Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Happy Birthday Wolfgang Pauli

Some readers have wondered why we keep announcing birthdays of dead guys. Well. The reason is that I suspect many people scan blogs to find smalltalk topics for the lunch break. You know, causal remarks like: Do you think time is an illusion? or I read today the End of Physics is near! or just a mentioning of (caution, here it comes) The Anthropic Principle can easily lead to eternal lunches.

Therefore, the lunch remark of the day is: did you know that today is Wolfgang Pauli's birthday?

Wolfgang Pauli was born on April 25th, 1900 in Vienna. After receiving his early education in Vienna, he studied at the University of Munich under Arnold Sommerfeld. He obtained his doctor's degree in 1921 and spent a year at the University of Göttingen as assistant to Max Born and a further year with Niels Bohr at Copenhagen. (What I always liked most about quantum mechanics is that I know how to pronounce all the names of the people.)

Pauli is most famous for the exclusion principle which states that identical fermions (like electrons) can not occupy the same state. Thus, fermionic stuff can not clump together arbitrarily, and has an inherent stiffness. Among other things, the Pauli exclusion principle explains why electrons form nice shells around the atom core instead of all sitting in the lowest level, thus explaining the variety of chemical elements.

Wolfgang Pauli received the Nobel Price in 1945 "for the discovery of the Exclusion Principle, also called the Pauli Principle".

There are a lot of entertaining stories around Pauli, which is why he makes a good lunch topic. Among other things, he was known for spoiling experiments by simply being present in the room, an effect that was dubbed the 'Pauli-effect'. Allegedly, Otto Stern even banned Pauli from his laboratory to avoid the Pauli-effect, despite their friendship.

Wolfang Pauli was also known for ruthlessly criticising the work of his colleagues, from which the famous quotation stems

    "This isn't right. This isn't even wrong."

("Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch!")

Now let me publish this post... just in time for lunch. Have a toast to Pauli!


  1. Pauli was arguably smarter than the other big guys including Schrodinger, Bohr, Born, and maybe even Heisenberg. He had high standards - perhaps higher than what is needed for making the maximum progress. Good that at least the exclusion principle is named after him.

    Bad that the contemporary supreme crackpots misuse his name exactly in the opposite direction than Pauli himself would have done. The sloppy thinking and social-science-like arguments in science instead of a rigorous and transparent quantitative analysis was one of the main things Pauli despised.

  2. Indeed. We should have learned from Pauli that open and rigorous criticism is an important ingredient to progress, and not shoulder shrugging and laissez faire.

  3. Bee:
    The words "Anthropic Principle" seem to lower the threshold of some response centre in my brain so that the rant neurons fire. The "principle" seems to me to be something out of a Monty Python skit--like all the Bruces in the Australian Philosophy Department discussing its merits. Then I went to your link of your discussion, and I agree, and so did Lubos ( I have been unable to draw a response from him about this, which is just as well, as it gives this meme more exposure.) The whole thing seems to have been given some legs by Weinberg's analysis of the "fine tuning " of the CC---I guess even surpassingly smart people can have their moments( their a slow news days), like the Medieval philosophers counting angels on pins ( or Clinton saying it depends on what the meaning of "is" is.)
    On a totally tangential topic, I include a youtube clip I found and posted on the Reference Frame to illustrate the thread on the planet found orbiting a red dwarf---the only reason I burden you with it is that the very last 5 seconds had me spewing my coffee...:) search=

  4. Sorry: here is the link:

  5. On this occasion of Pauli birthday, it is important to appreciate that he and his gangs of the era have accomplished the impossible. Challenged by the mind-bending facts of the quantum and the nature of light, they laid the correct intellectual foundation of 20th century physics. They are seers of the highest order.

    Today, faced with similarly mind-bending challenges, where is our Pauli and gang?

  6. Hi Gordon,

    thanks :-) I am wondering if out there, somewhere, somebody is observing our planet, thinking, maybe there is intelligent life on it...

    Hi dark-matter,

    true. What we really need is a new Pauli, not a new Einstein...



  7. Dear Bee,

    thank you for this very nice post :-)
    I had completely forgetten about that, and unfortunately I missed the opportunity for luch, and also for dinner - but it is not too late, yet..

    Cheesrs, Stefan

  8. Hi All,

    Since this is a birthday, lets hear some festive music and watch how Danes overcome the exclusion principle by walking through walls Copenhagen style!

    (@Bee: 100% Jugendfrei.)



  9. Why are there so many principles in physics, eg, Pauli exclusion principle, equivalence principle cosmological principle, Mach's principle, and so on and so forth?

    To me, principles are scholastic concepts invented to fill the gaps in mathematical exposition which otherwise fail to save the dogma. Why does physics need so many principles? Thanks for any answers.

