Warp speed brings Dirac into the 21st century

You`d be forgiven for thinking that an American predicted anti-matter. Or that it only existed in Star Trek. In fact, it was Paul Dirac, a Bristol born physicist, who predicted the stuff that propels starships in science fiction movies and who has also influenced much of our modern day technology, for example, computers. Today, 8 August is the centenary of Dirac`s birth. The Institute of Physics celebrates Dirac`s life and legacy in 2002, with six Manga (japanese cartoon-style) posters.

A strong female character with a punk hairstyle and quite a bit of attitude narrates each poster, contrasting strongly with Dirac`s quiet personality. The posters explore Dirac`s life, work and legacy using bold colours and a non-conformist female character set in a `Gotham City` background, to appeal to both boys and girls. `Atomic` tells us the background to the `Dirac equation`, created when Dirac combined relativity (the physics of objects travelling at close to the speed of light) and quantum mechanics (the physics of the very small) and from which he predicted anti-matter and spin (the origin of magnetism).

The discovery of anti-matter has given us the ability to see organs inside the body such as the brain, using positron emission tomography (PET). This is dealt with in the `anti-matter` poster, where the female character poses confidently between two anti-particles which would normally annihilate in less than a blink of an eye. In the `spin` poster, whirling yellow balls indicate that spin is fast becoming an exploited property of the electron, with applications such as position and motion sensing in computer video games and key-hole surgery. The poster shows us how our computers can become faster and smaller using spin technology. Dirac also discovered the physics on which many of our electronic devices are based, such as mobile phones.

`Dirac was a recluse and therefore his genius has mostly gone unnoticed by the public. The posters aim to make people as familiar with Dirac as with Newton and Faraday. Rather than go for traditional posters with photos of physicists and equipment, we thought a modern cartoon style would attract the kids attention more. The Manga style has given Dirac a bold, modern and cool image, which he probably would not have agreed with if he was still alive!` said Shuk Kwan Liu, public relations officer at the Institute.

Although Dirac may not have been the most sociable person, the consequences of his physics can certainly be mind boggling. Here are ten Dirac facts that you might not have known…

Ten Dirac facts

1. Antimatter is the most expensive stuff on earth at $62.5 trillion a gram.

2. Less than one-sixth of a gram of antimatter is made every year.

3. Huge particle accelerators make antimatter, such as those at CERN in Switzerland (its largest accelerator is 27km) and Fermilab in America.

4. With one gram of antimatter, you could drive a car for about 100 000 years, which is equivalent to 1500 lifetimes, if you lived to the average life expectancy of 65-70 years old.

5. A plaque commemorating Dirac and his equation is in Westminster Abbey.

6. In 1933, Dirac was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics.

7. In 1932 Dirac was appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at University of Cambridge, a post that Stephen Hawking currently holds.

8. In hospitals, antimatter is used to examine a patient`s organs using positron emission tomography (PET) scanning.

9. In 2005, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Switzerland will re-create conditions in the Universe one millionth-millionth of a second after its birth. Scientists hope that the LHC will provide clues on why matter dominates over anti-matter, when both were created in equal quantities at the Big Bang.

10. Computers using `spin` technology in the future, will be smaller and much faster than they are today and there will be no boot-up to go through every time you switch your computer on.

Media Contact

Shuk Kwan Liu alfa

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This area deals with the fundamental laws and building blocks of nature and how they interact, the properties and the behavior of matter, and research into space and time and their structures.

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