Nobel-Winning Physicist Wolfgang Pauli on Science, Spirit, and Our Search for Meaning
“It is only a narrow passage of truth (no matter whether scientific or other truth) that passes between the Scylla of a blue fog of mysticism and the Charybdis of a sterile rationalism. This will always be full of pitfalls and one can fall down on both sides.”
By Maria Popova
“The fact that religions through the ages have spoken in images, parables, and paradoxes means simply that there are no other ways of grasping the reality to which they refer,” physicist and quantum mechanics pioneer Niels Bohr observed while contemplating the nature of reality five years after he received the Nobel Prize, adding: “But that does not mean that it is not a genuine reality. And splitting this reality into an objective and a subjective side won’t get us very far.”
Bohr, who introduced the notion of complementarity, went on to influence generations of thinkers, including a number of Nobel laureates. Among them was the Swiss-Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli (April 25, 1900–December 15, 1958) — another pioneering figure of particle physics and quantum mechanics. Invested in the conquest of truth at the deepest strata of nature, Pauli took up this question of reality as a physical and metaphysical object of inquiry in a rather improbable arena: his friendship with the influential Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, whose entire body of work was centered on the conviction that “man cannot stand a meaningless life.”
Pauli’s longtime correspondence and collaboration with Jung occupies a small but significant portion of Figuring (public library) — an exploration of the tessellated facets of our search for meaning, from which this essay is adapted. Their unlikely friendship, which precipitated the invention of synchronicity, bridged the world of science and the world of spirit, entwining the irrepressible human impulses for finding truth and making meaning — a kind of non-Euclidean intersection of our parallel searches for understanding the reality within and the reality without.
Long before he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his exclusion principle — the tenet of quantum physics stating that multiple identical particles within a single quantum system cannot occupy the same quantum state at the same time — and around the time he theorized the neutrino, Pauli was thrust into existential tumult. His mother, to whom he was very close, died by suicide. His tempestuous marriage ended in divorce within a year — a year during which he drowned his unhappiness in alcohol. Caught in the web of drinking and despair, Pauli reached out to Jung for help.
Jung, already deeply influenced by Einstein’s ideas about space and time, was intrigued by his brilliant and troubled correspondent. What began as an intense series of dream analyses unfolded, over the course of the remaining twenty-two years of Pauli’s life, into an exploration of fundamental questions regarding the nature of reality through the dual lens of physics and psychology — a testament to Einstein’s assertion that “every true theorist is a kind of tamed metaphysicist.” Each used the tools of his expertise to shift the shoreline between the known and the unknown, and together they found common ground in the analogy between the atom, with its nucleus and orbiting electrons, and the self, with its central conscious ego and its ambient unconscious.
While there is a long and lamentable history of science — physics in particular — being hijacked for mystical and New Age ideologies, two things make Jung and Pauli’s collaboration notable. First, the analogies between physics and alchemical symbolism were drawn not only by a serious scientist, but by one who would soon receive the Nobel Prize in Physics. Second, the warping of science into pseudoscience and mysticism tends to happen when scientific principles are transposed onto nonscientific domains with a false direct equivalence. Pauli, by contrast, was deliberate in staying at the level of analogy — that is, of conceptual parallels furnishing metaphors for abstract thought that can advance ideas in each of the two disciplines, but with very different concrete application.
Jung had borrowed the word “archetype” from Kepler, drawing on the astronomer’s alchemical symbolism. More than three centuries after Kepler’s alchemy, Pauli’s exclusion principle became the basic organizing principle for the periodic table. The alchemists had been right all along, in a way — they had just been working on the wrong scale: Only at the atomic level can one element become another, in radioactivity and nuclear fission. Even the atom itself had to transcend the problem of scale: The Greek philosopher Democritus theorized atoms in 400 BC, but he couldn’t prove or disprove their existence empirically — a hundred thousand times smaller than anything the naked eye could see, the atom remained invisible. It wasn’t for another twenty-three centuries that we were able to override the problem of scale by the prosthetic extension of our vision, the microscope.
What had originally attracted Pauli to the famous psychiatrist was Jung’s work on symbols and archetypes — a Keplerian obsession that in turn obsessed Pauli, who devoted various essays and lectures to how Kepler’s alchemy and archetypal ideas influenced the visionary astronomer’s science. In physics, he saw numerous analogies to alchemy: In symmetry, he found the archetypal structure of matter and in elementary particles, the substratum of reality that the alchemists had sought; in the spectrograph, which allowed scientists for the first time to study the chemical composition of stars, an analogue of the alchemist’s oven; in probability, which he defined as “the actual correspondence between the expected result… and the empirically measured frequencies,” the mathematical analogue of archetypal numerology.
But Pauli recognized that the dawn of quantum physics, in which he himself was a leading sun, introduced a new necessity to reconcile different facets of reality. Nearly a century after the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell — a leading figure in Figuring — asserted that “every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” Pauli reflected in one of his Kepler lectures:
It would be most satisfactory of all if physics and psyche could be seen as complementary aspects of the same reality. To us [modern scientists], unlike Kepler and Fludd, the only acceptable point of view appears to be one that recognizes both sides of reality — the quantitative and the qualitative, the physical and the psychical — as compatible with each other, and can embrace them simultaneously.
In my own view it is only a narrow passage of truth (no matter whether scientific or other truth) that passes between the Scylla of a blue fog of mysticism and the Charybdis of a sterile rationalism. This will always be full of pitfalls and one can fall down on both sides.
Four decades before the revered physicist John Archibald Wheeler, who popularized the term black hole, made his influential assertion that “this is a participatory universe [and] observer-participancy gives rise to information,” Pauli wrote to Jung:
Modern [particle physics] turns the observer once again into a little lord of creation in his microcosm, with the ability (at least partially) of freedom of choice and fundamentally uncontrollable effects on that which is being observed. But if these phenomena are dependent on how (with what experimental system) they are observed, then is it not possible that they are also phenomena (extra corpus) that depend on who observes them (i.e., on the nature of the psyche of the observer)? And if natural science, in pursuit of the ideal of determinism since Newton, has finally arrived at the stage of the fundamental “perhaps” of the statistical character of natural laws… then should there not be enough room for all those oddities that ultimately rob the distinction between “physics” and “psyche” of all its meaning?
And yet Pauli was careful to recognize that “although [particle physics] allows for an acausal form of observation, it actually has no use for the concept of ‘meaning’” — that is, meaning is not a fundamental function of reality but an interpretation superimposed by the human observer.
Complement with Carl Sagan on science and spirituality and Einstein’s historic conversation with the Nobel-winning Indian poet and philosopher Tagore, then revisit other excerpts from Figuring: Emily Dickinson’s electric love letters to Susan Gilbert, Margaret Fuller on what makes a great leader, the story of how the forgotten pioneer Harriet Hosmer paved the way for women in art, Herman Melville’s passionate and heartbreaking love letters to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and astrophysicist Janna Levin’s stunning reading of the Auden poem that became the book’s epigraph.
Published March 13, 2019