From the archive

Bertha Pauli’s son Wolfgang is born

25 April 1900

Bertha Camilla Schütz (known as Maria) was born in Vienna in 1878. A writer and journalist, she followed in her father’s footsteps as collaborator on the Neue Freie Presse, writing theatre reviews and historical essays. In 1899 she married Wolf Pauli and their first child was born on 25 April 1900. Wolfgang junior, seen here at the age of 20 months, grew up to be a Nobel prizewinning physicist, and his sister Hertha (1906-1973) became an actress and writer. Their mother was a pacifist, a socialist and a feminist, participating in the electoral campaign of 1919 to urge women to cast their newly won vote for the Social Democratic Party. She died (suicide) on 15 November 1927.

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From the archive

Young Wolfgang Pauli

1 December 1906

Future Nobel laureate Wolfgang Pauli was a little over six-and-a-half years old when this photo was taken in December 1906. His biographer Charles Enz notes that that young Wolfi contracted all the usual childhood diseases and, to use the typically Viennese expression, es war ihm immer fad – he always felt bored.

By the age of four he was already adept in the art of contradicting his elders that would later help him to reshape modern physics. On being told during one of his walks through Vienna, ‘Now we are walking over the Danube Canal', he replied firmly, ‘No, Aunt Erna, this is the Wien Canal, which flows into the Danube Canal.’

 

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From the archive

Wolfgang Pauli begins his studies in Munich

4 October 1918

In October 1918 Wolfgang Pauli left Vienna to study at the University of Munich. His Kollegienbuch gives a glimpse of the lecture courses he followed.

During the first semester Pauli attended a couple of morning courses (Unorganische Experimentalchemie and Experimentalphysik I), but gradually the nightlife of Munich claimed more of his attention. He would return late and continue working through much of the night, developing the habit of dropping in only towards the end of morning lectures to check the blackboard and see what he had missed. Sommerfeld tolerated this from his brilliant student, and Pauli achieved the highest mark in all disciplines at the oral doctoral examination on 25 July 1921.

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From the archive

The Como congress 1927

11 September 1927

Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg and Enrico Fermi relax on Lake Como during the 1927 International Conference on Physics.

The 1927 conference (held in Como to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of Alessandro Volta) is famous for Niels Bohr’s first presentation of his ideas on complementarity. His lecture “The Quantum Postulate and the Recent Development of Atomic Theory” became the basis of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics; a fuller version was presented at the Fifth Solvay Conference (Brussels) in October. Bohr had discussed his ideas with colleagues both before and after these conferences, and Pauli was particularly involved in the preparation of the final manuscript.  

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From the archive

Wolfgang Pauli appointed professor at ETH Zürich

10 January 1928

Despite some reservations about his lecturing style, Wolfgang Pauli was appointed professor of theoretical physics at the ETH, Zürich, on 10 January 1928. He started on 1 April at a basic annual salary of 15,000 francs.

Pauli’s lectures could sometimes be challenging. The equations in this photo  (taken in Copenhagen in 1929) look fairly legible, but K. Alex Müller recalls his habit of standing at the centre of the blackboard and writing equations around himself, almost in circles, rather than horizontally. Students in the ETH’s famous lecture room 6c tended to sit in two groups, to his left and his right, in order to be able to see round him! Markus Fierz considered Pauli the sort of teacher whose defect it is to think about their subject while lecturing; consequently, the listener participates in a sort of soliloquy which, since it is not really addressed to him, is sometimes barely intelligible. But - Fierz added - this taught the student, above all, to think critically about a theory.

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From the archive

Pauli in Zurich: contradict me!

