The list of famous Bristolians is an illustrious one. The Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, for example, is recognized everywhere in Bristol for his many iconic structures, even though he was not born, bred or even resident in the city. Another well-known son of the city is the Hollywood legend Cary Grant, born as Archie Leach in the suburb of Horfield and now commemorated with a striking bronze statue outside Bristol's hands-on science museum. The physicist Paul Dirac actually went to the same elementary school as Grant/Leach, and the abstract sculpture dedicated to him stands just a stone's throw away from Grant's bronze likeness. Dirac also has a building named after him: Dirac House, the headquarters of IOP Publishing (which publishes Physics World).

Monument to Paul Dirac, Bristol
A sculpture in central Bristol commemorating Paul Dirac.
Yet in spite of these efforts to publicize Dirac's many contributions to science, his city of birth and (until recently) the school where he was educated seemed almost unaware that in Dirac, Bristol produced one of the great minds of the last century, and arguably the greatest British physicist since Isaac Newton. Part of this lack of knowledge among both Bristolians and the general public is Dirac's legendary reticence, literal-mindedness and almost total inability to communicate with anyone - except, possibly, his immediate family.

All of this makes Dirac a very difficult subject for the sort of sympathetic biography that Graham Farmelo has produced in The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius. The book represents years of careful research and conversations with family and friends who knew Dirac and his work. In it, Farmelo, a science communicator and senior research fellow at the London Science Museum, describes the life and work of this profoundly brilliant man, exploring the origins of his near-pathological reticence and in the last chapter proposing a possible explanation. I doubt whether a better biography will appear in most of our lifetimes.

Dirac's parents Charles and Florence were married in 1899 and lived for a time at 42 Cotham Road, probably in rented rooms, where Dirac's older brother Felix was born. Shortly afterwards, Charles bought a small terraced house in Monk Road and Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac, the second son, was born in 1902. His sister Betty was born in 1906, so Flo certainly had her hands full with a young family and the ever-increasing and apparently irrational demands of her husband.

These demands included Charles' insistence that only French be spoken at the family dining table. As a result, Flo, Felix and Betty ate in the kitchen, while Paul - whose French was just passable - was allowed to sit with his Swiss-born father. In later life, Dirac acknowledged that his difficulty in communicating with others may have stemmed from this period, poignantly explaining to Kurt Hofer - an Austrian- born cell biologist who became a close friend - that "since I found that I couldn't express myself in French, it was better for me to stay silent than to talk in English".

Time and again, Farmelo returns to the difficult personal relations that plagued Dirac's family. Although in today's parlance the Diracs were upwardly mobile - they soon moved to a larger semi-detached house in Julius Road, a more salubrious part of Bristol - Charles was also a serial tax evader. His crimes only came to light after his death, however, leaving Flo with an unwelcome tax bill. At one stage in the relationship she appears to have sought separation from her husband due to suggestions that he was having an extramarital affair, and their oldest child Felix committed suicide when Dirac was 23. But despite all of these traumas, Dirac is said to have wept only once in his life: in 1955, when he heard of the death of his hero, Einstein.

Given this background, it is hardly surprising that in his later life it was only with some unhappiness and after pleading from his mother that Dirac could be persuaded to visit Bristol. Instead, St John's College, Cambridge, became the place he regarded as his true home. While there, Dirac made his most important breakthrough: he succeeded in welding together special relativity and quantum mechanics to produce what is often and rightly regarded as one of the great equations in physics. He became the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics there in 1932, and in 1933 his famous equation won him a Nobel prize (shared with Schrödinger) "for the discovery of new productive forms of atomic theory".

Paul Dirac
© Science Source/Science Photo Library
Paul Dirac (1902-1984)
The conclusions of the Dirac equation were highly controversial when they were first described in 1928, but in a curious way, the criticisms appeared to simply bounce off Dirac - a consequence, perhaps, of his deeply private personality. The idea of negative energy states and the consequent hole theory was finally resolved by the discovery of the positron in 1932. The equation also showed that spin was a natural consequence of relativity and quantum mechanics, and not simply an add-on to explain atomic spectra. Recognizing this, it is only just and fair that the unique characteristics of electrons that make such devices as transistors, mobile phones and solid-state lasers possible are known as Fermi - Dirac statistics.

