Skip to main content

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Jung (and to some extent Pauli)’s tendency to take all this stuff seriously, rather than treat it as interesting but no longer valid historical knowledge grates rather.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


Popular posts from this blog

The Feed (SF) - Nick Clark Windo ****

Ever since The War of the Worlds, the post-apocalyptic disaster novel has been a firm fixture in the Science Fiction universe. What's more, such books are often among the few SF titles that are shown any interest by the literati, probably because many future disaster novels feature very little science. With a few exceptions, though (I'm thinking, for instance, The Chrysalids) they can make for pretty miserable reading unless you enjoy a diet of page after page of literary agonising.

The Feed is a real mixture. Large chunks of it are exactly that - page after page of self-examining misery with an occasional bit of action thrown in. But, there are parts where the writing really comes alive and shows its quality. This happens when we get the references back to pre-disaster, when we discover the Feed, which takes The Circle's premise to a whole new level with a mega-connected society where all human interaction is through directly-wired connections… until the whole thing fails …

Everything You Know About Space Is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

What we have here is a feast of assertions some people make about space that are satisfyingly incorrect, with pithy, entertaining explanations of what the true picture is. Matt Brown admits in his introduction that a lot of these incorrect facts are nitpicking - more on that in a moment - but it doesn't stop them being delightful. I particularly enjoyed the ones about animals in space and about the Moon.

Along the way, we take in space exploration, the Earth's place in space, the Moon, the solar system, the universe and a collection of random oddities, such as the fact that Mozart didn't write Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. Sometimes the wrongness comes from a frequent misunderstanding. So, for example, Brown corrects the idea that Copernicus was the first to say that the Earth moves around the Sun. Sometimes there's some very careful wording. This is used when Brown challenges the idea that the Russian dog Laika was the first animal in space. What we discover is that, i…

Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs - Lisa Randall ****

I did my PhD in galactic dynamics - which is an awkward subject when people want to know what its relevance to the 'real world' is. So I was excited when Clube and Napier's book The Cosmic Serpent came out, around the same time, because it provided me with a ready-made answer. It argued that the comets which occasionally crash into Earth with disastrous results - such as the extinction of the dinosaurs - are perturbed from their normal orbits by interactions with the large-scale structure of the galaxy.

I was reminded of this idea a few years ago when there was a flurry of media interest in Lisa Randall's "dark matter and the dinosaurs" conjecture. I was sufficiently enthusiastic about it to write an article on the subject for Fortean Times - though my enthusiasm didn't quite extend to purchasing her hardback book at the time. However, now that it's out in paperback I've remedied the situation - and I'm glad I did.

Dark matter is believed to exi…