Wolfgang Pauli, great theoretical physicist

Pauli won the nobel prize in 1945. I met him in 1957, while he was visiting Imperial College where I was a student. He gave a mumbled lecture on group theory in particle physics. I met him again in 1958, when he was at the Varenna summer school organised by the Italian Physical Society. I have described this meeting here.

I met Pauli again later at the same conference. I was asked to take the notes of the lecture to be presented by Pauli. To make sure I could hear and see well, I resolved to get there early, so that I could claim one of the front seats. I was distressed to find that Pauli was already there, and had written out his lecture in tiny writing on two small blackboards on easels. On the left was a proof of the PCT theorem, and on the right was a proof of the spin-statistics theorem. I copied it down as fast as I could, but could only get down half of the left-hand board when it was time for the lecture. Pauli waved his pointer at the board, saying, we start with this, do this, get this, and so prove the theorem. He then turned to the right-hand board, and soon we had quickly proved the spin-statistics theorem. He then looked at the time, and said, oh, there seemed to be fifty minutes left, so he would take the opportunity to talk about new work that might be of more interest (than these old results). I had not yet finished the first board, but he rubbed out an oval clearing in the middle of the PCT theorem, and gave us a lecture on his new ideas about the group G2, which might be a rival to other favourite groups of rank 2 (SO(4), rather than SU(3) was considered the main choice). I took notes of this, muddled up with the remainder of the PCT theorem which remained at the ends and below the new work. Then I started on the second board, but Pauli said, there still seem to remain 25 minutes, and he would talk about some interesting work of Marcel Froissart, on relativistic ghost states. Again he wiped out an oval in the middle of the spin-statistics proof, and my notes contained a mixture of that and the "ghost" story.

I was sharing a room with Raymond Stora, and he and I tried to piece together the four lectures we had heard. It did not hang together, and I was slow in delivering it to the office who were preparing the notes (Supplemento Nuovo Cimento 14, no 1, 1959). I had to tell them that it was not fit to publish. I was told to approach Pauli, and to ask him to help. This was easy to do, because Pauli found the uphill walk to the lecture rooms (in the Villa Monastero) from his hotel very hard-going, and I easily caught him up. He turned round in great surprise, and said that he was not prepared to allow any notes of his lectures to be published, and that THIS HAD BEEN MADE CLEAR TO THE SOCIETY BEFORE HE ACCEPTED THE INVITATION. So I reported back that the office must have misunderstood the arrangements made with Professor Pauli. I was told off by the office; I should never have mentioned that this was for publication, but should have said that I was an ignorant and incapable student, and that I needed his help to get my own notes in better order. I was told that Pauli was very kind to students, and that if I had used this tactic, he would have helped. More, I was to go back and try again, saying that I had misunderstood, and that indeed it would not be published, and that it was just for my use. This time I again easily got to be walking alongside Pauli, but now found it harder to say my piece. He said nothing, but held out his hand and put my notes in his inside pocket. Days went by, and the office said I should get the (corrected) notes back from Pauli. This time Pauli fished in his pocket and handed me the notes, saying "This is the worst set of lecture notes I have ever seen!". I withdrew, and furtively looked at his corrections: he had made no marks or writing whatsoever on the notes. The office then wanted me to give them the notes; I protested, but they said that they would not publish them, but that they owned them, as the Physical Society had paid for the hotels and travel of the speakers and provided the funding for the Villa where the lectures were held. So I handed them over, extracting the assurance that they would be omitted from the proceedings.

Pauli died a few weeks later. I then had a request from Nuovo Cimento. Surely, the world of physics would be the poorer if the very last scientific work of Wolfgang Pauli were not published. I was asked to edit the notes once more. I realised that Pauli did not want the PCT and spin-statistics theorems published; they were five-minute talks on old stuff. He could hardly publish Froissart's work. Indeed, Froissart had given an expanded version of his work in a seminar, and this appears pp 197-204. But I agreed to work on Pauli's G2 theory, and to try to make it readable. I also insisted that my name (as note-taker) would not be on the article. This duly appeared, pp 205-207, made more intelligible by a few extra pages by Touschek.

At the conference, B. Stech had persuaded me register as a reviewer for Mathematical Reviews, which was expanding its coverage to include the exciting field of elementary particle theory. Later in 1959 I was sent MY OWN ARTICLE to review. I was tempted to say "this is the worst set of lecture notes I have ever seen (said Pauli)". I should have sent it back, admitting authorship, or giving another vaguer reason. But I saw the irony of it, and gave it the worst review I had ever done (by then). Why not? The inventor of the theory had died, and the real author of the hopeless notes would not complain.


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© by Ray Streater, 6/6/00