Deciphering the cosmic number: the strange friendship of Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung
Arthur I. Miller
Nonfiction 336 pages
W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2009
Despite the title, you’ll have to read the final chapter before you learn much about the number 137. But that doesn’t hurt this double biography. Along the way you’ll learn about the numbers three and four and what they meant to Johannes Kepler and Robert Fludd, one a pioneer of science, the other a mystic.
While three is the number of the trinity, four is that of the cardinal directions. Jung and Pauli both examined the symbolism of these numbers.
Their relationship began when Pauli approached Jung for therapy. Although, Jung referred him to one of his pupils, Jung took an active interest in Pauli’s analysis. As their friendship developed, Pauli found an outlet for his mystical, intuitive side. Jung hoped that Pauli could lend a more scientific foundation to Jung's brand of psychology.
Jung believed that the human psyche was populated by archetypes which supplied symbolic meaning. Certain numbers, among them three and four, could take on archetypal qualities in dreams and visions. Just as these numbers appeared in myth and alchemical texts, they also appeared in Pauli’s dreams and in his efforts to discover the structure of the atom.
Early in his career, Pauli worked with Niels Bohr whose theory of the atom hinged on three quantum numbers. But the theory wasn’t complete until Ralph Kronig proposed that electrons had a spin of one half and others provided evidence. Spin became the fourth quantum number, but its addition meant that electrons could no longer be visualized.
Pauli and Jung both believed in the paranormal, unlike Jung’s mentor Sigmund Freud. Once while arguing with Freud about parapsychology, Jung experienced a feeling like his diaphragm was turning into hot iron. Just then, a loud noise came from Freud’s bookcase and both men jumped. Jung remarked that the event was an example of “a physical effect brought about by a mental thought.” Freud was merely dismissive.
Pauli was a believer in what his colleagues named the Pauli Effect. Pauli was sometimes unwelcome in physics laboratories because lab equipment frequently failed in his presence. But the Pauli Effect didn’t just destroy lab equipment. People suffered as well. On one occasion the chairs to his right and left simultaneously collapsed dislodging the women sitting on them.
Jung coined the term “synchronicity” to account for a type of paranormal phenomena. Synchronicity is what Jung calls meaningful coincidences that have no apparent cause. For example, on one occasion a woman was discussing her dream of a scarab when one tapped on Jung’s office window. The coincidental appearance of a real scarab profoundly affected Jung’s patient and allowed her to benefit from her therapy. Telepathic and precognitive dreams are other examples of synchronicity.
The causal universe of Newtonian physics was displaced early in the twentieth century by the arrival of quantum physics. Events at the quantum level could no longer be said to be causal – they are probabilistic. Both Pauli and Jung were well aware of this and Pauli had no difficulty accepting the possibility of synchronicity.
The friendship between the two resulted in the 1952 publication of “The Interpretation of Nature and the Psyche,” a volume containing two essays — Jung’s “Synchronicity: an acausal connecting principal” and Pauli’s “The Influence of Archetypal Ideas on the Scientific Theories of Kepler.”
Returning to 137 — the number occurs several places in the book. Bohr’s theory was tested by examining the spectral lines created by the light emitted when an electron drops from a higher to a lower orbit. Some of these were found to consist of closely spaced individual lines known as the “fine structure.” The distance between the lines of the fine structure of a spectral line, Bohr called “the fine structure constant.” Pauli was able to determine that this constant is a pure number equal to 1/137 or 0.00729. He wondered why 137 and not some other number — a question that was to occupy much of his professional life.
In addition to being a prime number, there are several other interesting facts about this number. The values of the Hebrew letters which spell the word Kabbalah total 137. So do the Biblical phrases, “The God of Truth” and “The Surrounding Brightness,” and the Hebrew word for “crucifix.”
But perhaps the oddest coincidence was that the hospital room in which Pauli died was number 137. When Charles Enz visited Pauli, he informed Enz that the room was number 137, “I’m never getting out of here alive.”
Miller’s book is an interesting mixture of biography and science and very hard to put down. For those who understand the math, Miller supplies a bit to ponder. But for the most part, the book can easily be enjoyed by non-scientists.