The Pauli Principle vs. The Pauli Effect

In keeping with our theme of Science and Woo, let’s start by discussing the Pauli Principle vs. the Pauli Effect.

The Pauli Principle

Wolfgang Pauli was an Austrian theoretical physicist. He was one of the elite band of scientists who delved into quantum mechanics in the early 20th Century, creating a new understanding of matter and shaking the foundations of scientific knowledge.


In 1925 he introduced an idea known as the Pauli Exclusion Principle, or more briefly the Pauli Principle. This principle states that no two electrons can occupy the exact same state at the same time in any given atom. More generally, the principle applies to any particle that is a fermion: that is, a particle with 1/2 spin (also called non-integer spin). Electrons are fermions; so are quarks and leptons, and so is any atom with an odd number of electrons. Bosons are particles with an integer spin; these include the Higgs boson (the so-called “God particle” that has been in the news recently) and composite particles like mesons. Boson particles are not subject to the Pauli Exclusion Principle.

Pauli won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1945 for this work.

The Pauli Effect

The Pauli Effect is a term referring to the failure of technical equipment in the presence of certain people, usually applying to physics equipment vs. theoretical physicists. It is anecdotal — i.e. there is no scientific proof that such an effect exists. The effect is named after Wolfgang Pauli because he was notorious in that regard. We are not talking about breaking equipment while using it; rather, this effect causes equipment to malfunction due to the mere presence of the person causing the effect. Pauli was notorious for causing equipment to malfunction.

In physics it is well accepted lore that theoretical physicists are often anathema to the sensitive equipment used by their experimental colleagues. In the case of Pauli, there are several stories that corroborate the effect. It happened to him so often, that his friend Otto Stern, an experimental physicist, banned Pauli from his laboratory.

The most famous story of Pauli’s effect on equipment occurred when he was not even in the affected laboratory. An expensive measuring device failed in the physics lab at the University of Gottingen. The director of the institute humorously reported to Pauli that the failure was not his fault this time as he had not been present. But it turned out that Pauli had been travelling that day, and had changed trains in the Gottingen train station at right about the time of the equipment failure. This incident was recounted in George Gamow’s book “Thirty Years that Shook Physics: The Story of Quantum Theory“.


Wolfgang Pauli was a famously disciplined theoretical thinker, and could be a harsh scientific critic. He was often very dismissive of work that he considered sloppy, especially if it was so vague as to not be subject to proof. When he encountered such ideas he would sometimes remark that “It is not even wrong”. The phrase “not even wrong” is still used today, usually to dismiss pseudoscience that is not falsifiable.

One of the cornerstones of the scientific method is to present an idea that can be falsified; i.e., one can devise an experiment that will tell whether the theory is true or false. Then one performs the experiment and sees if the result agrees with the theory. After that one publishes the work to the greater community, and other scientists repeat the experiment or devise other experiments to test the proposition. In this way we can find out how things work and we can be confident that the results are not a fluke.

On the other hand, Pauli himself believed that the Pauli effect was real. That is not surprising, since he himself experienced it on many occasions. Many of his physicist colleagues also accepted that the effect was real, since they also experienced it when he was around. We must take them at their word that such incidents occurred. Pauli later collaborated with Hans Bender, a parapsychologist, and Carl Jung, a psychotherapist who developed the idea of the collective unconscious, on the question of synchronicity. So Pauli himself did not dismiss this unexplained phenomenon; far from it: it seems he embraced it.

So how does the Pauli Effect mesh with the very real, very hard science world that he participated in? Well for one thing, we might ask whether science can answer every question. Certainly there seem to be classes of questions that cannot be addressed by science, such as, Why are we here? Why do we have consciousness and intelligence? or What is beauty? Why are some things esthetically pleasing? Why does music move us? Certainly science can test hypotheses about beauty and esthetics; for example, if we were to posit that a certain ratio (like the Golden Ratio) is pleasing to the eye, we could then test that hypothesis by presenting subjects with images having that ratio vs images that change the ratio, and collect data showing that the ratio is indeed pleasing to the majority of subjects (or not, as the case may be). But that does not answer the question of exactly why we have a sense of what is beautiful and what is not.

Now you might argue that such questions are philosophical or religious in nature. But even if that is so, these are questions that humans have asked and answered to the best of their ability since time immemorial. So there is a deeply felt human need for beauty and truth that goes beyond our desire to know how things work.  Of course, humans have also endeavored to discover how things work since time immemorial, so that also appears to be a deeply felt human need. And our scientific endeavors have been highly successful, allowing us to be masters of our environment to an extent that previous generations could barely imagine.

Scientists and people of a logical bent are often dismissive of such things as the Pauli Effect. It is easy to say it is just “anecdotal”, and to pooh-pooh it because it cannot be subjected to rigorous scientific tests. But we should not be so quick to set aside this aspect of the human experience. Science is one of the manifestations of human intelligence, and it has given us so much and improved our existence in so many ways. But if other areas of our experience are not amenable to scientific research, that does not in itself make them irrelevant or invalid. Of course, there are charlatans and there is pseudoscience. We must always remember the adage: “Keep an open mind, but not so wide open that the wind blows through it.”

Well, until next time,

Keep an open mind (you know the rest)!

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