The sinister Pauli Effect

Illustration for article titled The sinister Pauli Effect

Like branches of the military, branches of science are known to have a mostly good-natured rivalry with each other. Chemists will take jabs at physicists, who will scoff at biologists, who will laugh at chemists. Even different sectors of the same science will have a bit of an antagonist relationship, with physics especially being divided between those who experiment in a lab and those who theorize. Most of the time this kept to an occasional sneer in the hallway. But when a theorist blundered onto an experimentalist's turf, things got ugly — especially for the experimentalist's budget.


Lab equipment has to be specially and exactly made, and its cost reflects that. Just because someone is a genius it doesn't mean they have the technical knowledge to work a complicated, delicate piece of equipment. It's not surprising that theorists developed the reputation for breaking stuff around the lab. What is surprising is that, with one theorist, it transferred from practical effect to outright superstition.

Wolfgang Pauli, of Pauli Exclusion Principle fame, was widely regarded as having the mind of a genius and the hands of a bareknuckle boxer who didn't pay off his gambling debts. He broke equipment in every lab he went to. But as his fame grew, and as he entered more labs, the lab workers noticed that he didn't even have to touch a piece of equipment. Whenever he visited the lab, things would stop working spontaneously. It happened again and again. It got bad enough that some of his friends, whom he regularly visited, wouldn't allow him in their labs anymore. Talk about the Pauli Effect, as it was known, spread throughout the university system of Germany. It got so bad that when an expensive piece of lab equipment broke in Göttingen, people took notice of the fact that Pauli wasn't around. When the director of the lab talked to Pauli, Pauli revealed that he was changing trains in Göttingen when the breakdown took place.


Some people took the effect seriously, including — to a certain degree — Pauli himself. This was at at time when people were redefining what was real and beginning to see the most basic components of the universe obey probability rather than strict cause-and-effect. Some didn't know how far this rule by probability would go. Today, the effect isn't believed by anyone, and is consigned to the realm of physics folktales. Still, people talk about the Pauli Effect and theorists. Supposedly, the more important the theorist, the more equipment breaks down around them. So if you notice that you break a lot of technical stuff, do the world a favor and go into theoretical physics.

Via The Innermost Kernel and Atom and Archetype.

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Dr Emilio Lizardo

Mrs Lizardo is often known as "death to electronic things."