Farmelo takes the reader through difficult physics in a masterly manner - a consequence, no doubt, of his vast experience in science communication. The author also describes some aspects of Dirac's work of which even professional physicists may not be aware. For example, in 1933 Dirac started an experimental study with Peter Kapitza on the possibility of bending a beam of electrons with light. He also developed an experiment to separate isotopes - much to the approval of Ernest Rutherford, who thought that it "augurs well for theoretical physics that the Lucasian Professor is soiling his hands in the laboratory". As a result, Dirac became peripherally involved in the Manhattan Project, performing theoretical investigations of the "separation power" of uranium-enriching devices, although he declined a fulltime position.

Dirac's life changed dramatically during a sabbatical at Princeton University in 1934 when he met Margit Wigner, a Hungarian divorcee and mother of two children, Gabriel and Judy. Margit, the sister of nuclear physicist Eugene Wigner, was known to friends and family as Manci. She was the opposite in nearly every sense to Dirac, but their affection turned to love and they were married in January 1937. Manci had to spend some time in Budapest after the honeymoon and as a result, Dirac penned "the first love letter I have ever written". Until then, Dirac had replied to questions from Manci in tabular form!

The marriage did experience some strains (often arising from Manci's dislike of Cambridge), but Dirac was a loving husband and stepfather to Manci's children and to the two daughters of the marriage, Mary and Monica. Within the family, Dirac appears to have been far more communicative than he was with outsiders. At the opening of Dirac House in 1997, I remember Monica describing how his scientific approach to vegetable gardening caused much amusement in the family, which Dirac took in good humour.

One feels a sense of anticlimax as the book nears its end. Dirac fell out with the Cambridge hierarchy over what seems a rather trivial dispute about car parking, and by the mid- 1960s he spent most of the week working at home. Meanwhile, Manci had set her heart on escaping from Cambridge, and in 1971, having seen their children well settled (except for Dirac's stepdaughter Judy, who had disappeared in 1968 and was by then presumed to be dead), the couple finally emigrated from the UK to Florida, where Dirac died in 1984.

Physicists remain divided over the legacy of Dirac's later years. Was his opposition to the success of quantum electrodynamics justified on the grounds that the theory lacked beauty? Do monopoles really exist? Can his large-number hypothesis - which suggests that fundamental constants change with time - ever be reconciled with general relativity? But all physicists agree that the towering achievement of the Dirac equation will, as Farmelo makes clear, set Dirac apart and place him in a league with Newton and Einstein.

Perhaps the most controversial part of the book is its last chapter, in which Farmelo explores the possibility that Dirac's pathological reticence was in fact undiagnosed autism or Asperger's syndrome. Autism covers a wide spectrum of behaviour, and as the writer and doctor Milo Keynes points out in The Notes and Records of the Royal Society (2008 62 289), it has become something of a catch-all phrase for behaviour that departs significantly from the norm: "In the past 10 years it has been firmly claimed that Newton must have shown the development disorder of Asperger's syndrome, a disorder that has been posthumously assigned to Michelangelo, Henry Cavendish, Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Paul Dirac." Clearly, Dirac joins a long and distinguished list of retrospectively diagnosed luminaries.

For what it is worth, my guess is that Dirac was by nature a shy individual and that this shyness was reinforced by a difficult early home environment. Farmelo is correctly very cautious in what he has written, and regardless of the conclusions he draws about Dirac's personality, it is clear that writing about him has been a labour of love. I most warmly recommend this book both to professional physicists and to laypersons interested in fundamental physics, as well as to anyone who finds the interaction between personality and intellectual endeavour fascinating.

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius, by Graham Farmelo (2009), Faber and Faber, £22.50 hardback 560pp.

Sir John Enderby is professor emeritus of physics at Bristol University and past president of the Institute of Physics.