Paul Dirac's The Principles of Quantum Mechanics

In 1930 Paul Dirac published The Principles of Quantum Mechanics. It was a book which ran to several new editions, and the fourth edition, which appeared in 1988, is still in print. We give below the Preface to the first edition of the book written by Dirac in May 1930.

The Principles of Quantum Mechanics, by Paul Dirac


The methods of progress in theoretical physics have undergone a vast change during the present century. The classical tradition has been to consider the world to be an association of observable objects (particles, fluids, fields, etc.) moving about according to definite laws of force, so that one could form a mental picture in space and time of the whole scheme. This led to a physics whose aim was to make assumptions about the mechanism and forces connecting these observable objects, to account for their behaviour in the simplest possible way. It has become increasingly evident in recent times, however, that nature works on a different plan. Her fundamental laws do not govern the world as it appears in our mental picture in any very direct way, but instead they control a substratum of which we cannot form a mental picture without introducing irrelevancies. The formulation of these laws requires the use of the mathematics of transformations. The important things in the world appear as the invariants (or more generally the nearly invariants, or quantities with simple transformation properties) of these transformations. The things we are immediately aware of are the relations of these nearly invariants to a certain frame of reference, usually one chosen so as to introduce special simplifying features which are unimportant from the point of view of general theory.

The growth of the use of transformation theory, as applied first to relativity and later to the quantum theory, is the essence of the new method in theoretical physics. Further progress lies in the direction of making our equations invariant under wider and still wider transformations. This state of affairs is very satisfactory from a philosophical point of view, as implying an increasing recognition of the part played by the observer in himself introducing the regularities that appear in his observations, and a lack of arbitrariness in the ways of nature, but it makes things less easy for the learner of physics. The new theories, if one looks apart from their mathematical setting, are built up from physical concepts which cannot be explained in terms of things previously known to the student, which cannot even be explained adequately in words at all. Like the fundamental concepts (e.g. proximity, identity) which every one must learn on his arrival into the world, the newer concepts of physics can be mastered only by long familiarity with their properties and uses.

From the mathematical side the approach to the new theories presents no difficulties, as the mathematics required (at any rate that which is required for the development of physics up to the present) is not essentially different from what has been current for a considerable time. Mathematics is the tool specially suited for dealing with abstract concepts of any kind and there is no limit to its power in this field. For this reason a book on the new physics, if not purely descriptive of experimental work, must be essentially mathematical. All the same the mathematics is only a tool and one should learn to hold the physical ideas in one's mind without reference to the mathematical form. In this book I have tried to keep the physics to the forefront, by beginning with an entirely physical chapter and in the later work examining the physical meaning underlying the formalism wherever possible. The amount of theoretical ground one has to cover before being able to solve problems of real practical value is rather large, but this circumstance is an inevitable consequence of the fundamental part played by transformation theory and is likely to become more pronounced in the theoretical physics of the future.

With regard to the mathematical form in which the theory can be presented, an author must decide at the outset between two methods. There is the symbolic method, which deals directly in an abstract way with the quantities of fundamental importance (the invariants, etc., of the transformations) and there is the method of coordinates or representations, which deals with sets of numbers corresponding to these quantities. The second of these has usually been used for the presentation of quantum mechanics (in fact it has been used practically exclusively with the exception of Weyl's book Gruppentheorie und Quantenmechanik). It is known under one or other of the two names 'Wave Mechanics' and 'Matrix Mechanics' according to which physical things receive emphasis in the treatment, the states of a system or its dynamical variables. It has the advantage that the kind of mathematics required is more familiar to the average student, and also it is the historical method.

The symbolic method, however, seems to go more deeply into the nature of things. It enables one to express the physical laws in a neat and concise way, and will probably be increasingly used in the future as it becomes better understood and its own special mathematics gets developed. For this reason I have chosen the symbolic method, introducing the representatives later merely as an aid to practical calculation. This has necessitated a complete break from the historical line of development, but this break is an advantage through enabling the approach to the new ideas to be made as direct as possible.

P. A. M. D.

29 May 1930

Last Updated July 2020