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Paul Dirac published the first of his papers on “The Quantum Theory of the Electron” seventy years ago this month. The Dirac equation, derived in those papers, is one of the most important equations in physics, says Michael Berry

Each day, I walk past the road where Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac lived as a child. It is pleasant to have even this tenuous association with one of the greatest intellects of the 20th century. Paul Dirac was born at 15 Monk Road in Bishopston, Bristol, on 8 August 1902, and educated at the nearby Bishop Road Primary School. The family later moved to Cotham Road, near the University of Bristol, and in 1914 the young Dirac joined Cotham Grammar School, formerly the Merchant Venturers.

Dirac was a student at Bristol University between 1918 and 1923, first in electrical engineering and then in applied mathematics. Much later, he said: “I owe a lot to my engineering training because it [taught] me to tolerate approximations. Previously to that I thought…one should just concentrate on exact equations all the time. Then I got the idea that in the actual world all our equations are only approximate. We must just tend to greater and greater accuracy. In spite of the equations being approximate, they can be beautiful.”

Because Dirac was a quiet man – famously quiet, indeed – he is not well known outside physics, although this is slowly changing. In 1995 a plaque to Dirac was unveiled at Westminster Abbey in London and last year Institute of Physics Publishing, which is based in Bristol, named its new building Dirac House.

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