Wolfgang Pauli and the Exclusion Principle

In 1945 Wolfgang Pauli was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics:-

... for the discovery of the Exclusion Principle, also called the Pauli Principle.

Pauli gave his Nobel Lecture on 13 December 1946 in Stockholm and he began by describing how he came to came to make the discovery. We give an extract from his lecture below:-


The history of the discovery of the "exclusion principle", for which I have received the honour of the Nobel Prize award in the year 1945, goes back to my students days in Munich. While, in school in Vienna, I had already obtained some knowledge of classical physics and the then new Einstein relativity theory, it was at the University of Munich that I was introduced by Sommerfeld to the structure of the atom - somewhat strange from the point of view of classical physics. I was not spared the shock which every physicist, accustomed to the classical way of thinking, experienced when he came to know of Bohr's "basic postulate of quantum theory" for the first time. At that time there were two approaches to the difficult problems connected with the quantum of action. One was an effort to bring abstract order to the new ideas by looking for a key to translate classical mechanics and electrodynamics into quantum language which would form a logical generalization of these. This was the direction which was taken by Bohr's "correspondence principle". Sommerfeld, however, preferred, in view of the difficulties which blocked the use of the concepts of kinematical models, a direct interpretation, as independent of models as possible, of the laws of spectra in terms of integral numbers, following, as Kepler once did in his investigation of the planetary system, an inner feeling for harmony. Both methods, which did not appear to me irreconcilable, influenced me. The series of whole numbers 2, 8, 18, 32 ... giving the lengths of the periods in the natural system of chemical elements, was zealously discussed in Munich, including the remark of the Swedish physicist, Rydberg, that these numbers are of the simple form 2n2 if n takes on all integer values. Sommerfeld tried especially to connect the number 8 and the number of corners of a cube.

A new phase of my scientific life began when I met Niels Bohr personally for the first time. This was in 1922, when he gave a series of guest lectures at Göttingen, in which he reported on his theoretical investigations on the Periodic System of Elements. I shall recall only briefly that the essential progress made by Bohr's considerations at that time was in explaining, by means of the spherically symmetric atomic model, the formation of the intermediate shells of the atom and the general properties of the rare earths. The question, as to why all electrons for an atom in its ground state were not bound in the innermost shell, had already been emphasized by Bohr as a fundamental problem in his earlier works. In his Göttingen lectures he treated particularly the closing of this innermost K-shell in the helium atom and its essential connection with the two non-combining spectra of helium, the ortho- and para-helium spectra. However, no convincing explanation for this phenomenon could be given on the basis of classical mechanics. It made a strong impression on me that Bohr at that time and in later discussions was looking for a general explanation which should hold for the closing of every electron shell and in which the number 2 was considered to be as essential as 8 in contrast to Sommerfeld's approach.

Following Bohr's invitation, I went to Copenhagen in the autumn of 1922, where I made a serious effort to explain the so-called "anomalous Zeeman effect" as the spectroscopists called a type of splitting of the spectral lines in a magnetic field which is different from the normal triplet. On the one hand, the anomalous type of splitting exhibited beautiful and simple laws and Landé had already succeeded to find the simpler splitting of the spectroscopic terms from the observed splitting of the lines. The most fundamental of his results thereby was the use of half-integers as magnetic quantum numbers for the doublet-spectra of the alkali metals. On the other hand, the anomalous splitting was hardly understandable from the standpoint of the mechanical model of the atom, since very general assumptions concerning the electron, using classical theory as well as quantum theory, always led to the same triplet. A closer investigation of this problem left me with the feeling that it was even more unapproachable. We know now that at that time one was confronted with two logically different difficulties simultaneously. One was the absence of a general key to translate a given mechanical model into quantum theory which one tried in vain by using classical mechanics to describe the stationary quantum states themselves. The second difficulty was our ignorance concerning the proper classical model itself which could be suited to derive at all an anomalous splitting of spectral lines emitted by an atom in an external magnetic field. It is therefore not surprising that I could not find a satisfactory solution of the problem at that time. I succeeded, however, in generalizing Landé's term analysis for very strong magnetic fields, a case which, as a result of the magneto-optic transformation (Paschen-Back effect), is in many respects simpler. This early work was of decisive importance for the finding of the exclusion principle.

