Who was “Not Even Wrong” first?

I recently heard from John Minkowski, whose father Jan Minkowksi was a student of Pauli’s in the late 1940s. He asked if I knew what the specific context of Pauli’s “Not Even Wrong” comment was, and I told him I didn’t. I referred to this early blog post, which explains that Karl von Meyenn (editor of Pauli’s correspondence) had pointed me to a biographical memoir about Pauli by Rudolf Peierls which includes:

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.’

Looking around for any more information about this, Wikipedia links to a 1992 letter to the editor at Physics Today from Peierls, which states

Wolfgang Pauli’s remark “Das is nicht einmal falsch” (“That is not even wrong”) was made not as a comment on a seminar talk but as a reaction to a paper by a young theoretician, on which a colleague (I believe it was Sam Goudsmit) had invited Pauli’s opinion.

Google also turned up a translation of a talk by Peierls in this article by Mikhail Shifman, which includes:

Somebody showed to Pauli a work of a young theorist being well aware that the work was not too good but still willing to hear Pauli’s opinion. Pauli read the paper and said, with sadness: “It is not even wrong.”

Trying to guess what the article in question might have been, I’m tempted by the hypothesis that the discussion with Goudsmit was about Everett’s “Relative State” Formulation of Quantum Mechanics paper. The timing (“Quite recently”) would have been right, with the paper published in July 1957, Pauli’s death later in December 1958. Goudsmit at the time was editor-in-chief at Physical Review, so would have been interested in Pauli’s opinion of the paper.

Complicating this story, John Minkowki sent me some pages from his father’s 1991 book Through three wars: The memoirs of Jan Michael Minkowski, which included this (in a context describing his 1946-48 student days at ETH):

I remember a seminar in theoretical physics given by a visitor from another Swiss university. These seminars were presided over by Dr. Pauli, and after the speaker finished all eyes would turn to Pauli to pronounce the verdict in his commentary. This particular lecture was treated by Pauli with progressively faster twirling of his thumbs around and around one another and a growing benevolent smile. Bad sign, we thought. The more he smiled the more vicious he will be, we thought. And sure enough, he smiled some more and said “It isn’t even wrong.”

One possibility here is that Minkowski was mis-remembering something from forty years earlier, another is that the occasion that Peierls was referring to was not the first time Pauli had used the phrase. As evidence for the second hypothesis, see this interview with Konrad Bleuler, which points to the possibility of Stueckelberg as the “visitor from another Swiss university”:

So these seminars took place in a common seminar having also Professor Ernst Stueckelberg, then a Professor in Geneva, also Stueckelberg being a well-known theoretician, his work was very much, if I might remind you of that fact, acknowledged by Richard Feynman. For example, his idea of the particle going back in time being interpreted as an antiparticle came as far as I know originally from Stueckelberg and many other great ideas. I remember one special seminar in which, of course this seminar could be rather called. High Court, with scientific papers in the docket, sometimes really sentenced to death. From that one might record Pauli’s classification of scientific papers. There were two classes or else there were old and right. Or the other class, new and wrong. But hardly anything intermediate. If it was even worse, Pauli would have said “it’s not even wrong.” That was the kind of atmosphere. But all what is written in physics is either understood or else it’s thrown away, and not this half-and-half, what we see at present. But then in this connection it was a search for truth. And for Pauli, a lecture hall was a kind of a holy place where only truth was allowed. And a wrong statement was a sacrilege, and in that sense one should understand his rather extremely sharp remarks he might make to some lecturer who seemed not to present things in a quite logical way. But coming to that special, to another special seminar is the following: Stueckelberg always knew really special — I might say prophetic — ideas. He gave a lecture and of course Pauli — it happened very often — didn’t agree. And said “you are not allowed to say such things.” But you see, Stueckelberg being a prophet, he’s not so easily stopped uttering his prophecies. So Pauli in despair menaced Stueckelberg with a stick and it seemed — I was not present myself but I was told — that the seminar ended like the war of Troy, Pauli, rather corpulent, with his stick after Stueckelberg around the table in the lecture hall. That was the kind of attitude at this period.

I’m not sure what to make of all of this. Perhaps Pauli used the phrase both in the late 40s to criticize Stueckelberg (probably unfairly since many of Stueckelberg’s ideas were ahead of his time) and then Everett in the late 50s (in my opinion accurately, but I don’t want to start up the usual empty arguments about MWI here).

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Who was “Not Even Wrong” first?

  1. paddy says:

    Concerning your usage relative to string theory: did S. Glashow use it first in that context?

