The Strange, Totally Not True Story of a Cursed Physicist
Wolfgang Pauli was among the most brilliant physicists of the 20th century. Pauli, a professor of theoretical physics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, proposed the existence of the neutrino in 1930 and won the Nobel Prize for in 1945 for the exclusion principle.
He was also cursed.
Sometimes when he walked into a room, something bad happened. Things broke. Equipment failed. Colleagues jokingly called it “The Pauli Effect.” Though it could be easily explained away as coincidence and circumstance, some within the scientific community—including Pauli—believed it was real.
French photographer David Fathi was shocked when he first heard about this. “I had a lot of problems trying to understand how some of the brightest minds of their time could give in to ideas that seem like pure superstition,” he says. “But now I think that to work in a field like quantum physics, so abstract and far removed from common intuition, you probably have to be predisposed at thinking far out of the box, and you have to be creative and open to weird ideas.”
The tale inspired Fathi’s series Wolfgang, which features black and white photos of what appears to be scientific research gone awry. Faithi used images from the European Council for Nuclear Research and a little Photoshop trickery to create a world in which Pauli’s ghosts haunts CERN scientists. It’s a lighthearted blend of fact and fiction where you’re never quite sure what’s real.
CERN posted some 120,000 archival images, made between 1955 and 1985, online in late 2014. Fathi spent hours browsing through them. Most had no information beyond a date, yet Pauli’s name appeared again and again on blackboards, on plaques, on streets and buildings. “I found Pauli’s presence in the archive before I even knew who he was,” he says.
He began researching one of the most fascinating yet forgotten titans of 20th century physics. During his three decades teaching at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Pauli developed a reputation for being an arrogant yet brilliant physicist—and for bringing bad luck wherever he went. “Supposedly the mere presence of Pauli would make machinery break,” Fathi says.
There are countless stories. At Gottingen University in the 1920s, a major piece of equipment blew up as Pauli was changing trains. During the opening of the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich in 1948, a valuable Chinese vase crashed to the floor when he entered the room. Another story has it that Pauli’s fellow physicists planned a prank in which a chandelier would fall when he entered the room, but the prank didn’t work, further proving the Pauli Effect.
It was all enough to cause Nobel laureate Otto Stern to forbid Pauli from entering his laboratory. Even Pauli believed the curse was real. According to Arthur Miller, author of 137: Jung, Pauli, and the Pursuit of a Scientific Obsession, Pauli was the first to blame the curse if something went wrong, and he discussed it with his friend and therapist Carl Jung. “Sometimes after a Pauli Effect, he felt relieved,” Miller says. “He would feel a great deal of energy suddenly building up in him, and then the energy emerged, and the Pauli Effect occurred.”
Fathi, who studied math and computer science in college, believes the Pauli Effect is more sci-fi than science, but wanted to explore the superstition. He spent a year choosing 60 of the strangest images in the CERN archive, then put them through Photoshop. About half of the photos are originals and half are digitally manipulated. None have captions, partially to create further mystery but also because CERN is unable to provide information about them. “I actually don’t know what’s happening in these photos,” Fathi says. “If I chose them, it’s because I myself was mystified at what the hell was happening.”
The images look like stills from a Hitchcock film. It’s difficult to tell what is going on, and, an unnerving presence emanates through each frame. Cars inexplicably run off the road, people fall off ladders, and a huge concrete block slides off a truck on a road clearly marked Route W. Pauli. Pauli occasionally appears in a photo, on a commemorative bust or a portrait. They weave a fantastic narrative hovering somewhere between fact and fiction.
Fathi is a master at Photoshop, making it hard to know which images have been edited. In the end, the series illustrates just how difficult it can be to parse the rational from the superstitious. “I want to make people think about creativity and science, and the line between fact and superstition,” he says.