Feynman Algorithm and Pauli Effect

The Feynman algorithm was facetiously suggested by another Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann (1929-), a colleague of Richard Philips Feynman (1918-1988), in a New York Times interview. It states:-

  1. Write down the problem.
  2. Think real hard.
  3. Write down the solution.

Here it is in a picture.


Gell-Mann is a highly successful and highly trained problem solver, yet he was astounded by Feynman’s ability. So he half-joking wrote down the algorithm. Feynman was very good at solving tough problems. So Gell-Mann’s point was that you can’t do it, I can’t do it, he can’t do it, but somehow, Feynman often could. Feynman was renowned for his ability to develop innovative and creative solutions to hugely complex problems, without being able to give much insight into how this process worked. It is probably worth noting that Feynman, though having a healthy ego, attributed much of his success with difficult problems in having developed over the years a bit of an unusual ‘toolkit’ of methods. Well, the algorithm is only guaranteed to work when performed by Prof. Feynman. Hence the name. Non-Feynman Algorithm version is:

  1. Write down the problem.
  2. Ask Feynman.
  3. Copy down his solution.

Unfortunately it is no longer executable. Below is another intersting version.


pauliNumerous anecdotes are in circulation about Austrain Nobel prize-winning theoretical physicst Wolfgang Ernst Pauli (1900-1958) that demonstrate the humour of the physicist. His correspondence is also full of jokes, but sometimes of sarcastic remarks, allusions and teasing as well. Special mention must be made of a phenomenon that was greatly feared among Pauli’s colleagues, particularly the experimental physicists: the “Pauli Effect”. The latter manifested itself in that technical installations would unexpectedly fail in the presence of Pauli: experiments were unsuccessful, machines gave up the ghost, apparatus was broken. Pauli himself was conscious of this peculiar talent and was delighted with such comic events.

Since the 20th century, the work of physics research has been divided between theorists and experimentalists. Only a few physicists, such as Italian physicst Enrico Fermi (1901-1954), have been successful in both roles. It was said that Pauli was such a good theorist that any experiments would self-destruct simply because he was in the vicinity. For fear of the Pauli effect, the experimental physicist Otto Stern banned Pauli from his laboratory in Hamburg despite their friendship.

An incident occurred in the physics laboratory at the University of Göttingen. An expensive measuring device, for no apparent reason, suddenly stopped working, although Pauli was in fact absent. James Franck, the director of the institute reported the incident to his colleague Pauli in Zürich with the humorous remark that at least this time Pauli was innocent. However, it turned out that Pauli on a railway journey to Copenhagen switched trains in Göttingen rail station about the time of failure. The incident is reported in George Gamow’s book “Thirty Years That Shook Physics”, where it is also claimed the more talented the theoretical physicist, the stronger the effect.

Rudolph Peierls describes a case when at one reception this effect was to be parodied by deliberately crashing a chandelier upon Pauli’s entrance. The chandelier was suspended on a rope to be released, but it stuck instead, thus becoming a real example of the Pauli effect! Nobel prize-winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, when a young graduate student at Princeton, conducted an experiment in the university’s cyclotron laboratory that seemingly exhibited the “Pauli effect”. The experiment ended with the explosion of a carboy (a large glass container). Feynman wrote, “I’ll always remember how the great Professor Del Sasso, who was in charge of the cyclotron, came over to me and said sternly, “The freshman experiments should be done in the freshman laboratory!” In 1934, Pauli saw a failure of his car during a honeymoon tour with his second wife as proof of a real “Pauli effect” since it occurred without an obvious external cause.

One thought on “Feynman Algorithm and Pauli Effect

  1. An excellent, intriguing, and nicely-humorous post. (And an example of your interesting writing; I’ll enjoy reading much more of it this evening)
    With any luck you shall soon have at least one thoughtful Comment on each of the posts you have obviously spent creative time composing./ j. Solberg/ Tel Aviv

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