Pauli and Not Even Wrong

When I first started thinking about using “Not Even Wrong” as the title of a book, I did some research to try and find out where the supposed Pauli quote came from. No one seemed to have any information about this, other than the attribution to Pauli, and various different stories existed about the context in which he had used the phrase. I started to worry that these stories, like many of the best ones about Pauli, might be apocryphal, so I contacted a few physicists who had some connection to Pauli to ask them about this. Prof. Karl von Meyenn, the editor of Pauli’s correspondence, wrote back to tell me that the phrase doesn’t occur in his correspondence. He pointed me to a biographical notice about Pauli written soon after his death by Rudolf Peierls as the best source for the story of Pauli using the phrase.

Peierls writes

No account of Pauli and his attitude to people would be complete without mention of his critical remarks, for which he was known and sometimes feared throughout the world of physics…

No doubt many of the stories of this kind circulated about him are apocryphal, but the examples below come from reliable sources or from conversations at which the writer was present…

Quite recently, a friend showed him the paper of a young physicist which he suspected was not of great value but on which he wanted Pauli’s views. Pauli remarked sadly ‘It is not even wrong.’

The Peierls article is in

Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 5 (Feb. 1960), 174-192.

It is on-line via JSTOR.

Just recently, Oliver Burkeman wrote a short piece for The Guardian about the Pauli phrase and its recent uses. I talked to him on the phone about this and his article contains some accurate quotes from me, together with a link to this weblog.

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4 Responses to Pauli and Not Even Wrong

  1. Luboš Motl says:

    That’s interesting. Exactly a few hours before you, I was writing roughly 30 new requested Wiki articles about physics, and one of them was

    where I had to solve the questions about Pauli’s quote, too.

  2. The Anti-Lubos says:

    Exactly a few?

    Spoken like a true string theorist!

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  4. Apparently Pauli is still into Jung’s synchronicity.

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