Thursday, February 4, 2010

A Conversation Between Wolfgang Pauli and Werner Heisenberg

Three great physicists met in Copenhagen 25 years after the Copenhagen Meeting of 1952 when quantum theory became endowed with the Copenhagen interpretation. Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli, and Werner Heisenberg gathered to discuss the impact of their 1952 conference and of the universe in general. The following are the final paragraphs of the notes of Heisenberg about his conversation with Pauli during a long walk. [1]

“We walked on in silence and had soon reached the northern tip of the Langelinie, whence we continued along the jetty as far as the small beacon. In the north, we could still see a bright strip of red; in these latitudes the sun does not travel far beneath the horizon. The outlines of the harbor installations stood out sharply, and after we had been standing at the end of the jetty for a while, Wolfgang asked me quite unexpectedly:

“Do you believe in a personal God? I know, of course, how difficult it is to attach a clear meaning to this question, but you can probably appreciate its general purport.”

“May I rephrase your question?” I asked. “I myself should prefer the following formulation: can you, or anyone else, reach the central order of things or events, whose existence seems beyond doubt, as directly as you can reach the soul of another human being? I am using the term ‘soul’ quite deliberately so as not to be misunderstood. If you put your question like that, I would say yes. And because my own experiences do not matter so much, I might go on to remind you of Pascal’s famous text, the one he kept sewn in his jacket. It was headed “Fire” and began with the words: “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – not of the philosophers and sages.”

“In other words, you think that you can become aware of the central order with the same intensity as of the soul of another person?”


“Why did you use the word ‘soul’ and not simply speak of another person?”

“Precisely because the word, ‘soul’, refers to the central order, to the inner core of a being whose outer manifestations may be highly diverse and pass our understanding.

“If the magnetic force that has guided this particular compass – and what else was its source but the central order – should ever become extinguished, terrible things may happen to mankind, far more terrible even than concentration camps and atom bombs. But we did not set out to look into such dark recesses; let’s hope the central realm will light our way again, perhaps in quite unsuspected ways. As far as science is concerned, however, Niels is certainly right to underwrite the demands of pragmatists and positivists for meticulous attention to detail and for semantic clarity. It is only in respect to its taboos that we can object to positivism, for if we may no longer speak or even think about the wider connections, we are without a compass and hence in danger of losing our way.”

“Despite the late hour, a small boat made fast on the jetty and took us back to Kongens Nytorv, whence it was easy to reach Niels’ house.”
[1]The World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy, and Mathematics; Ferris, ed.; pp 826, 827.

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