo's massive biography of the physicist Paul A. M. Dirac The Strangest Man which seems to be doing very well in the shops.

My full review is available on the Popular Science website, but if you want the capsule version it provides interesting insights into the least publicized of the great quantum physicists. Well written, but the author suffers from I've-got-access-to-the-archive-itis - he tells us much too much unnecessary detail, which is why it's such a doorstop.

However, the point of interest here isn't the book, but a quote in it. Viewers of the BBC's Top Gear show will be aware that they have a 'tame racing driver' called the Stig, who always appears in a mirror-vizored helmet (though his identity has recently been revealed). He is always introduced with a little assertion that he isn't exactly human, that will go something like: 'Some say he has six fingers on his left hand and he bleeds brake fluid... but we only know he's called the Stig.'

Farmelo's book suggests to me that the Stig's earliest incarnation was, in fact, Dirac. Just listen to this quote from Russian scientist Igor Tamm: he had heard that 'it costs a tremendous effort to get a word from [Dirac], and that he talks only to children under ten.'

I rest my case.

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