Monday, January 30, 2012

Wolfgang Pauli, 1931, not so dry

In 1931, Wolfgang Pauli went for a long-term stay to Ann Arbor, Michigan. In Ann Arbor, Pauli gave lectures and met, among others, with Otto Laporte, George Uhlenbeck and Arnold Sommerfeld. In the summer 1931, the USA suffered from heat and prohibition. In a letter from July 1st, 1931 to his student Rudolf Peierls, Pauli wrote:
"[T]rotz Gelegenheit zum Schwimmen leide ich sehr unter der großen Hitze hier. Unter der "Trockenheit" leide ich aber gar nicht, da Laporte und Uhlenbeck ausgezeichnet mit Alkohol versorgt sind (man merkt die Nähe der kanadisehen Grenze). Physik (und Physiker) gibt es hier sehr viel, aber ich finde sie zu formal..."

"Despite the opportunity to swim, I suffer from the heat. I do not suffer however from the "dryness," since Laporte and Uhlenbeck have an excellent supply of liquor (one notices the vicinity of the Canadian border). One finds here a lot of physics (and physicists), but most I find too formal..."
Evidently, the supply was ample since, in a letter from later that summer, Pauli reported:
"Dummerweise bin ich neulich (in etwas angeheitertem Zustand) so ungünstig über eine Treppe gefallen, daß ich mir die Schulter gebrochen habe und nun im Bett liegen muß, bis die Knochen wieder ganz sind - sehr langweilig."

"Unfortunately, the other day I fell (somewhat tipsy) on the stairs and broke my shoulder. Now I have to lie in bed till the bones have healed - very boring."

Since drinking was illegal, the official reason for his accident was that he slipped on the tiles at the swimming pool. In the image to the right, you see Pauli with his broken shoulder. Click to enlarge. Image source: CERN archive. Text source: "Wolfgang Pauli: Scientific Correspondence with Bohr, Einstein, Heisenberg a.o." Volume II: 1930-1939, edited by Karl von Meyenn, Springer-Verlag (1985).


  1. Hi Bee,

    My favorite Pauli photo was taken by Roy Glauber, who shared the 2005 physics Nobel. You can find it on Glauber's Nobel Prize website.

    Glauber's caption:

    Life with Wolfgang Pauli; a Spring 1950 outing. Prepared to photograph Pauli kicking the ball into the lake, as he had done earlier, I stood to one side, carefully aiming the camera at him. Pauli indeed kicked the ball, and I managed to snap the shutter just before the camera hit me squarely in the face.

    I think the look on Pauli's face in this moment says a lot about his personality, and also his treatment of other physicists. (Especially those with different ideas than his.)



  2. Hi Bee,

    In as his shoulder and the stairs are primarily both of fermionic nature his exclusion principal might have prevented the two from ever making contact; however he forgot that a two spin particle can render the entire outcome bosonic.



  3. I read somewhere that Hamilton towards the end was 'not so dry' either. Perhaps one can blame it on the baleful influence of quaternions, driving people to drink, though it looks like Pauli was having more fun. I wonder what Pauli thought about the muon. It is curious that if there are three generations of fermions, where are the three 'generations of spinors' ? And now that we know that all fermions have mass, where did Weyl get off proposing massless fermions instead proposing that it is impossible for fermions to live in the null space of spacetime ?

  4. Hi Kris,

    Thanks for the link, that is a great photo indeed! Best,


  5. Hi Joel,

    There is a German saying "Dummheit frißt, Intelligenz säuft (das Genie macht beides)" but don't tell anybody I ever mentioned it ;o) Also, sorry for the nitpicking, but we strictly speaking don't know that all fermions have mass because we have evidence so far only for the differences of the mass squared of the neutrinos. Best,


  6. Bee- an intersting post might be about Great Physicist Party Animals! (note that the party operator may not always commute with the ability to hold liquor operator!)

    (i hope this only posts once, captcha probs)


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