The Pauli Effect: How Disaster Accompanied a Quantum Physicist Wherever He Went

To the world, Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli was an esteemed theoretical physicist, a Nobel laureate. To the depth psychology community associated with Carl G. Jung, his name was little known, at first, but his extraordinary, vivid dreams, packed with symbolism (according to Jung), and anonymously conveyed to preserve patient privacy, were widely discussed. (Once Pauli and Jung published a book together, the thin cloak of anonymity dropped away.). Finally, to the circle of physicists surrounding Pauli, he was admired for his brilliance, feared for his scathing criticisms, and mocked for the “Pauli effect:” a propensity for disaster striking whenever he was in the vicinity of a laboratory, or other structure.

Physicist Wolfgang Pauli

If Wolfgang Pauli set foot in an experimental physics laboratory, the legend went, sheer mayhem would result. Beakers would crack, bunsen burners fail to ignite, oscilloscopes would cease to function, and expensive equipment would catch on fire. Collecting data would be useless, except perhaps calculating the total damage for an insurance report. Thus the Pauli effect, succinctly stated, is that Pauli and labs were an explosive mix. No wonder researcher Otto Stern decided to bar Pauli from passing through the doors of his laboratory.

Physicist Otto Stern, of the Stern-Gerlach experiment, reportedly batted Pauli from his lab

Theorist George Gamow, on the other hand, insisted that the Pauli effect was proof of his high standing in the field of theoretical physics–like an opera singer breaking glass with her voice, brilliant theoreticians seemed to have a propensity for shattering delicate lab apparatus.

But even if Pauli didn’t step foot inside a lab, as long as he was in its vicinity its researchers could not rest easy. The Pauli effect appeared to work through walls and across considerable distances. For instance, one time the train Pauli was riding in was briefly passing through the main railway station of Göttingen. Simultaneously, the legend goes, equipment at the University of Göttingen suddenly exploded for no reason.

Gamow’s humorous sketch of Pauli

Another time, Pauli was visiting the town of Princeton, to do research at the Institute for Advanced Study. At nearby Princeton University, the physics department, located in Palmer Physical Laboratory housed a powerful particle accelerator in its basement: the Princeton cyclotron with a 50-ton magnet. During Pauli’s sojourn, the cyclotron spontaneously combusted in a fire that burned for more than six hours and blackened the walls of the building.

The 50-ton Palmer Cyclotron Magnet being moved, more than 40 years after the 1950 fire

More examples are recorded. In Copenhagen, Pauli almost destroyed theorist Stanley Deser’s sports car. The list goes on and on.

With enough such catastrophes, Pauli began to believe deeply in his own effect. He addressed the topic in his therapy with Jung. Without scientific evidence, but based on his own analysis, Jung linked it to his own concept of “synchronicity:” an acausal connecting principle.

The C.G. Jung Institute in Küsnacht, Switzerland

On April 24, 1948, Jung proudly opened the C.G. Jung Institute, a center for teaching depth psychology, housed in a beautiful building along a lake in the Swiss village of Küsnacht , near Zürich. He invited Pauli to attend the opening ceremony. Pauli, who had started delving into symbolism behind the astronomical writings of Johannes Kepler and Robert Fludd, was pleased to take a break from his research and help celebrate the Institute’s inaugural.

Robert Fludd

At the posh event, suddenly there was a loud crash. Without warning or apparent reason, a beautiful Chinese vase dropped off a shelf, fell to the floor, and smashed into smithereens, releasing a huge puddle of water. Pauli immediately sensed the reason: his mere presence. He later wrote to Jung:

“Als bei der Gründung der C. G. Jung-Institutes jener lustige ‘Pauli-effekt’ der umgestürzten Blumenvase erfolgte…”

(When the funny “Pauli effect” of the overturned flower vase took place at the founding of the C.G. Jung Institute…)

-Wolfgang Pauli to Carl Jung, June 16, 1948 (ETH Archive)

Pauli thought that the flood released by the vase was meaningfully connected to his own studies of Robert Fludd. After all, the words “Fludd” and “Flood” (or “Flut” in German) are roughly pronounced the same. He took it as symbolic of his research discoveries regarding that thinker.

Pauli’s research on Kepler and Fludd was published along with Jung’s theory of synchronicity

Is the Pauli effect real? Certainly not. The human brain has a propensity to look for patterns, even when a series of occurrences might statistically be attributed to mere coincidence. Moreover, often genuine patterns that seem mysterious have scientific explanation in a common cause. For instance, thunder following lightning, each once believed to be harbingers of ill fate, derive from the same meteorological phenomenon, namely electrical disturbances in the clouds.

Therefore we might attribute the effect to a real common cause (genuine absentmindedness and clumsiness) mixed with the keen desire by Pauli and other to look for patterns amongst the noise. Sure all the times he didn’t cause catastrophes vastly outnumbered the handful of events recorded. Yet the Pauli effect is certainly great fun to talk about, lending humor to the serious topic of theoretical physics.

The author at the C.G. Jung Institute, where the famous “Pauli effect” of a fallen vase took place in 1948

Published by Paul Halpern

Physicist and Science Writer. Author of sixteen books, most recently Synchronicity: The Epic Quest to Understand the Quantum Nature of Cause and Effect

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