50th anniversary of Wolfgang Pauli's death, 15th December 2008

The father of the exclusion principle, Wolfgang Pauli, died on 15 December 1958 in Zürich. In memory of the 50th anniversary of his death, various events commemorated the famous Austrian physicist. A thorough scientific biography of Pauli was written in 2002 by Charles P. Enz, his last assistant [1].
In today’s context, it is noteworthy that many years after receiving the Nobel Prize and being at the top of his fame, Pauli still took over the presidency of the Swiss Physical Society from 1954 to 1956. This at a time where the role of the highly regarded SPS was different from today, less oriented towards public outreach and the support of young school students.

In the present text we collected a few popular anecdotes about Wolfgang Pauli who was also known for his sarcastic humor and his sometimes disrespectful attitude towards his colleagues. A wonderful illustration of it is his famous citation “That's not right. It's not even wrong.” [2], which became a common dictum for scientific arguments, which themselves are based on incorrect or at least unverified assumptions.

When searching archives for anecdotes about Pauli, one finds the so-called Pauli effect, a parapsychology phenomenon that was greatly feared among Pauli's colleagues, at least among the experimental physicists. In the presence of Pauli, technical installations or instruments would unexpectedly fail, and experiments turn unsuccessful. Pauli himself was conscious of his peculiar talent and was delighted by such comic events. It is said that Pauli’s friend Otto Stern never allowed Pauli to visit his laboratory in Hamburg.

In February 1950, when Pauli was at Princeton University, the cyclotron burnt, and he asked himself whether he was responsible for this catastrophe. It seems strange to the most of us that a natural scientist like Wolfgang Pauli actually believed in the existence of the effect named after him. As Pauli considered parapsychology worthy of serious investigation, this would fit with his scientific thinking. "Pauli himself thoroughly believed in his effect" can one read in ref. [1]. This is one reason why Pauli had such an intense correspondence with the Swiss psychologist C. G. Jung. The latter stated later that Pauli made important contributions to his work. In the famous article "Background-Physics", Pauli tried to find similarities between physics and psychology [3].

To skeptical physicists who don’t believe in the existence of phenomena like the Pauli effect, or that Pauli himself didn’t deny it, a funny story is mentioned to have happened at the University of Göttingen. One day, an expensive apparatus stopped working without any apparent reason and restarted a few hours later to work properly, as if nothing had happened. James Franck, the director of the institute reported the incident to Pauli in Zürich with the humorous remark that at least this time he was innocent. However, it turned out that Pauli was on his way that day from Copenhagen to Zürich, with a short stopover at the Göttingen railway station, waiting for a train connection at about the time of failure.

Tibor Gyalog, SPG-Vizepräsident


[1] Enz, Charles P (2002). No Time to be Brief: A Scientific Biography of Wolfgang Pauli. New York: Oxford University Press.
[2] Peierls R. (1960) "Wolfgang Ernst Pauli, 1900-1958". Biographical memoirs of fellows of the Royal Society (Royal Society (Great Britain)) 5: 174–92.
[3] Pauli, Wolfgang; Jung, C. G. (2001). Atom and Archetype: the Pauli/Jung Letters, 1932-1958. ed. C.A. Meier. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp. 179–196.


[Released: March 2009]