  10. theoreticalminimum1:23 AM, April 26, 2007

    I'm arguably late for a toast.

    I might be wrong here, but I think that no biography has so far done justice to our great Pauli, in the manner of Pais for Einstein. I have been, only casually I admit, looking for a nice exposé of the physicist's life, and I would be happy to hear of any good book out there.

    I had been looking forward for a similar kind of post this Monday (Planck's b'day), but that didn't materialise , either here, or elsewhere on the physics blogosphere :(

    Sunday is Poincaré's b'day, and next Monday is Gauss'! (so says PDG pocket diary). Deux géants!

    I agree that we need more people with Pauli's wits these days.. or maybe more hardworking and less blog-reading, internet-surfing physicists!

  11. I had been looking forward for a similar kind of post this Monday

    Yes, me too. Sorry... I asked my husband who usually does the history of science stuff, but it seems he was busy (I too have the pocket diary :-). I hope your comment will inspire him to write more frequently...



  12. Hi Pioneer,

    In principle, we don't need any principles. This is just a name given to 'the theoretical description of reality that Pauli got a Nobel Prize for'. I think Pauli-principle sounds better. Best,


  13. I had been looking forward for a similar kind of post this Monday

    Yes, me too. Sorry... I asked my husband who usually does the history of science stuff, but it seems he was busy (I too have the pocket diary :-)

    Sorry about that ;-)... I don't have that pocket diary. Well, ahum, Bee told me about these days before, but I (a) forgot about it and (b) am lucky that I did so because otherwise my head had exploded when thinking about what to write...

    BTW, there is a Pais-like biography of Pauli, it's called "No Time to be Brief", by his former student and Zurich colleague Charles Enz.

    Regards, stefan

  14. regarding pocket diary, you can order these online, its for free.

  15. Oh Bee, it's a good thing that Peter Woit didn't get wind of this one... Otherwise, he would have turned Pauli's Birthday into some sorta wild Love-Fest!


  16. Hi Bee,

    Thanks for the opportunity to toast Pauli.

    There's a lot of misinformation out there about Pauli's "nicht einmal falsch" quote, and I see that Lubos as usual is spreading more of it (he has a new posting claiming that Pauli came up with this in a discussion with David Bohm).

    For somewhat more reliable information about this, see here

  17. woohoo happy birthday. didn't even realize all the accomplishments he achieved.

  18. theoreticalminimum5:18 AM, April 27, 2007

    "No Time to be Brief"

    Thanks Stefan!

    Valentine Telegdi (former student and colleague of Pauli) wrote:
    "The book's structure is like that of Abraham Pais's celebrated biography of Albert Einstein, Subtle is the Lord (Oxford U. Press, 1982)--a mixture of thorough analysis of the scientific papers and of parallel developments in the subject's personal life."

    Perhaps as close as could be to what I had in mind! :-)

  19. Anoymous Snowboarder2:15 PM, April 27, 2007

    Bee only two things to say:

    |0 1| |0 -i| |1  0|
    |1 0| |i  0| |0 -1|

    and please stop this rain as
    its melting all of my snow!

  20. I wonder what Pauli thought of the Doppelganger?

  21. Nice Pauli spin matrices there, anonymous snowboarder...and happy bday to Pauli, another giant of Physics (though it was a couple of days ago).


  22. The treatment appears to have been beneficial and Pauli came to embrace many of Jung's mystic conjectures. The embrace was firm enough that Pauli and Jung jointly published a collection of essays. Pauli, the ultimate rationalist in physics, felt a deep interest in what lay "beyond" exact science.

    A lot of people reject this "subjectiveness of any scientist," full well knowing that the scientist already knows whta's required.

    Like Dirac, Pauli seen the mirror aspect of reality? While Pauli may have seen them as the archetypes, Dirac reduced them to the geometrical aspects of science.

    You would have to know what you are doing. That takes asessment of oneself. See Jung on my blog.

  23. "true. What we really need is a new Pauli, not a new Einstein..."

    Oh yeah, great. What we need is more loudmouthed obnoxious boors who do no original work but just criticise the contributions of others. Great.

  24. Dear Anonymous,

    "true. What we really need is a new Pauli, not a new Einstein..."

    Oh yeah, great. What we need is more loudmouthed obnoxious boors who do no original work but just criticise the contributions of others. Great.

    Well, if they qualify for a Nobel prize, I'd tolerate being loudmouthed and obnoxious. You are somehow missing an important point here. If everybody does his/her thing and nobody cares to look into it and critizise it, we are not going anywhere.

    Good Physics is Conflict

    And criticism is essential. Best,



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