le 16 septembre 2014
This is a fantastic book that was long overdue. It recounts Wolfgang Pauli's amazing relationship with Carl Jung during one of the most creative period in human history. As far as I know this has never been done before. Not to this extent anyway. But make no mistake, this is a full-fledged biography of Wolfgang Pauli. We find here the same process devised by Arthur I. Miller in "Empire of the Stars", the authors's previous book. In that case the main theme of the book was the rivalry between Sir Arthur Eddington and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. And that's how the book was marketed. But in reality it's more or less a biography of Chandra. This process is fine with me because I had been looking for a biography of Pauli and could not find one that was non mathematical. My search ended here.
Carl Jung stars here in the supporting role, just like he would do in any decent biography of Sigmund Freud. For both of them Jung came to play a vital role in their lives. Except that Pauli has never been a rival for Jung like Freud was. They collaborated over many years and each one saw in the other a complement of himself. Pauli was an accomplished scientist who was interested by the occult, while Jung was trying to find a scientific grounding for his theories. It was the perfect marriage between the real and the surreal. I like to view their relationship as some sort of alchemical wedding. They certainly represent a very unique case in the annals of science. Their association started when Pauli's inner world had suddenly disintegrated and he thought he was becoming insane. That is when he decided to consult with Jung. Pauli was eventually able to recover his sanity, but not completely. And that's what makes this book so fascinating. From time to time we can actually feel the wind blowing over from the asylum, to put it the way Jung described his first meeting with Pauli. That's how serious Pauli's condition had become in midlife.
If you are not already familiar with the life and work of Carl Jung you will learn everything you need to know about this often misunderstood figure of the 20th century. The essence of his life's work is magisterially conveyed by the author. Miller is actually a historian of science, but he acquitted himself exceptionally well of the delicate task of bringing together the irrational world of the unconscious with the abstruse concepts of Quantum Physics as they were being formalized at the time. When the New Physics was taking shape so was the Analytical Psychology movement initiated by Carl Jung. It was like two parallel universes that came in contact with each other through some sort of metaphysical wormhole that thrusted Pauli and Jung into a new dimension of reality where together they mined previously unexplored regions of the mind. In this book we constantly alternate between the rational and the irrational; between mathematical physics and numerology; between the conscious and the unconscious; and of course between Pauli and Jung. Even if you know little about the inner workings of the mind you will quickly become familiar with abstract concepts of the psyche, like for example Carl Jung's notion of a collective unconscious. And unless you are already knowledgeable about the intricate world of the atom you will discover why its mysterious behaviour was driving Pauli crazy.
Whatever your background is you might already be familiar with the expression "It's not even wrong". That comes from Pauli who made this comment to a colleague after reading a paper that had been submitted by a graduate student. The young man had obviously not properly understood what the problem he was studying really implied, as often happened to the unwary scientist in the early days of Quantum Physics. There was nothing wrong per say with what this poor chap had written in his paper, except that the solution he offered showed that he was completely oblivious to the profound implications of what was being discussed in his essay. The full translation from the original German should read as follow "It's not only not right, IT'S NOT EVEN WRONG!" This is a unique way of saying to someone that he missed the point.
While our understanding of Carl Jung and his Analytical Psychology has been growing since his death, Wolfgang Pauli remains today one of the most underestimated physicist of the Quantum Revolution. But this well researched biography reminds us that he played a key role in establishing this new paradigm. We also learn that he was a man as complex and bizarre as the new field he helped to create. And in the end we come to realize that, like the number 137 that so obsessed him, he remains a mystery.