“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
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 University
of Gottingen . It was
later discovered that at the time of the lab explosion, the train carrying
Pauli from Denmark
was making a stop at Copenhagen
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
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
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
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. New York
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
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.