Friday, October 17, 2008

Not Even Wrong

No account of [Wolfgang] 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. He not merely did not spare the other person's feelings but he often deliberately selected the sensitive spot.

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. The oldest of the famous remarks dates back to the Munich days, when Pauli was a brilliant but unknown research student, and at a crowded colloquium meeting Einstein,who was visiting, made a comment in the discussion. Young Pauli rose at the back of the hall and said: 'You know, what Mr Einstein said is not so stupid', a remark characteristic for his lack of respect for authority but not yet of the bite which came later with his greater assurance.

N. Kemmer reports a more characteristic remark. 'I do not mind, Mr X, if you think slowly, but I do object when you publish more quickly than you think.'

When L. Landau, after a long argument in Zurich, pleaded for an admission that not everything he had said was complete nonsense, Pauli replied,'Oh, no. Far from it. What you said was so confused that one could not tell whether it was nonsense or not.'

When a charming colleague whose papers had not impressed Pauli had given him directions how to find a certain place in a strange town and enquired the next day whether Pauli had found the place, he said, 'Oh, yes. You express yourself quite intelligibly when you don't talk about physics.'
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.'
People have tried to attribute these sharp remarks to Pauli's impatience with slipshod reasoning and wishful thinking. There is no doubt that he was using them as a tool to drive home valid and often constructive criticism, but equally often they were so remote from any specific point in the argument that it is doubtful whether this is the full story. He himself once said to the writer, 'Many people have sensitive corns and the only possible way of living with them is to step on these corns often enough until they get used to it', but that remark, too, probably oversimplifies the problem.

The remarkable thing is that, although the victims often felt hurt at the time, none of then ever bore a grudge for long. It is a tribute to his greatness as a physicist and as a man, and to his understanding of other people, that all who knew him, who all must at one time or another have been exposed to remarks of this sort, had as much affection for him as they had respect for his knowledge, his judgement and his integrity.

Excerpt from:
Wolfgang Ernst Pauli. 1900-1958
Author(s): R. E. Peierls
Source: Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 5, (Feb., 1960), pp. 175-192
Published by: The Royal Society
Stable URL:

Great Excerptations

This marks the launch of a new series, not of Great Quotations, but rather, of Great Excerptations.

Let me explain by way of example.

Who said first said "The best way to predict the future is to create it"?

Well, depending on whose word you accept, it was Peter F. Drucker; or Alan Kay; or even Jason Kaufmann (whoever that is).

This mis-attribution of quotations is quite widespread on the Web. Perhaps the most famous instance of mis-attribution involves the following passage:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are
powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens
us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?
Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does
not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other
people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children
do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not
just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we
unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated
from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Sound familiar? Yes, of course it does. That's an excerpt from Nelson Mandela's 1994 inaugural speech, isn't it? Actually, it isn't, according to no lesser an authority than the Nelson Mandela Foundation. It's from Marianne Williamson's book A Return to Love.

So, the basic idea of Great Excerptations is to provide Great Quotations with fully traceable details of their original sources.