Very soon after my return to the University of Hamburg, in 1923, I gave there my inaugural lecture as Privatdozent on the Periodic System of Elements. The contents of this lecture appeared very unsatisfactory to me, since the problem of the closing of the electronic shells had been clarified no further. The only thing that was clear was that a closer relation of this problem to the theory of multiplet structure must exist. I therefore tried to examine again critically the simplest case, the doublet structure of the alkali spectra. According to the point of view then orthodox, which was also taken over by Bohr in his already mentioned lectures in Göttingen, a non-vanishing angular momentum of the atomic core was supposed to be the cause of this doublet structure.

In the autumn of 1924 I published some arguments against this point of view, which I definitely rejected as incorrect and proposed instead of it the assumption of a new quantum theoretic property of the electron, which I called a two-valuedness not describable classically. At this time a paper of the English physicist, Stoner, appeared which contained, besides improvements in the classification of electrons in subgroups, the following essential remark:-

For a given value of the principal quantum number is the number of energy levels of a single electron in the alkali metal spectra in an external magnetic field the same as the number of electrons in the closed shell of the rare gases which corresponds to this principal quantum number.

On the basis of my earlier results on the classification of spectral terms in a strong magnetic field the general formulation of the exclusion principle became clear to me. The fundamental idea can be stated in the following way: The complicated numbers of electrons in closed subgroups are reduced to the simple number one if the division of the groups by giving the values of the four quantum numbers of an electron is carried so far that every degeneracy is removed. An entirely non-degenerate energy level is already closed, if it is occupied by a single electron; states in contradiction with this postulate have to be excluded. The exposition of this general formulation of the exclusion principle was made in Hamburg in the spring of 1925, after I was able to verify some additional conclusions concerning the anomalous Zeeman effect of more complicated atoms during a visit to Tübingen with the help of the spectroscopic material assembled there.

With the exception of experts on the classification of spectral terms, the physicists found it difficult to understand the exclusion principle, since no meaning in terms of a model was given to the fourth degree of freedom of the electron. The gap was filled by Uhlenbeck and Goudsmit's idea of electron spin, which made it possible to understand the anomalous Zeeman effect simply by assuming that the spin quantum number of one electron is equal to 1/2 and that the quotient of the magnetic moment to the mechanical angular moment has for the spin a value twice as large as for the ordinary orbit of the electron. Since that time, the exclusion principle has been closely connected with the idea of spin. Although at first I strongly doubted the correctness of this idea because of its classical-mechanical character, I was finally converted to it by Thomas' calculations on the magnitude of doublet splitting. On the other hand, my earlier doubts as well as the cautious expression classically non-describable two-valuedness experienced a certain verification during later developments, since Bohr was able to show on the basis of wave mechanics that the electron spin cannot be measured by classically describable experiments (as, for instance, deflection of molecular beams in external electromagnetic fields) and must therefore be considered as an essentially quantum-mechanical property of the electron

The subsequent developments were determined by the occurrence of the new quantum mechanics. In 1925, the same year in which I published my paper on the exclusion principle, De Broglie formulated his idea of matter waves and Heisenberg the new matrix-mechanics, after which in the next year Schrödinger's wave mechanics quickly followed. It is at present unnecessary to stress the importance and the fundamental character of these discoveries, all the more as these physicists have themselves explained, here in Stockholm, the meaning of their leading ideas. Nor does time permit me to illustrate in detail the general epistemological significance of the new discipline of quantum mechanics, which has been done, among others, in a number of articles by Bohr, using hereby the idea of complementarity as a new central concept. I shall only recall that the statements of quantum mechanics are dealing only with possibilities, not with actualities. They have the form "This is not possible" or "Either this or that is possible", but they can never say "That will actually happen then and there". The actual observation appears as an event outside the range of a description by physical laws and brings forth in general a discontinuous selection out of the several possibilities foreseen by the statistical laws of the new theory. Only this renouncement concerning the old claims for an objective description of the physical phenomena, independent of the way in which they are observed, made it possible to reach again the self-consistency of quantum theory, which actually had been lost since Planck's discovery of the quantum of action.


JOC/EFR March 2006

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