Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Deciphering the Cosmic Number – Arthur I. Miller ***

Finding a new subject is increasingly difficult when looking at biographies of 20th century scientists. Arthur I. Miller has adopted the cunning approach of combining the life and work of physicist Wolfgang Pauli and psychotherapist Carl Jung, an apparently unlikely combination, but Pauli was analyzed by Jung and corresponded with him for many years, sharing an interest in mystical concepts and alchemy.
I started off very enthusiastic about this book as Pauli is probably the famous physicist I know least about. (I say famous – it’s telling that Miller comments later on that in 2000, Physics World had a poll for the 10 most famous physicists of the 20th century, and Pauli didn’t get a single vote. He did make some very significant contributions, including the exclusion principle and predicting the existence of the neutrino, but he’s not exactly in Einstein or Feynman’s league.) I was also interested in Jung because I’d made use of the Myers Briggs Type Profile when working at British Airways, and, like much personality profiling, this is based on Jungian concepts.
Miller gives us a good crack at Pauli’s life history – and it’s an interesting life – plus explanations of Pauli’s work that are probably a little equation heavy for some readers, but worth persevering with as they don’t get too technical, with the probably exception of some of the material on the fine structure constant. Pauli made an essential contribution with the exclusion principle to our understanding of atomic structure – this is good stuff and deserves a wider audience.
I was less impressed by Jung – this isn’t Miller’s fault, however. Though Jung has probably been less slated of late than Freud, because his personality types seem to have some basis in reality, the fact is that almost all of Jung’s thinking now seems both extremely dated, and hand-wavingly vague with no real science attached. Although I’ve always found medieval ideas of science interesting, Jung (and to some extent Pauli)’s tendency to take all this stuff seriously, rather than treat it as interesting but no longer valid historical knowledge grates rather.
Worst of all, and here to some extent I do have to blame Miller, there are whole chunks of the book that go into Pauli’s dreams in excruciating detail. It’s a well-known fact, and Prof. Miller should have realized this, that other people’s dreams are the biggest turn-off in reading history. They are instant boredom. Unfortunately, Jung did a lot of dream analysis, and we get page after page of Pauli’s dreams and what they meant. This kills the middle section of the book, and it never really recovers its impetus.
So, an interesting idea to take a different approach, and plenty of good material on Pauli, but many readers may feel the urge to skip over large sections to avoid falling asleep and having their own dreams.
Review by Brian Clegg

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