FSU Students, Professors Keep Famous Physicist's Legacy Alive

Oct 25, 2016

One the greatest physicists in modern history is buried in Tallahassee’s Roselawn Cemetery. Now a group of Florida State University students and professors are preserving the legacy of Paul Dirac, by taking care of his grave.

Florida State University physics students clean the tombstone of renowned theoretical physicist Paul Dirac.
Credit Kate Payne / WFSU News

Underneath the live oak trees of Tallahassee’s Roselawn Cemetery, some FSU physics students are hard at work, scrubbing the tombstone of one of the greatest physicists of all time. These students made the trek from campus to visit the grave of Paul Dirac, who is credited with fundamentally shaping the theory of quantum mechanics. Dirac’s work helps scientists understand nature’s smallest particles: protons, neutrons and electrons. Here's FSU physics student Lawrence Ng.                    

“Most of the modern technologies are based on quantum mechanics. And he’s definitely a great, big contributor to it. So we owe a lot of our technologies to him,” he said. “Like computer chips, they use principles of quantum mechanics. Even in lasers, they use quantum mechanics also. And he was a big contributor to that.”

The Solvay Conference of 1927 brought together some of the brightest minds of teh day, including Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Werner Heisenberg. Paul Dirac is seated in the middle of the second row, just left of Einstein.
Credit Benjamin Couprie, Institut International de Physique de Solvay / http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/solvay-conference-probably-intelligent-picture-ever-taken-1927/

Tallahassee seems like an unlikely burial spot for an internationally respected physicist. But after teaching at Florida State University for twelve years, Dirac chose to be interred in the place he last called home, instead of his native England. And it was renowned cosmologist Stephen Hawking who made sure Dirac was honored in London as well. The physicist and his equation are now memorialized in Westminster Abbey, alongside William Shakespeare and Winston Churchill. Here’s FSU education professor Kathy Clark.

“And Hawking kinda... he was very nasty to the world for not honoring Dirac before they did. So I’ve always liked Stephen Hawking a little bit more because of that,” she said.

A list of Dirac’s colleagues and collaborators reads like a who’s who of 20th century physics, including the likes of Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Werner Heisenberg. Dirac went on to win the Nobel Prize with Erwin Schrodinger in 1933. Three decades after his death, Dirac’s name isn’t widely recognized outside of theoretical physics. But the team from FSU say they’ll keep doing their part to keep his legacy alive.