Beauty, Mystery And Physics Discussed At Dirac Centenary Conference

October 3, 2002

by Judy Long

World-renowned physicists and mathematicians gathered on the Baylor University campus Sept. 30-Oct. 2 to honor the memory of Paul Dirac, one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century, and to discuss the state of theoretical physics. Scholars such as Sir Roger Penrose of Oxford University and Sir John Polkinghorne, recipient of the 2002 Templeton Prize, spoke at the Dirac Centenary Conference, with personal reminiscences and anecdotes of Dirac himself, who died in 1984.
The conference drew a full cast of internationally-known physicists, including Laurie M. Brown (Northwestern University), Michael Dickson (Indiana University), Gordon Kane (University of Michigan), David Olive (University of Wales), Don Page (University of Alberta), John Roberts (University of Rome), John Roe (Pennsylvania State University), Simon Saunders (Oxford University) and Cumrun Vafa (Harvard University).

'Beauty' of Physics
Although physics was the topic, a poet would have been inspired as many of the world's great minds referred to the beauty of theoretical physics and the universe. Speaking on "Why We Need a New Quantum Mechanics," Sir Penrose offered to his audience mathematical equations, which he described as "something beautiful" and "something mysterious." He also displayed his drawings of possible models of the universe's origins according to Einstein's theory of relativity.
Penrose said the odds against the universe coming together in its initial state is so infinitesimally small that he could not assign the happening to chance. Some other reason had to be involved in the universe coming into being, he said, pointing to the possibility of a missing physics, an undiscovered phenomenon that, once explained, will solve some of the mystery.
Baylor physicist Gerald Cleaver agreed with Penrose's assessment and ventured a suggestion -- that the missing puzzle piece is superstring theory.
"Superstring satisfies a number of unanswered questions in quantum physics," said Cleaver, a recognized expert in superstring model building. Superstring theory suggests that elementary particles in nature originate as a distinct vibration of a single type of string (or loop) of energy, much as different musical notes can be produced from a single violin string.

Polkinghorne Meets Dirac
Sir Polkinghorne, a noted writer in physics who left his position at Cambridge University to study for the Anglican priesthood, told the story of seeing Dirac for the first time. He was a freshman student at Cambridge when Dirac, a tall, gaunt figure, came down the stairs in a black, billowing academic gown, the dress of professors in that day. Polkinghorne thought to himself, "There is a minor French poet," an assessment he laughs about now.
Although Polkinghorne holds doctorates in both physics and theology, he said taking Dirac's quantum mechanics course as an undergraduate was one of the most intellectual experiences of his life.
"Dirac had a great singleness of purpose, a lifelong search for beautiful equations," Polkinghorne said. "Dirac displayed a simplicity of spirit as well as a quest for beauty in mathematics."
The speakers referred often to the many anecdotes that circulate about Dirac, which Polkinghorne called expressions of "affection and respect."
One such anecdote Polkinghorne related was that a student once asked Dirac, "Do you believe in God?" Dirac was known not to be a religious man, but he had devoted much thought to the existence of God. After a pause, Dirac replied, "It all depends on the equations of motion."
In his lecture Polkinghorne commented briefly on physics and theology. Understanding of the world is "more complex and non-trivial" than routine scientific explanation.
"The universe can not be understood through science alone," he said, "but science is deeply satisfying in its rationalism."
Dr. Truell Hyde, physics professor and vice provost for research, understood the talk of beauty in reference to physics. "When you get to this level, physics almost turns into music," he noted.
Sessions from Baylor's Dirac Centenary Conference will be available soon at