Faux Pas

The Brilliant Physicist Who Caused Destruction Wherever He Went

They say everyone has the capacity of bringing happiness in every location. Some do so by showing up. Others cause happiness by leaving. As far as his colleagues were concerned, Wolfgang Pauli fell in the latter category. This brilliant pioneer in quantum mechanics had such a propensity to cause mayhem in the experiments of others that the Pauli Effect is known throughout the scientific community and evokes fear and trepidation.

Wolfgang Pauli
Wolfgang Pauli (1900-1958)

Wolfgang Pauli (1900-1958) was born in Austria. His work as a theoretical physicist led to his recognition as one of the leading pioneers in quantum physics. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1945, after being nominated by Albert Einstein. The prize was awarded for his development of the Pauli Exclusion Principle. While that may have earned him fame within the scientific community, it is another phenomenon that bears his name that has earned him notoriety.

Pauli could be famously destructive in his blistering comments of others. He once dismissed a colleague’s paper by saying, “This paper isn’t right; it isn’t even wrong.” Another time, he evaluated an aspiring lecturer, saying, “So young and already so unknown.” When he was interrupted by fellow physicist, Eugene Guth, he shot back with the words, “Guth, whatever you know, I know.” His comments to another colleague, after reading that researcher’s recently-published article, were, “I do not mind if you think slowly, but I do object when you publish more quickly than you think.”

Despite the devastating effect of Pauli’s criticism, it was something even more destructive that earned the dubious honor of being known as “The Pauli Effect.” Pauli’s colleagues noted that when he was in the vicinity, things related to physics experiments and equipment tended to blow up, completely destroying the experiment, but leaving Pauli unscathed.

Manhattan Project physicist Rudolf Peierls described the Pauli Effect, saying, “This was a kind of spell he was supposed to cast on people or objects in his neighborhood, particularly in physics laboratories, causing accidents of all sorts. Machines would stop running when he arrived in a laboratory, a glass apparatus would suddenly break, a leak would appear in a vacuum system, but none of these accidents would ever hurt or inconvenience Pauli himself.”

This phenomenon happened so often that Pauli was immediately a suspect, even when he was not obviously present. When Professor James Frank’s laboratory at the Physics Institute at the University of Göttingen blew up for no apparent reason, someone remarked that this could be the Pauli effect. At first, this was dismissed as a joke, since Pauli was nowhere to be seen. Only later, however, was it confirmed that Pauli was on a train from Zurich to Copenhagen, and at the moment of the explosion, the train had stopped at the nearby Göttingen station.

The stories became too numerous to be able to compile an exhaustive list, but some of the more notable examples include:

  • Upon his arrival at Princeton in 1950, an expensive new cyclotron burned for no obvious reason.
  • Pauli was sitting at a table in the window of the Café Odeon. While focusing on a large, unoccupied car parked in front of the restaurant, the car burst into flames.
  • Pauli was dining with Erwin Panofsky, the famous art historian, and two other scholars. When they rose from the table after dessert, three of the men found that they had been sitting – inexplicably – on whipped cream, now smeared over their pants. The only one unscathed, of course, was Pauli.
  • Some of Pauli’s fellow-scientists plotted to spoof the effect attributed to him at a reception. They carefully suspended a chandelier by a rope that they intended to release when Pauli entered the room, causing the chandelier to crash down. When they released the rope, however, it got stuck and jammed up the pulley. This showed that even when the experiment was intended to create chaos, the Pauli Effect interfered and stopped the mayhem from taking place.
  • When the Jung Institute was inaugurated in Zurich in 1948, Pauli attended the opening ceremony. When Pauli entered the reception room, a large Chinese vase inexplicably slid off a table, creating a flood that drenched some of the distinguished guests.

According to his close colleague Marcus Fierz, “Pauli believed thoroughly in his effect.” He experienced an unpleasant inner tension before things blew up. After the event, he felt relief and release from tension, even moments of euphoria.

The disastrous consequences of the Pauli Effect were so well known that at least one experimental physicist, Otto Stern, banned Pauli from coming anywhere near his laboratory. It has been suggested that the Pauli Effect was the reason why, despite his extensive expertise in physics, he was never invited to be a part of the Manhattan Project to develop the first atomic bomb. Those who were familiar with Pauli’s reputation for mayhem likely shuddered at the thought of him being anywhere near fissionable material.

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