Paul A.M. Dirac

Banquet speech

Paul A.M. Dirac’s speech at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm, December 10, 1933

I should like to thank you all very much for the great honour you have done to me, and the kindness you have shown me, which I hardly feel I deserve.

I think that in replying on an occasion like this one should say something about the character of the work for which the prize has been awarded. This would be fairly easy in the case of the Nobel prizes in some subjects, for example peace. But the physicist is at a disadvantage in this respect on account of the very specialized nature of his work, which cannot be made intelligible without an intensive preliminary course of study. All the same I think I may be able to give you some idea of the processes of thought which must be used, because these same processes of thought may be applied to other problems much more immediately connected with the welfare of the human race and for this reason much more familiar to us all, namely economic problems. There is in my opinion a great similarity between the problems provided by the mysterious behavior of the atom and those provided by the present economic paradoxes confronting the world. In both cases one is given a great many facts which are expressible with numbers, and one has to find the underlying principles. The methods of theoretical physics should be applicable to all those branches of thought in which the essential features are expressible with numbers.

I should like to suggest to you that the cause of all the economic troubles is that we have an economic system which tries to maintain an equality of value between two things, which it would be better to recognise from the beginning as of unequal value. These two things are the receipt of a certain single payment (say 100 crowns) and the receipt of a regular income (say 3 crowns a year) through all eternity. The course of events is continually showing that the second of these is more highly valued than the first. The shortage of buyers, which the world is suffering from, is readily understood, not as due to people not wishing to obtain possession of goods, but as people being unwilling to part with something which might earn a regular income in exchange for those goods. May I ask you to trace out for yourselves how all the obscurities become clear, if one assumes from the beginning that a regular income is worth incomparably more, in fact infinitely more, in the mathematical sense, than any single payment? In doing so I think you would then get a better insight into the way in which a physical theory is fitted in with the facts than you could get from studying popular books on physics.

From Les Prix Nobel en 1933, Editor Carl Gustaf Santesson, [Nobel Foundation], Stockholm, 1934

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1933


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