Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Advent Calendar #13: A Postdoc's Nightmare

Pascual Jordan was, along with Werner Heisenberg, Paul Dirac, and Wolfgang Pauli, one of the Wunderkinder contributing to the development of quantum mechanics. He had obtained his Ph.D. in 1924, at the age of 22. In the following year, together with his Ph.D. advisor Max Born and with Heisenberg, he created the matrix formulation of quantum mechanics, formulating the canonical commutation relations between position and momentum. Jordan kicked off quantum field theory, and found the anti-commutation relation for creation and annihilation operators of particles with spin 1/2. These particles, now known as fermions, actually could be linked directly to Jordan, were it not for a case of extremely bad luck. As Max Born remembers:

In December of 1925 I went to America to give lectures at MIT. I was editor of the Zeitschrift für Physik, and Jordan gave me a paper to be published in the journal. I didn't find time to read it and put it in my suitcase. I forgot about it, and when I returned half a year later and unpacked, I found the paper at the bottom of the suitcase. It contained the Fermi-Dirac statistics. Meanwhile both Fermi and Dirac had discovered it. But Jordan was the first.

The Max Born quote, and more about Jordan, can be found in Engelbert Schuckings reminescences "Jordan, Pauli, Politics, Brecht... and a Variable Gravitational Constant" (in On Einstein's path: Essays in Honor of Engelbert Schucking).


  1. Jordonions??

    I don't think so...

  2. Hi Bee,

    This story has me truly feeling sorry for Jordon and gives reason to be thankful in knowing that if arXiv.org has no other utility it eliminates one danger posed by the existence of absent minded professors.



  3. its a pity that Jordan dint follow it up with Max Born!

  4. When Schücking, Jordan and Heckmann were all in Hamburg (Heckmann at the observatory in Bergedorf, Jordan in town, Schücking pendling back and forth) it was a very interesting time and there was real communication between the astronomers and the physicists. Now, most of the old observatories (Hamburg is an exception) have moved their people into town (like Saltsjöbaden to Stockholm, Brorfelde to Copenhagen, and the same at Leiden, Munich and elsewhere), but the promised advantages due to closer contact with the other physicists never seems to really pan out. Especially in the internet age, collaborations are global, so perhaps we shouldn't be surprised if this has no effect. Probably, since most of the old European observatories are located on prime real estate, the real reasons for getting the astronomers out of the observatories are probably different. :-(

  5. Don't feel too sorry for Jordan. He became an enthusiastic Nazi with all that that entails. My understanding is that he had a thoroughly nasty disposition so perhaps it was just karma that he should be treated thus.

  6. Yes, Jordan was apparently a convinced Nazi. However, most accounts paint him as a nice guy in person, somewhat shy, stuttering.

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  8. Eric, there was a thing called "patriotism" at the time Jordan, regardless of how Germany would turn out to be back then, made his choice. Heisenberg, for some reason, seems to have escaped the whole "being a Nazi" thing that Pascual Jordan's legacy seems incapable of ever escaping. Jordan also joined the brownshirts, choosing "wrong" in the sense that of the two entities Hitler had to chose from to be his secret police, he chose the gestapo.

    Jordan was also ostracized post-WWII for his choice, also unlike Heisenberg, with whom he worked with Max Born to develop the Matrix method of quantum mechanics, clearly one the greatest accomplishments of the ages.

    Pascual Jordan ranks up there among "The Quantum Ten" being the 10 men most responsible for giving us quantum mechanics.11 if you include Weyl.

  9. Steven, actually I don't know that he had a nasty disposition. I inferred that and perhaps am wrong. Patriotism certainly does not get him off the hook in my book, though. Way too much of that in my lifetime and I'm sure in his. "My country" right or wrong is wrong.

    But he paid for it in being shunned afterwards so I have no gripes. His record will always have that asterisk besides it, as it should.

  10. Asterisk? This isn't baseball and Roger Maris hitting more homers than Babe Ruth in a longer season. This is Science. Pauli, half-Jewish by heritage, tried to get him back into the community, and was unsuccessful.

    Nobody is getting anyone on or off any hook here. "Patriotism" is a double edged sword. I love my country, but that doesn't mean I won't be looking at a patch of Canadian real estate to live my retirement years out on if the USA foolishly goes to war with Iran. Who's the Reich then?

    Anyway, I never expect Scientists to make correct political decisions, or keep up with that nonsense. But then complacency has always been the real enemy, hasn't it?

    Eric, aren't you the guy who turned me on to Julian Assange? How's he doing? Did he cop out? Wouldn't be surprised. I guess he was told he gets to live that way.

    Finally, thank you Bee for this snippet of Jordan's life. Didn't know that. Silly Max Born, should have used a palm pilot. ;-)

  11. Jordan has always been the red headed step-child in the history of QM.


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