Victor Steinbok aardvark66 at GMAIL.COM
Thu Jan 27 21:51:40 UTC 2011

Wolfgang Pauli usually gets credit for the quit, "That's not right--it's
not even wrong!" (or something similar, depending on source). The common
reference for this is from Rudolph Peierls's 1960 recollections (I can't
really call it an obituary):

Rudolph Peierls, "Wolfgang Ernst Pauli, 1900-1958." (Royal Society, GB)
Biographical memoirs of fellows of the Royal Society 5:174-192 (1960)

Wiki not only highlights the whole episode in the article on Pauli:

> Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch! "Not only
> is it not right, it's not even wrong!"

but even has a separate entry for "not even wrong":

> An argument that appears to be scientific is said to be not even wrong
> if it cannot be falsified (i.e., tested) by experiment or cannot be
> used to make predictions about the natural world. The phrase was
> coined by theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who was known for his
> colorful objections to incorrect or sloppy thinking. Rudolf Peierls
> writes that "a friend showed [Pauli] the paper of a young physicist
> which he suspected was not of great value but on which he wanted
> Pauli's views. Pauli remarked sadly, 'It is not even wrong.' "

It may be impossible to either verify or reject the origin of the
phrase--Pauli died in 1958, leaving a large number of anecdotes about
his life, but not a lot of biographical material, and the quip was
originally supposed to be in German. However, recognizing Pauli's sense
of humor, it is possible that he might have been mocking a religious
argument that relied on a strawman statement that needed a rebuttal, e.g.,
Principles of the faith in relation to sin. By Orby Shipley. 1879
> Take three strict rules for guidance, in regard to devout jealousy
> against falling into little sins.
> i. Never to allow self-indulgence in any known fault, however small.
> People, in relation to this rule, may be heard to say, " Yes ; it is
> not right ; it is even wrong ; but, still, I do allow myself in such
> and such a liberty."

My brief search revealed little useful information and the statement may
well be original with Pauli. I thought I would throw it out into the
ether and see if anyone has the stomach to check it out deeper (and
perhaps check it out in German as well).


PS: I was wondering about the origin because Pauli's other famous quip,
also cited in Wiki has an alternative origin.

> "Well, I'd say that also our friend Dirac has got a religion and the
> first commandment of this religion is 'God does not exist and Paul
> Dirac is his prophet'".

As Wiki suggests, a similar statement was made much earlier about Robert
Green Ingersoll. Although it's impossible to judge whether Pauli was
familiar with the previous quip, the likelihood of coincidence seems
rather small.

The American Dialect Society -

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