  2. Peter Woit says:

    Well before string theory took off in late 1984, Pauli’s phrase was well known among physicists. I don’t remember the first time I heard it, but it was surely pre-1984 and not uncommon in those days to hear it used in reference to poorly understood speculative ideas unlikely to go anywhere. While post-1984 string theory quickly attracted a lot of enthusiastic followers, there always were a large number of skeptics, many of whom might have privately been using the phrase to describe their view of the theory. I don’t know if Glashow was the first published example of this.

  3. Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory says:

    See the 1986 May issue of Physics Today where Glashow uses it.

    There are dozens of references to the fuller quote online.

    “The trouble is that most of superstring physics lies up at the Planck mass — about
    10 GeV – and it is a long and treacherous road down to where we can see the light of
    day. A naive comparison of length scales suggests that to calculate the electron mass from superstrings would be a trillion times more difficult than to explain human behavior in terms of atomic physics. Superstring theory, unless it allows an approximation scheme for yielding useful and testable physical information, might be the sort of thing that Wolfgang Pauli would have said is “not even wrong.” It would continue to attract newcomers to the field simply because it is the only obvious alternative to explaining why certain detectors light up like video games near the end of every funding cycle.” –Sheldon Glashow, Nobel Laureate & Paul Ginsparg, Ph.D., Desperately Seeking Superstrings

  4. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    I’ve only seen the account you originally cited, and find it the most plausible. Aside from his exclusion principle and his matrices, Pauli seems to be most famous for his insults. The Dorothy Parker of physics, as it were. That one, being especially pithy and cutting, makes such an impression I imagine it would have been dutifully attested and widely circulated almost as soon as any public lecture concluded. It would have already been a cliche by 1957.

  5. Peter Woit says:

    The problem with the Peierls story is that an origin in a private conversation between Pauli and Goudsmit in 1957 doesn’t explain how this became so widely known. He doesn’t explain how he knows about it, not explicitly saying he was there to hear it, giving the impression that his information is not first hand. During the 47-57 decade it looks like Peierls was in Birmingham, possibly stories like this from a Zurich seminar would not have reached him (there were no blogs…), but he did get a 1957 report from someone in on a Pauli-Goudsmit discussion.

    So, a 1947 Stueckelberg Zurich seminar origin story, with Peierls first hearing the phrase second-hand in 1957 from a different context seems not at all impossible. The 1992 Physics Today letter explicitly rules out an origin in a seminar, but (just like Minkowski’s 1991 book), the recollections very late in life of what happened forty years earlier are often not very reliable.

  6. Amitabh Lath says:

    What does the phrase mean? Does it mean really really wrong? Like an explanation of the Stern-Gerlach effect that did not use electron spin or SU(2)? Or maybe it means the topic belongs in philosophy or metaphysics and cannot be judged by criteria used to judge physics concepts (some might place MWI there).

  7. Peter Woit says:

    I suppose the phrase sometimes gets used to mean “so obviously wrong as to be not worth discussing why it’s wrong”, but that doesn’t seem to me to capture the appeal of the phrase or, whether it was Stueckelberg or Everett, how Pauli was using it. What the phrase captures nicely is the frustrating problem of scientific claims that come with no way of deciding if they are right or wrong. There can be multiple reasons for this, one of which is claims that are just too speculative and vague to pin down precisely enough to see if they are right or not. From what I know of Stueckelberg’s work, there were times he had a very good idea, but either didn’t explain it well enough or didn’t understand it well enough himself. I can imagine Pauli getting exercised about a seminar with this characteristic. Everett is another case where where it’s unclear exactly what is being claimed and whether any real explanation of anything is being provided. That this remains true 65 years later is my problem with MWI.

    So, at least to me “Not Even Wrong” points to unclear speculative claims, but such things can have value. Most successful advances in math and theoretical physics start out as an unclear idea. Only later do things get fully understood and the value (or lack thereof) of the idea becomes manifest.

  8. D. Alder says:

    My understanding of the phrase is that it denotes an idea, theory, etc, that isn’t even incorrect in some illuminating or interesting way which would allow one to identify some mistake or misconception and correct it. It may even be correct insofar as it can be; or correct in some trivial, misleading, or contextually irrelevant manner.

    Anthropic fine-tuning is a perfect example. It’s obviously true, since it’s based on a tautological observation. But so what? It doesn’t explain anything.

