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January 2011



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First Published Thursday, 8 January 2009

Paul Dirac
Paul Dirac – a pioneer of quantum mechanics – displayed some of the classic signs of autism. Photograph: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives

A prenatal test for autism would deprive the world of future geniuses

As a new book speculates that ‘Britain’s Einstein’ was autistic, an autism expert warns that a prenatal test for the condition would prevent brilliant scientists like Paul Dirac from ever being born.

A new book on the greatest British physicist since Newton speculates that both his profound mathematical abilites and his extreme social awkwardness stemmed from undiagnosed autism.

The claims – from a biography of Paul Dirac by Graham Farmelo, The Strangest Man – tie in with an article on the BBC website from leading autism researcher Prof Simon Baron-Cohen. Baron-Cohen says we need a public debate about the prenatal diagnosis of autism. Although such a test is not yet available, it soon could be.

Baron-Cohen points out that the use of embryo selection during IVF to reject babies with autism genes might have the effect of preventing some individuals with brilliant mathematical abilities from being born.

More on Baron-Cohen’s argument later, but first, Farmelo’s book presents a highly detailed picture of a brilliant but profoundly odd man with an extremely troubled relationship with his parents. Given Dirac’s contribution to science, Farmelo argues that he is shockingly under-appreciated and largely unknown in the UK, particularly in his home town of Bristol.

Dirac was one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics. For example, in 1930 he predicted that the electron has an equivalent anti-particle, the positron – a notion that was greeted with scepticism and derision by some physicists at the time but was proved correct in experiments two years later.

He is the youngest theoretical physicist ever to win a Nobel Prize, and a year earlier in 1932 he was made Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. At 29 he was a few months older than Sir Isaac Newton when he took up the same position in 1669. Its current holder is Prof Stephen Hawking.

The physicist Freeman Dyson summed up Dirac’s effortless brilliance thus:

His great discoveries were like exquisitely carved marble statues falling out of the sky one after another. He seemed to be able to conjure laws of nature from pure thought.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Dirac was also an extemely unconventional person (Farmelo’s title is a quotation from Dirac’s contemporary Niels Bohr). Even Einstein found him peculiar. “I have trouble with Dirac,” he wrote to a friend. “This balancing on the dizzying path between genius and madness is awful.”

Dirac was prone to very long silences and was famous for his apparently emotionless responses to events. He also often took a very literal interpretation of statements by other people. All are characteristics of autism.

When Farmelo spoke to Baron-Cohen about the condition he said he was struck by two things. First, that autistic men often have foreign wives, “perhaps because the women were more tolerant of unusual behaviour in foreign men than in men from their own culture.” Dirac was married to a Hungarian woman for 50 years.

Baron-Cohen also said that autistic people are often extremely loyal. “When they believe that a friend has suffered an injustice, they are often so indignant that they will disrupt or abandon their almost invariable daily routines to rectify it,” wrote Farmelo. Dirac demonstrated great loyalty to his friends the physicists Pyotr Kapitsa and Werner Heisenberg. There are also signs that Paul’s father Charles was autistic and there was a history of depression and suicide in the Dirac family.

Whatever the difficulties in diagnosing autism in a man who died in 1984, Baron-Cohen’s argument is that preventing cases of the condition by screening the genes for autism out of the population could stop brilliant individuals such as Dirac ever being born.

Research is not yet at the stage where autism can be detected prenatally using a biological test, but this may not be far off … If it was used to ‘prevent’ autism, with doctors advising mothers to consider termination of the pregnancy if their baby tested ‘positive’, what else would be lost in reducing the number of children born with autism?

Would we also reduce the number of future great mathematicians, for example? Or if this test led to some kind of prenatal treatment, such as the use of drugs to block the effect of testosterone which is already medically possible, would this be desirable?

Caution is needed before scientists embrace prenatal testing so that we do not inadvertently repeat the history of eugenics or inadvertently ‘cure’ not just autism but the associated talents that are not in need of treatment.

If a prenatal test for autism becomes available, should medical science be used to ‘cure’ the condition?

Source:   http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2009/jan/07/autism-test-genius-dirac

Book Cover
The Strangest Man: Graham Farmelo

Published  – 22.01.2009


The first full biography of Paul Dirac, the greatest British physicist since Newton – and one of the strangest geniuses of the twentieth century, who may have suffered from autism.

Paul Dirac was a pioneer of quantum mechanics and was regarded as an equal by Albert Einstein. He predicted, purely from what he saw in his equations, the existence of antimatter. The youngest person ever to win the Nobel Prize for Physics, he was also pathologically reticent, strangely literal-minded and almost completely unable to communicate or empathise. His silences were legendary and when he spoke, he betrayed no emotion. Through his greatest period of productivity, his postcards home contained only remarks about the weather. He is said to have cried only once, when his friend Einstein died.

Based on a previously undiscovered archive of family papers in Florida, Graham Farmelo celebrates Dirac’s massive scientific achievement while drawing a compassionate portrait of his life and the people around him. Dirac had a traumatic relationship with his family: his brother committed suicide, and he hated his father to the end of his life. His political allegiances were radical. His best friend was the Russian physicist Peter Kapitza, and even at the height of the purges Dirac holidayed in the Soviet Union.

Yet Farmelo also reveals a man who, while seemingly lacking in emotion, could manage to love and father a family. He catches Dirac’s absolute belief in the beauty of mathematics with warmth and sympathy. And Farmelo shows that Dirac’s eccentricities may well have stemmed from undiagnosed autism.

The Strangest Man is a moving human story, and a study of one of the most exciting times in scientific history.

Source:   http://www.faber.co.uk/work/strangest-man/9780571222780/

Paul Dirac

Paul Dirac – Photos and Anecdotes About the Physicist:

Paul Dirac – Wikipedia:

Paul Dirac: Biography from Answers.com:

The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius: Graham Farmelo


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