WOLFGANG PAULI: THE TRUTH OF SCIENCE AND THE PHRASE “IT’S NOT EVEN WRONG”

December 15, 2010 at 1:39 am | Posted in History, Philosophy, Research, Science & Technology | Leave a comment

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Wolfgang Ernst Pauli and His Phrase

It Is Not Even Wrong”

Every college freshman who takes the basic chemistry course comes across the Pauli Exclusion Principle, enunciated by the Austrian physicist Wolfgang Pauli.

Wolfgang Ernst Pauli (April 25, 1900 – December 15, 1958) was an Austrian theoretical physicist and one of the pioneers of quantum physics. In 1945, after being nominated by Albert Einstein, he received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his “decisive contribution through his discovery of a new law of Nature, the exclusion principle or Pauli principle,” involving spin theory, underpinning the structure of matter and the whole of chemistry.

His most severe criticism, which he reserved for theories or theses so presented as to be untestable or unevaluatable and, thus, not properly belonging within the realm of science, even though posing as such.

They were worse than wrong because they could not be proven wrong.

Famously, he once said of such an unclear paper:

Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch!

“Not only is it not right, it’s not even wrong!”

An argument that appears to be scientific is said to be not even wrong if it cannot be falsified (i.e., tested) by experiment or cannot be used to make predictions about the natural world. The phrase was coined by theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who was known for his colorful objections to incorrect or sloppy thinking.[1]

Rudolf Peierls writes that “a friend showed [Pauli] the paper of a young physicist which he suspected was not of great value but on which he wanted Pauli’s views. Pauli remarked sadly, ‘It is not even wrong.’ [2]

Basis

Statements that are “not even wrong” may be well-formed, but lack reference to anything physical (as in “Souls are immortal”, because the noun “soul” is not well-defined in terms of experimental results), or may simply be gobbledygook which appears meaningless.

The phrase implies that even a wrong argument would have been better than the argument proposed, because an argument can only be found wrong after at least meeting the criteria for being considered academically (proper assumptions, falsifiable, makes predictions). Arguments that are not even wrong do not meet these criteria.

The phrase “not even wrong” is often used to describe pseudoscience or bad science and is considered derogatory.[3]

Further meanings

“Not even wrong” has also come to mean science that is well-meaning and based on current scientific knowledge, but can neither be used for prediction nor falsified. Such conjectures are non-scientific, even when they are spoken in scientific language. The phrase has been applied to aspects of the super string theory of physics on the grounds that, although mathematically elegant, it provides (as of now) neither predictions nor tests.[4]

Not Even Wrong is also the title of a book by Paul Collins in which he discusses the history of beliefs about autism and searches for an appropriate educational setting for his autistic son.

Notes

1. Shermer M (2006). “Wronger Than Wrong”. Scientific American. http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=wronger-than-wrong.

2. Peierls, R. (1960). “Wolfgang Ernst Pauli, 1900-1958”. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society 5: 186. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1960.0014.

3. Oliver Burkeman (September 19, 2005). “Not even wrong”. The Guardian. http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,3604,1573072,00.html.

4. Woit, Peter, Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law, Basic Books, 2007, ISBN 978-0465092765

Gerald Holton Discusses This Pauli Story:

Gerald Holton is Mallinckrodt Research Professor of Physics and Research Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University.

He discusses this Pauli story in his various recent Harvard books:

Among his recent Harvard University Press books are:

The Scientific Imagination

(Harvard University Press, 1998)

The Advancement of Science, and its Burdens

(Harvard University Press, 1998)

· The Scientific Imagination

(Harvard Univ. Press, 1998)

· Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein

(Harvard Univ. Press, 1973; rev. ed., 1988)

· Science and Anti-Science

(Harvard Univ. Press, 1993)

· Einstein, History, and Other Passions

(Harvard University Press, 2000)

This Pauli phrase again shows that science can never be understood within science but must be analyzed outside science which brings you into the realm of philosophy.Science is only a step towards larger issues.

Wolfgang Ernst Pauli:

Born 25 April 1900 (1900-04-25) Vienna, Austria-Hungary

Died 15 December 1958 (1958-12-15) (aged 58) Zürich, Switzerland

Citizenship Switzerland

Nationality Austria

Fields Physics

Institutions University of Göttingen
University of Copenhagen
University of Hamburg
ETH Zürich
Princeton University

Alma mater Ludwig-Maximilians University

Doctoral advisor Arnold Sommerfeld

Other academic advisors Max Born

Doctoral students Nicholas Kemmer Felix Villars

Other notable students Markus Fierz Sigurd Zienau

Known for Pauli exclusion principle
Pauli-Villars regularization
Pauli matrices
Pauli effect
Pauli equation
Pauli group
Coining ‘not even wrong’

Influences Ernst Mach Carl Jung

Influenced Ralph Kronig

Notable awards Lorentz Medal (1931)
Nobel Prize in Physics (1945)
Matteucci Medal (1956)
Max Planck Medal (1958)

Notes
His godfather was Ernst Mach.

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