The Pauli effect, anecdotes

In: Thirty Years That Shook Physics

by George Gamow. Garden City, N.Y., 1966

Testimonies of Pauli's humour

There are countless anecdotes about Wolfgang Pauli testifying to the physicist's humour. The correspondence is also full of jocular and occasionally sharp-tongued remarks, allusions and badinage. Pauli himself signed letters with "God’s scourge". A real war of jokes (Witzkrieg) erupted with Paul Ehrenfest in which they tried to outdo each other with jocular remarks.

Wolfgang Pauli added in a letter to George Gamow of 1 March 1958 a sketch in which an empty rectangle can be seen. His comment on this was: "This is to show the world that I can paint like Titian. Just a few technical details are missing." The sketch was thought to be a riposte to Heisenberg's radio comment on the unified field theory outlined at the time.

The Pauli effect

Worthy of particular mention is a phenomenon that was feared among Pauli's colleagues, especially experimental physicists: the "Pauli effect". This effect was manifested by technical equipment suddenly breaking down when Pauli was present: experiments failed, machinery gave up the ghost and appliances got broken. Otto Stern wanted to deny Wolfgang Pauli access to his institute for fear of such mishaps. Pauli himself was aware of this strange "gift" and thoroughly enjoyed these comic incidents.