Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Pauli's Chinese Woman & the Value of Change


I've been on the road for my new book, The Secret History of Dreaming. I again observed, during a lively week in California, that coincidence multiplies when we are in motion. By "coincidence", I mean the intersection of an external event - or series of events - with an inner sense of meaning.

I richly enjoyed an hour-long conversation on KQED public radio in San Francisco with Michael Krasny, host of the popular radio show "The Forum". It is a great pleasure to talk with a highly literate, intelligent interviewer who has read your book and engaged with it deeply. Michael spoke as a skeptical agnostic, yet ten minutes into the show he was willing to share a personal dream of his departed father, which immediately carried us to a greater human depth.

He asked me to explain how I had "cracked the code" of the Chinese Woman in the dreams of Wolfgang Pauli, the quantum physicist, as described in my Secret History. I recounted how Pauli had been both attracted an repelled by dreams of a Chinese Woman who was sometimes sexually alluring, moving like a snake dancer, but led him to places where he felt his world was being shaken to its core. In one of Pauli's dreams, the Chinese Woman gave birth to a child that was not acknowledged by the world. When he shared these dreams with Jung, the great psychologist sought to identify the Chinese Woman as an anima figure in Pauli's psyche. Yet, as I discovered with the help of a physicist friend, the Chinese Woman may have been a figure in the external world of physics. A very attractive Chinese-American physicist, Dr Wu, arranged the experiment that overthrew the "parity principle" - to which Pauli was fiercely wedded - in the arly 1950s, shaking Pauli's intellectual world. When the Nobel committee awarded the physics prize for this breakthrough, it acknowledged the two male theoretical physicists involved, but not the experimental physicist, Dr Wu, thus fulfilling Pauli's dream of the Chinese Woman whose baby was not acknowledged by the world.

As soon as the show was over, I received a stream of email from interested listeners. The very first email came from a woman who reported that she had known Pauli's Chinese Woman. Her husband had been a graduate student under Dr Wu. She recalled, delightfully, that Dr Wu "used to pull my ponytail."

At the end of that week, I led an Active Dreaming workshop at a lodge in Hakone Gardens, a dreamscape of Japanese formal gardens with winding paths and fish ponds and hump-backed bridges. During the break, a woman touring the gardens separated from her family to greet me. She identified herself as one of the callers who had managed to speak to me on the air on "The Forum". She had no idea that I would be at Hakone - fifty miles from the KQED studios - that day, and found the synchronicity remarkable, as indeed it was.

The Friday evening before that encounter, I spoke to an enthusiastic crowd of over 100 at East-West bookstore in Mountain View. At the end of my talk I suggested the following homeplay assignment: "Pretend that the first unusual or striking thing that happens to you after you leave the bookstore tonight will be a message to you from the world, a kind of in-your-face dream symbol."

A woman rushed back into the store while I was still signing books to report how she had gotten an immediate message from the world.
"Look what I got!" She held out her palm to show me a Buffalo nickel (one of the old "Indian Head" nickels retired from circulation in 1938). "I got it in the change at a Chinese take-out place. Do you know how RARE this is?"
I said, "My one liner-would be, change is valuable."
She clapped her hands, delighted. "Yes! Change is worth a lot."
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The image: Wolfgang Pauli with Dr Chien Shiung Wu, who constructed an experiment in 1957 involving the beta decay of cobalt that demonstrated that parity is not conserved in "weak" interactions, overhrowing what Pauli had regarded as a fundamental law of physics.

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