Two of humanity’s greatest minds explore the parallels between spacetime and the psyche, the atomic nucleus and the self.
BY MARIA POPOVA
“Every true theorist is a kind of tamed metaphysicist,” Einstein wrote as he contemplated the human passion for comprehension in the final years of his life. He may well have been thinking about the great Austrian-Swiss theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli (April 25, 1900–December 15, 1958), who first postulated the neutrino and was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery of the Pauli exclusion principle — a monumental leap in our understanding of the structure of matter. Decades earlier, 21-year-old Pauli had published a critique of Einstein’s groundbreaking theory of general relativity. It greatly impressed the elder physicist, who wrote in astonishment:
No one studying this mature, grandly conceived work could believe that the author is a man of 21. One wonders what to admire most, the psychological understanding for the development of ideas, the sureness of mathematical deduction, the profound physical insight, the capacity for lucid systematic presentation, the complete treatment of the subject matter, or the sureness of critical appraisal.
Indeed, this uncommon fusion of psychological acumen and scientific rigor only intensified as Pauli grew older. Around the time he wrote the paper that spurred Einstein’s praise, Pauli became enchanted with the work of pioneering psychologist William James. After a three-decade immersion in it, and several years after the won the Nobel Prize in Physics, Pauli met the great psychiatrist Carl Jung (July 26, 1875–June 6, 1961), who in turn was deeply influenced by Einstein’s ideas about space and time.
Jung and Pauli struck an unusual friendship, which lasted a quarter century until Pauli’s death and resulted in the invention of synchronicity — acausally connected events, which the observer experiences as having a meaningful connection on the basis of his or her subjective situation, a meeting point of internal and external reality.
Although rooted in Pauli’s interest in dream analysis, their conversations and correspondence went on to explore fundamental questions regarding the nature of reality through the dual lens of physics and psychology. Each used the tools of his expertise to shift the shoreline between the known and the unknown, and together they found common ground in the analogy between the atom, with its nucleus and orbiting electrons, and the self, with its central conscious ego and its ambient unconscious.
Both men were deeply imprinted by this intellectual cross-pollination. In his posthumously published final work, Jung would write:
We do not know whether what we on the empirical plane regard as physical may not, in the Unknown beyond our experience, be identical with what on this side of the border we distinguish from the physical as psychic. Though we know from experience that psychic processes are related to material ones, we are not in a position to say in what this relationship consists or how it is possible at all. Precisely because the psychic and the physical are mutually dependent it has often been conjectured that they may be identical somewhere beyond our present experience, though this certainly does not justify the arbitrary hypothesis of either materialism or spiritualism.
Behind [Pauli’s] outward display of criticism and skepticism lay concealed a deep philosophical interest even in those dark areas of reality of the human mind which elude the grasp of reason. And while the power of fascination emanating from Pauli’s analyses of physical problems was admittedly due in some measure to the detailed and penetrating clarity of his formulations, the rest was derived from a constant contact with the field of creative processes, for which no rational formulation as yet exists.
In their conceptually daring correspondence, collected in Atom and Archetype: The Pauli/Jung Letters, 1932–1958 (public library), the two delve into these parallels between the physical and psychic dimensions of reality. In one of his early letters, Jung considers the analogy Pauli had proposed between the atomic nucleus and the self. He writes in the autumn of 1935:
Generally speaking, the unconscious is thought of as psychic matter in an individual. However, the self-representation drawn up by the unconscious of its central structure does not accord with this view, for everything points to the fact that the central structure of the collective unconscious cannot be fixed locally but is an ubiquitous existence identical to itself; it must not be seen in spatial terms and consequently, when projected onto space, is to be found everywhere in that space. I even have the feeling that this peculiarity applies to time as well as space… A biological analogy would be the functional structure of a termite colony, possessing only unconscious performing organs, whereas the center, to which all the functions of the parts are related, is invisible and not empirically demonstrable.
The radioactive nucleus is an excellent symbol for the source of energy of the collective unconscious, the ultimate external stratum of which appears an individual consciousness. As a symbol, it indicates that consciousness does not grow out of any activity that is inherent to it; rather, it is constantly being produced by an energy that comes from the depths of the unconscious and has thus been depicted in the form of rays since time immemorial.
The center, or the nucleus, has always been for me a symbol of the totality of the psychic, as the conscious plus the unconscious, the center of which does not coincide with the ego as the center of consciousness, and consequently has always been perceived as being external…