Thursday, January 5, 2012

The man who blew things up

“Pauli Effect” is a term invented to describe the way the mere presence of Wolfgang Pauli, the pioneer of quantum mechanics, tended to cause things to blow up, especially physics experiments and equipment. At least one experimental physicist (Otto Stern) banned Pauli from coming anywhere near his laboratory.
    Pauli was brilliant, but he was also a roiling mass of conflicted emotions. His mother’s suicide, his father’s subsequent marriage to a woman half his age, his discovery as a young adult that his parents had concealed the fact that three of his grandparents were Jewish, his heavy drinking and a disastrous early union with a cabaret dancer who ran off with another man, all contributed his violent mood swings. The way the material world seemed to react to him is a case study in how mind and matter interact, so egregious that we can hardly miss drawing the lesson that thoughts and feelings are actions that change the world we inhabit.
   Pauli's friend and colleague Rudolf Peierls (a German-born physicist who moved to England and later worked on the Manhattan Project) described the Paul Effect as follows: “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.”
   When important experimental equipment in Professor James Frank’s laboratory at the Physics Institute at the University of Gottingen blew up for no apparent reason, someone remarked that this could be the Pauli effect. However, Pauli was nowhere in the area; he was on a train, traveling to Denmark. It was later discovered that at the time of the lab explosion, the train carrying Pauli from Zurich to Copenhagen was making a stop at Gottingen station.
  When he arrived at Princeton in 1950, an expensive new cyclotron that had recently be installed burned for no obvious reason, and there was again speculation about the Pauli Effect.
   Such phenomena happened outside the laboratory.
   When the Jung Institute was inaugurated in Zurich in 1948, Pauli attended the opening ceremony, since Jung had asked him to become a “scientific patron” and so represent the convergence of physics and psychology. At the time, Pauli's mind was turnng on the tension between two earlier approaches to knowledge represented by the alchemist Robert Fludd and the scientifst Johannes Kepler. When Pauli entered the reception room for the Jung party, a large Chinese vase inexplicably slid off a table, creating a flood that drenched some of the distnguished guests. Pauli saw huge symbolic significance because of the echo of “Fludd” in the phenomenon of the spontaneous “flood”. This incident inspired him to write his paper “Background Physics”.
    On another occasion, Pauli was sitting at a table in the window of the Café Odeon, thinking intently about the color red and its feeling tones. While thinking “red”, he was unable to take his eyes off a large, unoccupied car parked in front of the restaurant. As he watched, the car burst into flames and his field of vision was filled with fiery red.
    In yet another, quite hilarious, incident in New York, Pauli was lunching 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 trousered rumps. The only one unscathed, of course, was Pauli.
    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. No doubt he enjoyed his ever-growing reputation for producing wickedly strange phenomena. This was, after all, the man who dressed up as Mephistopheles for a skit in front of Niels Bohr’s circle in Copenhagen.
The best story on the Pauli Effect is from Rudolf Peierls. 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. “But when Pauli came, the rope became wedged on a pulley and nothing happened – a typical example of the Pauli effect.”
It has been suggested that the reason Pauli was not invited to join the Manhattan Project – which recruited many physicists from his circle – was that the directors knew Pauli’s reputation and were worried that he would blow up something vital.

For more on Pauli, his long collaboration with Jung, his dreams and his contribution to the theory of synchronicity, please read the chapter titled “The Man Who Blew Things Up” in my book The Secret History ofDreaming, published by New World Library.


SA Skye said...

I love this post. Thanks Robert. I think, however, rather than attributing all these life incidents to his wild mood swings and situations, perhaps it was his wild mood swings and attitudes and beliefs that drew these life experiences to him.

Robert Moss said...

"It was his wild mood swings and attitudes and beliefs that drew these life experiences to him." Precisely. That's what my piece is all about. Emerson might have called this "spiritual magnetism".

I can't find any real difference between the last part of your sentence and the first part. If I am missing anything important, no doubt something will now blow up....

nina4667 said...

Robert, I've experienced something similar to the "Pauli Effect" in my life. A man who worked for our business as our route driver for five years got a divorce and was in such emotional turmoil that many things around him broke or went wrong...the route van had multiple problems that year, our cooling unit in our building quit and had to be repaired, his hot water heater in his home exploded, and his chimney caught on fire! We came to the conclusion then that it was his wild mood swings affecting the physical things around him (he was angry and distraught because his wife ran off with another man). I'm just glad nothing blew up before he calmed down!

Robert Moss said...

Nina - That driver certainly sounds like a poster boy for the Pauli Effect. Glad things calmed down before major damage was caused!

nina said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Don said...

Having read The Secret History of Dreaming this story is not entirely new to me. But it still shocks me that such things can happen.

I have also heard of people who have the opposite effects, people who seem to cause good things to happen.

I have known people who seem to win often. They often win at lotteries, for instance.

This makes me wonder more about the cause of all of this. How does it happen? Why does it happen? Why do some people have specific attributes more highly developed than others? Can a person choose to have such powers -- in a benefifial way of course.

Thank you, Robert, for posting this story.

Richard J Reeve said...

The externalization of psychic activity, the extroverted aspect, that psyche is not locked up in our brain case, is a difficult threshold for the collective to accept.

Robert Moss said...

Richard - Well, some of us make it our game to expand consciousness. I've made a modest attempt in several of my books, including "The Three 'Only' Things", and in much of my teaching all over the map. We can choose to focus on an seemingly unyielding wall, or to look for the hidden spring that will open a previously unnoticed door, or on willing that door to appear...

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