Monday, December 15, 2014

Wolfgang Pauli: an anniversary

Wolfgang Pauli was born in Vienna, here in Austria-Hungary, in 1900, and he died on December 15th, 1958, in Zurich.

His 1945 Nobel prize was given for the exclusion principle but he has contributed many other things and he had the potential to discover all of quantum mechanics by himself, his friends Bohr and Heisenberg would agree.

His father was a chemist. Pauli's middle name was Ernst because his Godfather was philosopher Ernst Mach. Not a bad beginning. His paternal grandparents were prominent Jews in Prague. Pauli's father abandoned the Jewish baggage and became a Roman Catholic in 1899 shortly before he married Wolfgang's mother, Bertha Camilla Schütz, who was Catholic.

However, even Pauli's mother's father was Jewish. Wolfgang Pauli himself was a deist and a mystic – and a favorite test animal of his close friend, notorious psycho-charlatan Carl Jung.

Pauli and God

At the 1927 Solvay Conference, Dirac spent some time criticizing religion. Because Heisenberg's attitude was rather tolerant, Pauli gave the summary. He said: "Well, I would like to point out that our friend Dirac has a religion, too. Its first commandment says that 'God does not exist and Paul Dirac is his prophet.'"

It is also a well-known story that after his death in 1958, Pauli was granted an audience with God. Pauli was allowed to ask a question. So he asked why the fine structure constant was equal to 1/137.036 because Pauli has spent a significant portion of his life by asking this question. God started to write equations on the blackboard and Pauli was satisfied for a while. However, he soon started to shake his head violently: "Das ist ganz falsch!" :-)

Of course, the well-known words "not even wrong" were Pauli's favorite ones – he first used this phrase in a dialogue with a mentally weaker fellow physicist whose name was almost certainly David Bohm.

Contributions to quantum mechanics

Pauli preferred to publish his thinking in papers to his friends – other top physicists – and not in papers. So it's plausible that he has discovered more than what we know. Even without speculations, he introduced spin in 1924 and did lots of extra later work linked to this concept. He needed to introduce the matrices for the 2-dimensional representation of \(Spin(3)\approx SU(2)\), the Pauli matrices. In the conventional bases, they may be found as blocks in the \(4\times 4\) Dirac matrices but Dirac used to claim that he found his matrices independently.

In 1940, Wolfgang Pauli improved some 1939 ideas about the spin-statistics theorem by Markus Fierz. The Pauli exclusion principle arose from his thinking about the spin as well, and so did his proof of the CPT-theorem. In 1949, he co-authored the Pauli Villars regularization which cancels infinities in loop diagrams by adding the contributions of nearly canceling and identical, but infinitely massive and negative-norm-bragging new particle species.

Also, Pauli was the first one who introduced a new particle (later called the neutrino) in the beta-decay. It was in his 1930 letter to Lise Meitner et al. which started by
Dear radioactive ladies and gentlemen, ...
Yup, the name above was originally spelled Mise Leitner but of course that she had the proper initials, LM, and not ML.

Pauli liked to criticize the modern synthesis of evolutionary biology and I am afraid that I don't want to study those writings in detail. He was often said to have paranormal abilities: devices broke whenever he was close enough.

Pauli wrote an early influential review of relativity and one of the famous Pauli anecdotes is about that work:
After a few minutes of conversation, Ehrenfest remarked, "I think I like your Encyclopedia article [on relativity theory] better than I like you," to which Pauli shot back, "That's strange. With me, regarding you, it is just the opposite."[14] The two became very good friends from then on.
It was quite an interesting character even though it's hard to agree with everything he stood for. The physicists born between 1900 and 1902 – Pauli, Heisenberg, Dirac, ... – were pretty amazing. We can't still exclude the possibility that the years 2000-2002 will end up being vintage years, too! ;-)

Two physicists who became Nobel prize winners were born on December 15th: Henri Becquerel and Maurice Wilkins. And Freeman Dyson is 91 years old today: Congratulations!


  1. The Pauli anecdote I remember seeing somewhere is about two pranksters who decided to conduct a vivid demostration of the already known "Pauli effect" of things breaking in any lab he entered. To that purpose, they rigged the chandelier to fall when Pauli entered the lab. However, when Pauli entered the lab, the cable they were supposed to pull to release the chandelier jammed.

  2. What Wolfgang Pauli did mean?

  3. Apologies, Yuri, I have no idea what you are talking about.

    It seems amazing to me that you could submit a PDF file to a server. I would probably not be able to teach a cat to do the same thing.

  4. Unfortunately he is now in danger of being banned from colleges on grounds of Political Correctness. Any sort of exclusion is of course unacceptable in our inclusive world.

  5. Are you sure that you have not confused him with someone else lol? Or his exclusion with his exclusion principle?

  6. Thanks for this entertaining nice article :-)

    Maybe it would be for today s physics community be a good idea to write papers exclusively to friendly colleagues too, instead of to the ArXiv, where not only friends see and successively talkabout them ... ;-)?

    Half joking, the ArXiv is a great invention of course.

  7. There is also a story that when he fell ill they took him to room 137. He said I will never get out of here. He died there.

  8. The
    original German quotation is:
    "Zweiteilung und Symmetrievemindeung, das ist des Pudels Kern. Zweiteilung ist ein sehr altes Attribut des Teufels. (Das Wort Zweifel
    soll urspünglichch Zweiteilung bedeutet haben)."