Wolfgang Pauli: The conscience of physics came from Vienna

by Peter Graf and Christof Capellaro (Österreichische Zentralbibliothek für Physik – Erwin-Schrödinger-Archiv)

Left: School class photo with Wolfgang Pauli and Richard Kuhn year of graduation (Matura) 1918, Gymnasium Döbling, Vienna. Right: Wolfgang Pauli, ca. 1924. Both images ©Österreichische Zentralbibliothek für Physik

Wolfgang Pauli was born in Vienna on April 25, 1900. Although he left his native city at the age of 18, his childhood and youth in the Danube metropolis had a decisive influence on Pauli. This is especially true of the intellectual climate in his parents’ house, that was quite characteristic for the well-educated middle class of Vienna at the fin de siècle. Pauli's father was a university professor of colloid chemistry who descended from a Jewish family of booksellers in Prague. Pauli's maternal grandfather worked as an editor of the Neue Presse. His grandmother performed as a soprano at the royal opera house and awakened Pauli’s enthusiasm for music. His mother was a journalist and committed herself to the feminist movement. Pauli's sister Hertha became a well-known actress and a successful writer.

Pauli’s father also was a close friend of the physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach who became Wolfgang’s godfather. Mach had a great influence on Pauli, especially in terms of his strict empiricism. "Mach was probably a stronger personality than the Catholic clergyman, and the result seems to be that I was baptised anti-metaphysical instead of Catholic" Pauli wrote. Throughout his lifetime Pauli claimed that any theory had to be based on the reality of experiments and rejected any metaphysical speculations.

Pauli was a child genius in science. Once his father took the 12-year-old to Munich where they attended a lecture by Arnold Sommerfeld. When Sommerfeld asked him whether he had understood everything, Pauli pointed out an error in Sommerfeld’s calculation. Pauli attended the Gymnasium Döbling which had a very special feature: Wolfgang Pauli and Richard Kuhn, two later Nobel Prize winners, were in the same class for several years. However, their later paths were completely different: while the cosmopolitan and three-quarter Jew Pauli survived the Shoah in Switzerland and the US, Kuhn collaborated with the Nazis, dismissed and denounced colleagues and was involved in nerve and poison gas research.

Pauli’s career track was quite impressive: Doctorate with Sommerfeld at 21, assistant to Max Born and Niels Bohr in his early 20s. Not even 30 years of age, Pauli became full professor of theoretical physics at the ETH Zurich.

At the same time, Pauli was anything else than a learned ascetic. Under the influence of Otto Stern, the former teetotaler went over "from mineral water directly to champagne". Even as a professor Pauli led the life of a bohemian who loved to crawl the pubs before working on physical issues deep into the night. When he was asked to schedule his lecture at 8 am Pauli answered: "I cannot stay up that long." Every so often Pauli behaved in a typical Viennese way: he tended to grumble, was fond of pastries, and enjoyed convivial gatherings.

However, Pauli turned into a sharp and blunt critic when it came to physics, expressing his disapproval often punning in the style of Karl Kraus: "That is" he commented a peer’s lecture "not only not right, it is not even wrong. " Almost nobody was safe from Pauli’s pointed pen: In 1927, he sent greetings to Oskar Klein saying, he wished Klein’s "physics a speedy recovery" and in 1929 he asked Niels Bohr whether he intended to "maltreat the poor energy theorem even further."

Nevertheless, many physicists were interested in the opinion of Pauli, who impersonated the conscience of physics: an assumption that found his favour had passed a decisive acid test of scholarly soundness.

Pauli’s interests were not limited to physics, as his long-lasting friendship with Swiss psychoanalyst C.G.Jung shows. With Jung, Pauli discussed philosophical, psychological and historical problems.

Pauli died – only 58 years old –of pancreatic cancer.


Literature used and further reading

Enz, Charles P.; Meyenn Karl v. (Ed.): Wolfgang Pauli – Das Gewissen der Physik. Braunschweig 1988 (including a detailed bibliography and reprints of several works by Pauli).

Enz, Charles P.: "Pauli hat gesagt. " – Eine Biografie des Nobelpreisträgers Wolfgang Pauli 1900-1958. Zürich 2005.

Enz, Charles P.: No time to be brief. – A scientific biography of Wolfgang Pauli. Oxford 2002.

Fischer, Ernst Peter: "Davon glaube ich kein Wort." – Anekdoten und Geschichtenaus der Welt der Wissenschaft. Ditzingen 2019.

Jacobi, Manfred: Von antimetaphysischer Herkunft. – Zum 100. Geburtstag von Wolfgang Pauli. In: Phys. Blätter 56(2000), p. 57–60.

Kramar, Thomas: Von "antimetaphysischer Taufe'' zur Alchimie. – Die verschärften Gegensätze eines Physikers. In: Die Presse, 22.4.2020, Spectrum, p. XIII.

Selleri, Franco: Die Debatte um die Quantentheorie. Braunschweig 1990.

Weissensteiner, Friedrich: Eine Klasse für sich. In: Die Presse, 03.01.2009.

Wolfgang Pauli und C.G. Jung. – Ein Briefwechsel. Berlin, 1992.


Comments (0)

No comments found!