Day 710: Wolfgang Pauli – Physicist, Genius, Breaker Of Stuff

originally published December 10, 2013

Do you sometimes feel as though you’re haunted by bad mojo? Do you sense a crinkly shadow slurping up your footsteps, stalking you with hand-wringing deviousness and an insidious yen to muck up your days with the swift slap of a paranormal brute? Well, I have good news for you. You are almost definitely wrong, and it’s entirely possible that you’ve been soaking your brain too long in the tart brine of unjustified paranoia.

Maybe.

While it’s true that some people appear dogged by a mystical and unspoken conflict with their electronic devices, watching them break down at a rate far exceeding average, no one sporting an official science-badge in the brim of their hat has stepped forward and confirmed this phenomenon. There is no bio-electronic battlefield, no psychic-binary clash of DNA and circuit-board synapses. Yet most of us can relate stories of friends or relatives whose luck with electronics is notoriously foul. Folks who cycle through crapped-out cell phones more frequently than shampoo bottles, or whose computers are swimming in a vortex of perpetual blue-screen mayhem.

Maybe there’s something to this madness. It’s not like all of science has ruled this out. Take, for example, Austrian theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli.

Wolfgang was no slouch. Nominated by Albert Einstein, he snagged the Nobel Prize in Physics for developing the Pauli Exclusion Principle, which has to do with quantum mechanics, spin theory, and a star-studded cast of concepts I won’t pretend to understand. Pauli’s lasting reputation among those of us whose brains aren’t tuned to the frequency of theoretical physics is his bizarre effect on lab equipment.

Wolfgang Pauli had a history of breaking things. Not through incompetence or a comical sense of slapstick buffoonery, but merely by walking into a room. His presence in the lab was sufficient to cause equipment to break without any apparent cause. Rather than feel haunted and cursed, Pauli delighted in the phenomenon. In addition to matrix theory, mathematical regularization and beta decay, Pauli also had a healthy curiosity for the paranormal, as well as the curious field of parapsychology. It’s not a chasm-straddling stretch from believing in precognition and clairvoyance to believing one had supernaturally destructive powers on electronic things.

At the height of Pauli’s scientific success – and by extension the depth of his immersion in the pool of his peers’ respect – the Pauli Effect was a well-known phenomenon. It had been replicated so often, even the most critical minds in fields devoted to experimentation and empiricism didn’t want him around their gear. Experimental physicist Otto Stern banned Wolfgang Pauli from his lab.

Pauli corresponded with Carl Jung, interested in exploring Jung’s concept of synchronicity, which pokes into the simultaneous occurrence of events in which one does not necessarily cause the other. It sounds wonky and old-timey for a man of science to devote so much energy to such unproven psychokinetic babble, but when you’ve already earned a reputation as a thing-wrecker and you show up at Princeton University right when its massive cyclotron breaks down, you start to wonder. If there’s any character more suspicious than the paranormal in the grand café of science, it’s coincidence.

German physicist James Frank was at work at the University of Göttingen when an expensive measuring device suddenly clunked out with no reason. These things weren’t running Windows; they weren’t prone to arbitrary failure. James thought this was particularly amusing, given that his friend, Wolfgang Pauli, wasn’t anywhere near the lab at the time. He contacted Pauli and told him the story, and a dumbfounded Pauli replied that he had in fact been travelling from Copenhagen that day, and right around when the equipment crumpled he had been changing trains. In Göttingen.

Hell, the guy’s car even broke down for no reason on his honeymoon. If ever there was a case for a curse, Pauli was it.

One story tells of a practical joke some of Pauli’s physics buddies wanted to play. They invited him to a lavish reception (engineers go to parties; physicists go to receptions), whereupon a chandelier was rigged to crash to the floor the moment Pauli walked in. Pauli showed up, the chandelier (which was suspended by a rope) was released, and the rope snagged, killing the prank. Coincidence? Or did the Pauli Effect sabotage the practical joke?

One of the more common manifestations of the Pauli Effect is known as the street light interference phenomenon. A handful of souls, convinced that their innate electrical energy might be wreaking havoc with their environment, believe that they possess the ability to turn on or off a street light simply by walking past it. We’ve all seen street lights flicker off seemingly at random – could it be that someone in the vicinity is unwittingly causing it via psychic transmission?

The short answer is no. Hell no. High pressure sodium street lights cycle off  and on toward the end of their life cycles, and sometimes the lamps are simply failing. This is what’s known as the confirmation bias – we are more likely to notice when a nearby light inexplicably turns off than the hundreds of lights we pass that don’t, or the ones that turn off a block away. Any scientific attempt at debunking (or, alternatively, bunking) this theory has met with failure. If it can’t be replicated with any degree of regularity; it ain’t a thing.

Vice-President Al Gore has met his own little slice of the Pauli Effect. The Gore Effect suggests that whenever a major conference on global warming takes place – in particular if Mr. Gore is to be in attendance – the weather at the event will be unseasonably cold. I hear the arguments against global warming at full volume around this time of year, as winter’s scaly tendrils strengthen their icy grip around every molecule of outdoor air. But a cold winter does not dispel the valid scientific theory of global warming. That said, it does make for a quirky coincidence when the cold shows up at every global warming conference like an obsessed superfan.

In October of 2008 Gore’s Harvard speech coincided with the lowest temperatures in almost 125 years. The British House of Commons debated the issue that same month, as London’s first October snowfall since 1922 plunked its fuzzy chill upon the River Thames outside. A March, 2007 media briefing on the US Senate’s new climate bill was shut down prematurely due to a snowstorm.

“It makes you think,” says meteorologist and climate skeptic Joseph D’Aleo. Well, it makes me think that there is certainly an element of coincidence and fluke among the grand dice-rolls of the cosmos. But I don’t buy the Gore Effect any more than I believe that some people possess an uncontrollable psychic power over street lights.

As for the Pauli Effect… well, who am I to argue with a Nobel Prize winner? Just to be safe, I’ll keep my iPhone tucked deep in my pocket, where only my non-cursed vibes can affect it.

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