  9. Peter Woit says:

    D. Alder,
    I don’t think Pauli had in mind empty tautologies when he was using the phrase since in his day no one was making the kind of absurd claims about such things that they do now. Would be interesting to hear his reaction to some of the modern “beyond not even wrong” developments such as the landscape and the wormholes.

  10. It’s actually pretty extraordinary, and ironic, if the phrase “not even wrong” originated to ridicule the ideas of two physicists, Stueckelberg and Everett — BOTH of whom, several generations later, many people remember less for anything they were wrong or not-even-wrong about than for being far ahead of their time!

  11. anon says:

    The French Wikipedia “Même pas faux” quotes K. Mendelssohn (1973), The World of Walther Nernst:
    « Shortly before his death Pauli was handed the paper of a young American physicist whom his colleagues suspected of being a budding genius. After studying it carefully, Pauli, rocking sadly, gave it back with the acid comment: ‘It is not even wrong’, meaning that there was not a spark of imagination in it »

  12. Chris Oakley says:


    Yes – Pauli did rather overdo it. I had not known about the stick, but I cannot say I am surprised. Sabine seems to have taken on Pauli’s role of telling everyone where they are going wrong. A necessary function, and the lack of anyone doing this between Pauli’s death in 1958 and Sabine’s blog starting in 2006 is probably what allowed a lot of unpromising ideas to develop, such as supersymmetry and string theory. Hopefully the subject will get back on track now. The role has to be taken on by a native German speaker, and I am hoping that she will be able to produce her own catchphrase on the lines of Pauli’s. Maybe she has already.

  13. Peter says:

    When I read “On Bullshit” by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, it was striking to see how he defines “bullshit”. It’s more or less “not even wrong”, with some intention added. The only thing that counts is whether the bullshit is suitable for the purpose of the communication. It’s not a lie, rather something that doesn’t *care* about being right or wrong.

  14. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    I like the application of “not even wrong” to untestable hypotheses, but I personally doubt that’s what Pauli meant. I rather think it’s for ideas so ill-conceived as to be not worth falsifying, like homeopathy. Pauli himself posited correctly that the neutrino exists. He hated doing it, because he sincerely believed that idea was empirically intractable, but did it anyway. Oddly, Pauli reportedly seriously considered the notion that his eponymous “effect”, i.e. his ability to ruin experiments with his mere physical proximity, had some other basis in reality than the terror he struck in others with his noxious persona.

  15. DrDave says:

    Mathematician Max Simon:
    “Die schlechtesten Antworten sind freilich die welche so schlecht sind daß sie nicht einmal falsch sind also nach dem Schema Die große Armut stammt von der großen pauvreté besonders beim Ansatz von Gleichungen hat man damit zu kämpfen.”
    (Didaktik und Methodik des Rechnens und der Mathematik)

  16. DrDave says:

    I think what Max Simon published in 1908 shows unambiguously the meaning of “not even wrong.” He clearly states that the idea or equation (Max is talking math) is so bad that it does make it as far as wrong, that it is below wrong in the order of things. Pauli would have known Max and/or his work, and it is more than likely that this is the earlier, published origin of the phrase as applied to science, and it is also quite possible that someone just misattributed it to Pauli like these internet misquote cards that appear on social media.
    A couple more things, Max’s syntax is typical, with the verb at the end, either in singular or plural (“ist” or “sind”) and the form in which Pauli’s “original” appears is not typical.
    All contemporaneous forms use “einmal”, more familiar as “noch einmal” which means “one time”, reinforcing the threshold meaning of the phrase, literally not even good enough to be wrong even once.
    Max’s 1908 quote translated:
    “Of course, the worst answers are those that are so bad that they are not even wrong, so according to this scheme great deprivation comes from great poverty [pauvreté], you have to struggle with it, especially with equations.” Max then gives some math examples.

  17. jbc says:

    This is rather tangential to the question of when Pauli first used this phrase but it might be helpful to put it in context. It’s usage is quite common even today in Austria, where Pauli grew up and spent his schooldays—he didn’t invent it but adjusted it to the context discussed. The original phrase is “net amoi foisch”, austrian dialect for the german “nicht einmal falsch” . As is often the case, it sounds natural and scathing in the dialect form, in contrast to the stilted high german version usually quoted. It is generally occurs as part of a trilogy, used typically by school teachers when returning written homework examples, placing the jotters on the pupils’ desks with the corresponding attributes “richtig”, “foisch” or “net amoi foisch” depending on their opinion of the solution.

    As said above, this doesn’t answer the query but it does give background information which might explain why the phrase would occur naturally to Pauli.

Comments are closed.