The Romance That Led To A Legendary Science Burn

Illustration for article titled The Romance That Led To A Legendary Science Burn

Wolfgang Pauli, famous now for the Pauli Exclusion Principle, was once an idealistic young scientist going through a rough patch. This rough patch included a tempestuous marriage that resulted in a lot of heartbreak, and one of the famous lines in science history.


In 1929, Wolfgang Pauli seemed to be enjoying a very lucky life. Not known for his skill as a lecturer, he had nevertheless begun a professorship at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. In Zurich he moved in celebrated academic circles, eating at the best restaurants with famous artists and intellectuals. His non-teaching days he spent swimming in lakes and drinking in beer gardens. Any time he had leftover he spent with Käthe Deppner, his stunning new cabaret dancer wife.

Beneath the surface, the picture wasn't as rosy. Pauli's days of pleasure covered up professional stagnation. His research had stalled and he was beating himself up about it. In between outings he was seeing no less an analyst than Carl Jung, who attempted to help Pauli deal with the fact that his father had abandoned his mother, and she had subsequently committed suicide. Even his new marriage wasn't all it seemed. Deppner had been seeing someone when she and Pauli had met, and, with Pauli's knowledge, the affair had continued after the marriage.

Illustration for article titled The Romance That Led To A Legendary Science Burn

Within a year, the couple divorced. Deppner ran off with another man. Pauli's heartbreak and unhappiness is poignant, but has given history and Pauli's biographers a great line that reflects the antagonism between the different fields of science. Pauli was not just hurt by the fact that his marriage had come apart - he jokingly referred to being married only in a "loose way" - but by his bride's choice of man. Deppner had left him for a chemist, of all things, and not even a good one. Pauli loudly complained to his friends, "Had she taken a bullfighter I would have understood - with such a man I could not compete - but a chemist - such an average chemist!"

It's no secret that different scientific disciplines maintain rivalries, sometimes friendly ones, and sometimes not-so-friendly ones. Pauli's line expresses not just his personal disappointment, but his professional outrage that anyone could go from a physicist to a mere chemist. The disgrace of it!

What Deppner did after she ran off with her chemist is anyone's guess, but the end of the marriage seems to have been the nadir of Pauli's career. After Deppner left, he jumped back into research, coming up with an early conception of neutrinos, which he presented to the world in 1930. Four years later he met and married a woman who knew the apex science when she saw it. But he's still remembered for his immortal complaint about the indignity of losing out to an academic lothario.


Image: The physicists Paul Dirac, Wolfgang Pauli and Rudolf Peierls, c 1953.

[Sources: Before the Fallout, Neutrino Hunters.]



Wolfgang Pauli, famous now for the Pauli Exclusion Principle,

Sounds like his ex came up with the Pauli Exclusion Principle first!