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Pauli: From Intellect to Intuition

“In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity,
no humour, no overstatement can quite extinguish,
the physicists have known sin;
and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”

J. Robert Oppenheimer


Wolfgang Pauli is mostly known as a genius, a prodigy in physics of the first half of the twentieth century. He was a man living a life full of opposites searching for unification through symmetry and harmony. His physics colleagues called him “the whip of God” and “the conscience of science.” Although he was always fair, he was most feared for his harsh criticism of colleagues. Of one paper he judged: “Not only is it not right, it's not even wrong!” But Pauli had another side too: he had many archetypal dreams, a number of which were anonymously documented by C.G. Jung. Although many, but not all, of his private correspondence and papers have been made public and commented upon from a Jungian perspective, the question remains: “Who was Pauli, and what was driving him?”

Early years

W. PauliWolfgang Pauli was born 25th of April 1900 in Vienna in a wealthy, originally Jewish, family. In his youth he excelled in mathematics and physics and although he was cheerful and had lots of friends he would spend most of his time with his books. From 1918 to 1921 he studied theoretical physics with Sommerfeld, a very intuitive physicist at the Munich University, where at the age of 19 years he wrote a still famous paper on Einstein’s relativity theory.

Pauli's godfather was Ernst Mach (1838-1916), a positivist and hyper rational figure. As a schoolboy Pauli regularly visited Mach's house, which was packed with all kinds of experimental equipment. Mach would do some physics experiment, thus stirring the interest of Pauli. He strongly encouraged and developed the rational, logical attitude of the young Pauli, thereby assisted by Pauli's father, a professor of chemistry. In Mach's view there was no place for intuition: all had to be explained by facts and logic. Till the end of his life Pauli would be coloured by this attitude – and struggle with it.

In Munich Pauli met with Werner Heisenberg and they became interested in atomic physics. Invited by Niels Bohr, the founder of quantum theory, he worked a year in Copenhagen, where he developed his first ideas of what in 1925 was to become the “Pauli exclusion principle” – for which he would receive the Nobel prize in 1945.1 This exclusion principle is fundamental in the explanation of the structure of atoms throughout the periodic system. It is, however, one of those facts of physics which till today cannot be derived from first principles, which embarrassed Pauli till his death. Pauli is equally known for his prediction of the neutrino.2 .

In 1928 Pauli became professor in theoretical physics at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in Zürich.


Pauli predicted the neutrino in 1930. It was experimentally confirmed 25 years later.
W. Pauli, Nobel prize lecture, 1945, http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1945/pauli-lecture.pdf