May 2009

Sophia Carroll

nonfiction

Deciphering the Cosmic Number: The Strange Friendship of Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung by Arthur I. Miller

For a variety of reasons, most scientists try to avoid being associated with wizardry and magic, which were largely discredited by the seventeenth century enlightenment. Even Sir Isaac Newton, whose reputation was hard to assail, preferred to conduct his experiments with alchemy in secret. Since then, western science has steadily and decisively inched away from its mystical roots, never quite relinquishing them, but making sure they stay tucked out of sight. Yet believers remain even today. They include those brave yet ignorable souls who patrol the New Mexico desert investigating “UFOs” over Los Alamos, yes. But have you ever wondered when Princeton University finally closed its ESP lab? (Yes, that ESP: Extra Sensory Perception.) The answer may come as a surprise: February, 2007.

Even if they work at Princeton, these people are easy to criticize and mock. From Victor Frankenstein to Dr. Strangelove and Lex Luthor, the mad scientist has become a modern cultural archetype who is characterized, among other things, by his (always) certainty that the universe is governed by unseen forces he alone understands, and seeks to control. Responsible, trustworthy scientists, by comparison, remain in the day-lit realm of the measurable, the rational and the redundant. Perhaps as a result, there are fewer stories about them -- who would read about Dr. Jekyll, if it weren’t for Mr. Hyde?

Luckily, here in the non-fictional universe, human beings come less starkly divided. Deciphering the Cosmic Number, by physicist Arthur I. Miller, tells the story of two of the twentieth century’s most important scientists who, far from being mad, turned their shared desire to look beyond the visible and measurable world into a long and highly successful collaboration. These men, the famous psychoanalyst and father of the archetype Carl Jung, and the atomic physicist Wolfgang Pauli, believed that the invisible worlds they studied were real, and therefore had to exist in relationship to one and other. The only question was how. One clue was the number 137, which holds great significance in physics as well as in spiritual works, including the Kabbalah. As such, it became a sort of symbolic beacon of their quest for this link, a northwest passage into the spiritual realm, which would open as soon as they could pin down its meaning.

Although of course Pauli and Jung never did discover a mystical spiritual realm, or a comprehensive, unifying theory of existence, Miller demonstrates persuasively how their search led each man to broaden his thinking and solve some of the toughest problems of their age in highly creative, innovative ways. He does not explicitly argue that the western world’s mystical tradition has born fruit over the years by empowering people to question assumptions about cause and effect, thus encouraging intuitive, “outside the box” thinking. But he doesn’t really have to; Jung and Pauli prove it.

One of Jung’s fundamental contributions to psychology is a basic mapping mechanism he invented which describes an individual’s personality using “psychological type.” “Psychological types,” such as “introvert vs. extravert” and “thinking vs. feeling” are a familiar concept to anyone who has taken a Myers-Briggs personality test, the Jungian i Ching of college career counselors. By locating a patient’s tendencies within certain behavioral ranges, the psychologist can create a psychological portrait, or map, for therapeutic use.

There is a sense in which Miller’s narrative reminds me of Jung’s psychological types, because rather than telling a linear story from start to finish, he vacillates along a dual track, switching between Pauli and Jung, whose friendship alone lacks the drama to sustain a single storyline. Miller uses wide brushstrokes to place their relationship in the context of the history of mysticism in science, as well as the step by step progression of atomic physics in the early twentieth century. The narrative follows Pauli’s career in fascinating detail, occasionally leaping away to discuss key mystical elements from the history of science, or Johannes Kepler’s debate with Robert Fludd, or Gnosticism, or the i Ching.

While this structure can be confusing at times, it allows for all kinds of interesting though tangential pieces of information to make their way in, and this is a good thing. Pauli and Jung’s friendship is interesting for all it represents to the history of science, but it was not particularly dramatic. Miller’s hefty seasoning of personal anecdote, history and philosophy adds necessary richness and texture to their story, and also provides illuminating snapshots of their time.

Many of these extra snapshots of information involve the women in their lives, who seem to have been highly dynamic and interesting individuals. Pauli’s female relatives were a particularly impressive bunch. His mother was a journalist, his sister a celebrated writer, painter and actress; his first wife was a cabaret dancer and his second wife, Franca, a secretary who worked at very high levels, including for a Communist politician who assassinated the prime minister of Austria in 1916. Jung too has a number of female colleagues who come and go, including a student to whom he sends first send Pauli for analysis and his wife Emma, the second-richest woman in Switzerland.

None of these female figures really seem to be part of the story, but flit ghostlike along the margins. This marginalization reflects Pauli’s own views of “women… [as] pleasant things to play with, but not something to take seriously,” which of course were common enough views at the time. What makes them more interesting is the fact that when Pauli begins analysis with Jung in 1931, one of the first things Jung notices is the degree to which Pauli has repressed his feminine side, and from then on they devote a huge amount of time trying to resuscitate this lost inner female. Allowing the outer females in, however, doesn’t seem to have been an option they considered!

Pauli’s search for the repressed woman within is not something Miller connects to his position among constellating female relatives, and I think a deeper discussion relating Jung’s ideas about mystical gender to their views of real women would have brought an interesting dimension to the story. However Miller is a physicist and his tremendous talent clearly lies with his ability to make complex scientific concepts accessible and interesting for the non-scientist. He writes in the smooth and engaging voice of an experienced teacher, conveying an infectious sense of wonder that makes even the more obscure scientific explanations (and there are a few) pleasurable to read. Perhaps one day a psychologist will take up this story and, as Jung did for Pauli, attempt to meet Miller half way, and more fully illuminate the other, internal side of this shadowy history.

Deciphering the Cosmic Number: The Strange Friendship of Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung by Arthur I. Miller
W. W. Norton
ISBN: 0393065324
368 Pages