The strange friendship of Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung: When physics met psychology

137Arthur I Miller is Emeritus Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at UCL and has an interest in creativity – an earlier book is Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time and the Beauty That Causes Havoc, which shows how Einstein and Picasso, one working on the Special Theory of Relativity, the other on cubism, were essentially working on the same problem.

His latest book is 137: Jung, Pauli, and the Pursuit of a Scientific Obsession, (published in hardback as Deciphering the Cosmic Number: The Strange Friendship of Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung) and tonight’s very enjoyable lecture at the Royal Institution was based upon it.

What was most fascinating was that it showed a completely new aspect of an eminent scientist – Wolfgang Pauli. I didn’t know that much about him: I knew he had that he had been a bit of a boy genius, had discovered the Exclusion Principle that bears his name, that he had postulated the existence of the neutrino thirty years before it was observed, that he had an important part in the development of quantum mechanics, but had also read of him as being difficult to get on with and unpopular as a person.

But it turns out he was a Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. A staid person, totally immersed in his studies by day, by night he would be out in the darker parts of town, frequent bars in side streets of the Sankt Paoli area of Hamburg, getting drunk and into fights, and getting into relationships with prostitutes. He said later that he had ‘tended toward being a criminal, a thug (which could have degenerated into my becoming a murderer)’ and that he ‘felt detached from the world – a totally unintellectual hermit with outbursts of ecstasy and visions.’

Pauli was interested in the occult, alchemy, eastern thinking (e.g. I Ching), UFOs, ESP, and numerology, being particularly obsessed with the number 137 (which in physics is the fine-structure constant (α), actually 1/137). He had read the works of Carl Jung, particularly Psychological Types, and unlike the maths and physics books in his library which remained unannotated, his Jung volumes have marginal markings by passages of interest. And he was sure that physics, biology and psychology were not capable of explaining consciousness.

In 1931 he returned to his post in Zürich after a summer lecture tour in the US, to resume a night life of binge drinking, bars and brothels, while arguing with his colleagues in the day. This time it became possible that he would lose his job, and by 1932 he has decided to seek the advice of Jung, who lived relatively nearby.

Jung had become internationally famous, and fashionable, for his theories of the collective unconscious and archetypes, but he was also fascinated by the occult, mysticism, and alchemy. His consulting room was large, which he required so he could observe his consultations from the ceiling or windowsill when having an out-of-body experience. Jung wanted scientific respectability for his theories, so (notwithstanding having said that on his first meeting with Pauli he ‘felt the wind blowing over from the lunatic asylum’) Jung and Pauli eventually moved from a doctor-patient relationship, to colleagues, to close friends, both having something to contribute to the other.

Pauli’s dreams were important to him (and he had a lot – he gave Jung details of 400), and they often involved numbers, particularly 3 and 4. Jung found Pauli’s dreams full of archetypes – they are written up in Psychology and Alchemy – and Pauli is one of the few scientists who truly found inspiration in his dreams: his work on CPT symmetry apparently was derived from a dream about mirror images; and he had a dream involving a Chinese woman and reflections that were not reflections – shortly after it was shown that there might be parity violations in weak interactions, by a group of physicists headed by a woman, Chien-Shiung Wu.

The other thing that Pauli and Jung had a bit of a shared obsession about was synchronicity (as in a meaningful coincidence – Pauli insisted on calling it ‘synchronism’ as the former term has a specific meaning in physics), which produced the book The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche. Their correspondence has been published, too, as Atom and Archetype.

In December 1958, Pauli was rushed into hospital with stomach pains. He was visited by Charles Enz who noticed he was in something of a state. When he asked what was wrong, Pauli said that he was not getting out of the hospital alive – he was in Room 137. He was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer and died on my birthday in 1958, in Room 137.

I started on the book 137 on the train home, and have enjoyed what I’ve read so far. As is always the case, it’s impossible for the speaker to give more than an overview in an hour’s lecture, and I’m looking forward to fleshing out the details.

There’s a forthcoming lunchtime lecture (which will presumably be similar to the Ri one) at the Royal Society on 26 November 2010 at 1 pm: 137: Carl Jung, Wolfgang Pauli and the pursuit of a scientific obsession. Arthur Miller is an excellent speaker – if you have the opportunity to go then I can highly recommend it (booking required).

In the meantime, the Royal Institution has been a bit quicker than usual, and the audio of tonight’s talk is already available on their website.

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