A Quantum of Insults

Nobel laureate physicist Wolfgang Pauli had a penchant for hurling evil zingers at other scientists

Wolfgang Pauli with Paul Ehrenfest (CERN)

By the age of 20, Viennese physicist Wolfgang Pauli had acquired the reputation of being a wunderkind, a child genius. His PhD supervisor Arnold Sommerfeld had recruited him to write an article about Einsteinian relativity for a scientific encyclopedia. The opportunity gave Pauli the chance to shine. Fellow physicists applauded its systematic overview of the subject.

Pauli’s seminal article on Relativity Theory

Along with being brilliant, however, Pauli also acquired a reputation for being caustic and derisive of others. His put-downs of other physicists were legendary. Virtually no one could escape his venomous insults. Paul Ehrenfest, one of his targets, nicknamed Pauli “Die Geissel Gottes (the Scourge of God),” an epithet that he embraced, and used to sign his letters. Another of his nicknames was “Der fürchterlich Pauli (The Terrible Pauli)”. Finally, in a 1932 satirical version of Faust, acted by young scientists at Niels Bohr’s Institute for Theoretical Physics, Pauli was cast as Mephistopheles, or the Devil.

Austrian physicist Paul Ehrenfest

Pauli’s first meeting with Ehrenfest, at the 1922 “Bohr Festspiele (Bohr Festival) in Göttingen, was epic. Like Pauli, Ehrenfest had contributed to Sommerfeld’s Encylopedia — in his case, on Statistical Mechanics. As Swedish physicist Oskar Klein described the meeting:

“On that occasion Ehrenfest stood a little away from Pauli, looked at him mockingly and said: ‘Herr Pauli, I like your article better than I like you! To which Pauli very calmly replied: ‘That is funny, with me it is just the opposite!’”

Swedish physicist Oskar Klein (ESVA)

Klein himself was the subject of Pauli’s degrading remarks. An accomplished researcher, he still didn’t impress Pauli. Upon leaving a position in Copenhagen to return to Sweden, Pauli offered him this advice:

“I hope you will now fulfill the words ‘Go and teach the people.’ Your great pedagogical ability was always one of your strongest suits… I am not of the opinion that finding new laws of nature and indicating new directions is one of your great strengths, although you have always developed a certain ambition in this direction.”

German physicist E. Pascual Jordan (ESVA)

One of Pauli’s good friends and collaborators was German physicist Pascual Jordan. Nonetheless, Pauli criticized him as a “formalist” (meaning just a mathematician).

During the Nazi era, Jordan, though a supporter of international cooperation in physics, an opponent of antisemitism, and a vocal supporter of Einstein, decided to join the party. Pauli slammed him, but maintained a friendship. Jordan soon received an appointment at the University of Rostock, an institution that Pauli did not think highly of. After World War II, Pauli was entreated to help rehabilitate Jordan’s reputation. Pauli explained to people, sarcastically:

“Herr Jordan [had an excuse for joining the party]. He was a professor at Rostock!”

Albert Einstein with Wolfgang Pauli (ESVA)

Albert Einstein greatly respected Pauli’s opinion. Pauli was one of the few physicists to read over his unified field theory attempts, and offer criticism. He was one of the few notable physicists that Einstein directly collaborated with (on a joint 1945 paper) in his later years. When Pauli won the Nobel Prize, Einstein commented that he considered Pauli a worthy successor. (Sadly, Pauli would die in 1958, only three years after Einstein’s death).

Despite his respect for Einstein, Pauli would still offer mocking comments. For example, when one of Einstein’s unified field theory attempts was published, Pauli offered this barb:

“It is indeed a courageous deed of the editors to accept an essay on a new field theory of Einstein for the ‘Results in the Exact Sciences.’ His never-ending gift for invention, his persistent energy in the pursuit of a fixed aim in recent years surprise us with, on the average, one such theory per year. Psychologically interesting is that the author normally considers his actual theory for a while as the ‘definite solution.’ Hence one could cry out: ‘Einstein’s new field theory is dead. Long live Einstein’s new field theory!’”

Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger (ESVA)

In 1947, Austrian physicist Erwin Schrödinger, then residing in Ireland, announced his own unified field theory, based partly on his discussions with Einstein. The announcement was picked up by the international media, which in some reports framed the result as Schrödinger achieving the goal that had alluded Einstein. Einstein was understandably miffed, and publicly criticized the hype over Schrödinger’s result. Pauli’s reaction to that skirmish, according to physicist Peter Freund, was telling:

“I really don’t see what the whole fuss is about. This theory is ill conceived. If you connected my name with it in any fashion then I would have a right to sue you.”

Physicist Werner Heisenberg (center) with Niels Bohr and Wolfgang Pauli (ESVA)

German physicist Werner Heisenberg was a good friend of, and sometimes collaborator with, Pauli, dating back to their university days. In the mid-1950s they worked together on an attempted unified field theory. In 1958, Heisenberg jumped the gun, in Pauli’s view, by announcing his version of the theory. As historian Arthur Miller documents, one report about the work dubbed Pauli “Heisenberg’s assistant.” Insulted by the designation, Pauli started to attack Heisenberg’s theory publicly. After hearing Heisenberg speak about his theory on the radio, stating that only the details needed to be filled in, Pauli sent physicist George Gamow a sketch of an empty rectangle with the inscription:

“This is to show the world that I can paint like Titian. Only technical details are missing.”

Pauli’s mocking of Heisenberg
Wolfgang Pauli and John Wheeler at the “Nobel-Bier-Abend” (Evening beer party to celebrate Pauli’s Nobel Prize) in 1945 (CERN Pauli Archive)

Of the American physicists Pauli came into contact with, one of the figures he respected most was John Wheeler. In spring 1940, Wheeler invited Pauli to attend a research seminar delivered by the young Richard Feynman, who was working with him at the time on a theory of direct electron interactions (Wheeler-Feynman absorber theory). At one point Pauli took Feynman aside and criticized Wheeler for being too ambitious in claiming that a quantum version of their theory would be straightforward. Indeed, it was Feynman, not Wheeler, who made the breakthrough in that area, by positing the notion of “sum over histories).

Polish-born American physicist Stanley Deser

Polish-born American physicist Stanley Deser is one of the few eminent physicists today who interacted with Pauli. He distinctly remembers Pauli’s venomous side. As Deser recalled:

“He was very rude and very self-assured. He was there for the greater glory of God. I have a letter from Pauli. I wanted to come and visit him at that time in Zurich. And he wrote me a reply saying unfortunately he doesn’t issue visas from Switzerland so he can’t stop me from coming.”

German-born British physicist Rudolph Peierls (ESVA)

Not Even Wrong!

Finally, to recount perhaps the most famous of Pauli’s insults, which Columbia University physicist Peter Woit would adopt as the title of his popular blog and book Not Even Wrong. According to German-born British physicist Rudolph Peierls:

“a friend showed Pauli the paper of a young physicist which he suspected was not of great value but on which he wanted Pauli’s views. Pauli remarked sadly, ‘It is not even wrong’.”

Wolfgang Pauli in his younger years

Wolfgang Pauli’s example shows that brilliance doesn’t always equal compassion. Yet, because of his genius and predictable penchant for insults, physicists generally took his caustic nature in stride. They wanted to hear what he had to say, barbs and all, because they thought it would be of value. As Einstein once remarked, after Pauli had besieged him with critiques: “You were right after all, you rascal.”

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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