30 April 1928

Wolfgang Pauli took up his duties as professor in Zurich at the end of April 1928. Before accepting the post he had insisted on the appointment of an assistant, and wrote to Ralph Kronig on 22 November, ‘I would like to ask you, for the moment quite tentatively, if in principle you would agree to accept this position … your task would be:

1. Every time I say something, to contradict me with detailed arguments.

2. To animate somewhat the scientific activity with modern ideas.

Looking back (this photo dates from 1955), Kronig considered his time in Zurich, ‘not only as one of the most instructive, but also as one of the most exhilarating periods’ of his life. He added, ‘One of my tasks, not agreed upon beforehand, was to watch out that Pauli should limit his consumption of ice cream at Sprüngli’s Konditorei at the Paradeplatz where we often went in the afternoon.’

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From the archive

The Copenhagen Faustparodie

12 April 1932

Among the scientific documents in CERN’s Wolfgang Pauli Archive is a rather unusual item – a copy of the script parodying Goethe’s Faust performed at the Niels Bohr Institute conference, 3-13 April 1932 (exact date of performance not known). Written mostly by Max Delbrück, and decorated with caricatures of the protagonists, the skit features Pauli (Mephistopheles) trying to sell the idea of the neutrino (Gretchen) to a sceptical Paul Ehrenfest (Faust)!

Pauli had postulated the existence of this weightless particle in his famous letter to the ‘Dear radioactive ladies and gentlemen’ at the Tübingen conference in December 1930, but he had to wait until 1956 for experimental confirmation by Reines and Cowan, so in 1932 it was still the subject of debate. Pauli’s reputation for sharp wit made him ideal for his satanic rôle, but in his absence the part was played by Léon Rosenfeld. The rôle of God was assigned to Bohr. The script (in German), can be seen here. An English translation is given in George Gamow’s Thirty Years that Shook Physics.

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From the archive

Pauli and Sommerfeld in Geneva

15 October 1934

Wolfgang Pauli is seen here with his former teacher Arnold Sommerfeld attending a conference on the electron theory of metals in Geneva, 1518 October 1934. The conference proceedings don’t mention any leisure activities, but these included a cable car trip up the nearby Salève mountain to enjoy views of Geneva town, the lake and the Alps. The Salève is in France and Sommerfeld had no French visa, so conference organiser Jean Weiglé obligingly smuggled him up to join the others in his car. 

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From the archive

The first Journal of Jocular physics

7 October 1935

The traditional Festschrift was abandoned for Niels Bohr’s 50th birthday, lest he should ‘feel it as his duty to read the contents and even try to learn something.’ Instead, he received the Journal of Jocular Physics.

 

Future Director-General of CERN, Viki Weisskopf, was a major contributor. His ‘Komplementäre Philosophie des Witzes’ (Complementary Philosophy of Jokes) maintained that humour held a curved mirror to truth, giving a distorted but illuminating insight that challenged our comfortable assumptions in much the same way as one of key tenets of quantum mechanics, complementarity.

 

Published by the Institute of Theoretical Physics (now the Niels Bohr Institute), the spoof journal contained articles in German, Danish, English, French and Japanese and espoused an attitude of ‘hopeful pessimism and serene preparedness’. Sadly, with Europe moving towards World War 2, contributions from G. Gamow, O. Klein (echoing a bellicose speech by Mussolini) and L. Rosenfeld were omitted, as ‘the possibility of misinterpretation in a political and therefore, not purely jocular sense could not be entirely excluded.’

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From the archive

Wolfgang Pauli learns that he has been awarded the Nobel prize

15 November 1945

Wolfgang Pauli was awarded the 1945 Nobel prize in physics for his Exclusion Principle. When he received the telegram from Arne Westgren (15 November 1945) Pauli was working at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, having left Europe for the USA during the Second World War. Pauli was the first resident member of the Institute to receive a Nobel  prize; his colleagues greeted it with great enthusiasm and the Director organised an official ceremony. Unexpectedly, after speeches by various distinguished guests, Albert Einstein rose to give an impromptu address, referring to Pauli as his intellectual successor. Pauli was deeply touched by this speech, recalling it in a letter to Max Born ten years later (24 April 1955), and regretting that, since it had been entirely spontaneous, no record of it remained.

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