“crackpots” who were right 3: Ernst Stückelberg

Baron Ernst Carl Gerlach Stückelberg was one of the most accomplished theoretical physicists of the middle twentieth century. He ranked alongside such greats as Feynman, Dirac and Fermi, but you could be forgiven for not knowing it. His name appears in physics text books only when attached to some relatively minor phenomena such as the Stückelberg mechanism. Even in popular physics books that recount the glorious history of that golden age of discovery in physics, he is rarely mentioned. Yet Stückelberg made prior breakthroughs in at least three developments that led to Nobel prizes for others, and he contributed to a wide range of other research topics in particle physics and quantum theory. 

Here is a short list of some of his greatest achievements (taken from Wikipedia)

  • 1934: He devised a fully covariant perturbation theory for quantum fields that was more powerful than other formulations of the time.
  • 1935: He gave vector boson (meson) exchange as the theoretical explanation of the strong nuclear force. This is normally credited to Yukawa who discovered it independently at around the same time, and who was awarded the Nobel Prize.
  • 1938: He recognized that massive electrodynamics contains a hidden scalar, and formulated an affine version of what would become known as the Abelian Higgs mechanism.
  • 1938: He proposed the law of conservation of baryon number.
  • 1941: He presented the evolution parameter theory that is the basis for recent work in relativistic dynamics
  • 1942: He proposed the interpretation of the positron as a negative energy electron traveling backward in time, an observation often attributed to Feynman.
  • 1943: He came up with a renormalization program to attack the problems of infinities in quantum electrodynamics (QED). This was a precursor to the fully renormalized theory of QED completed in the 1940s which netted a Nobel prize for Feynman, Schwinger and Tomonaga.
  • 1953: He and Andre Petermann discovered the renormalization group, but it was Kenneth Wilson who took the Nobel Prize for work that demonstrated its full worth in critical phenomena. 

So why is Stückelberg not more widely recognised for these achievements? There seems to have been a number of factors at work. Firstly he had some bad luck with publications. He did not publish his work on the meson simply because Pauli said it was ridiculous. His work on the renormalization program was rejected by the Physical Review who said it was more of a program outline than a paper. Sadly no copy of this work was preserved. He is said to have gone on to develop a full theory of QED by 1945 which is recorded in the thesis of one of his students but the credit went to others.

Another element may have been his isolation in Switzerland before and during the war when he did some of his best work. However this seems unconvincing when you consider that he established good friendships with other well-known physicists of the time. He could be considered less isolated than physicists working in Japan such as Tomonaga whose work on QED was recognised later. One other contributing factor that is given part blame for his lack of credit is that he invented unusual notation for his work that made it difficult to read.

Whatever the cause, he ended his life feeling lonely and rejected. When Feynman gave a lecture in Switzerland in 1965 he spotted Stückelberg after the lecture leaving quietly from the back. Pointing to Stückelberg, Feynman remarked “He did the work and walks alone toward the sunset; and, here I am, covered in all the glory, which rightfully should be his!”

The story of Stückelberg shows just how easy it is to be overlooked in science. There is no convincing reason why he was not given the full credit he deserved for his work, but it would have helped if he had presented his work more clearly and fully. While people like Feynman gave seminars and wrote books, Stückelberg seems to have quietly accepted his rejections and left it to others to speak up for him. But that was something they did not do enough. There is a lesson to be learnt here. Most of us cannot claim achievements comparable to those of Stückelberg so if he can be overlooked the rest of us should take nothing for granted. It does no good to make a discovery and bury it so deep that nobody pays any attention until it is rediscovered by someone else who is better at presenting it. Research needs to be explained clearly and publicly or it sinks into obscurity.

13 Responses to “crackpots” who were right 3: Ernst Stückelberg

  1. Nigel says:

    Very interesting! Dr Oakley points out problems: “… Stueckelberg is not properly second quantized: his photons are modes in a cavity, and his electrons are wave functions rather than field operators. Fermions cannot be created or destroyed and so the only process he can treat is Compton scattering (the scattering of a single photon off a single electron).” – http://www.cgoakley.demon.co.uk/qft/

  2. Philip Gibbs says:

    Looking at Oakley’s page quickly it seems he is just referring to the early 1934 work, but if that is the case then Stückelberg was less advanced in some ways and more advanced in others at that stage.

    By the time of his 1943 manuscript he would have developed his method much further, but exactly how much is not clear because the rejected manuscript is lost. The claim is that he had a complete theory by 1945, but this was not published at the time. If was recorded in the thesis of a student Dominique Rivier, but only later after others had published a complete theory, so there is no way to verify that there had been an independent prior discovery. I have not done enough checking to know how accurate this analysis is.

    Even with this taken into account there is no doubt that Stückelberg’s achievements were well beyond what he is widely recognised for, and that some of his best work was unjustly rejected at the time.

  3. Nigel says:

    Thanks for replying! Stueckelberg’s censorship was inexcusible. Tony Smith has a page about it: http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/ecgstcklbrg.html

    I’m just wondering where the censors are coming from, how they think. I’m not sure if it’s a good idea or not to probe too deeply into their psychology (like trying to be “understanding” towards the USSR or the Nazi censors). Clearly they were deluded or – if they felt there was an error or omission in the paper – they could have offered constructive suggestions or to collaborate, instead of just rejecting it. It wasn’t just Stueckelberg who was censored out, but Feynman too:

    “… take the exclusion principle … it turns out that you don’t have to pay much attention to that in the intermediate states. [But] … Teller said: “… It is fundamentally wrong that you don’t have to take the exclusion principle into account.” … Dirac asked “Is it unitary?” … Dirac had proved … that in quantum mechanics, since you progress only forward in time, you have to have a unitary operator. But there is no unitary way of dealing with a single electron. … Bohr … said: “… one could not talk about the trajectory of an electron in the atom, because it was something not observable.” … Bohr thought that I didn’t know the uncertainty principle … it didn’t make me angry, it just made me realize that … [ they ] … didn’t know what I was talking about, and it was hopeless to try to explain it further. I gave up, I simply gave up …”

    - Richard P. Feynman, in Jagdish Mehra, The Beat of a Different Drum (Oxford, 1994, pp. 245-248), quoted by Tony Smith: http://www.tony5m17h.net/goodnewsbadnews.html#badnews

    So Teller, Bohr and Dirac all rejected Feynman’s theory because they spuriously found what they thought were lethal flaws in it. One difference between the censorship of Stueckelberg and Feynman was that Feynman had support from Dyson and Bethe, who were able to get Oppenheimer (after a lot of resistance from Oppenheimer) to take Feynman seriously, which helped to get past peer review bigotry: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWQ_XFF7Qg4

    Watching that video and seeing the vacuous objections from so many famous and clever scientists to Feynman, it’s clear that Stueckelberg – relatively isolated from famous physicists – didn’t really have a hope. Oppenheimer, Teller, Bohr and Dirac believed in their own mind that Feynman was wrong, and they had no interest in trying to “correct” it. They just came up with an off-the-top-of-my-head objection and claimed they had debunked Feynman. Actually, as Feynman explains, he had already thought of the objections and had reasons for doing what he did. So maybe he didn’t make his presentation convincing by forestalling all of the possible objections. But the bottom line is, if Feynman’s work was censored out, it could happen to anyone. Peer-review is not much good at dealing with radical innovations where there are no real peers in the area who really understand the work.

    Another example is given in William H. Cropper’s book Great physicists (Oxford U.P., p. 418): George Zweig’s paper on quarks (aces) was “emphatically rejected” by Physical Review but Murray Gell-Mann was “older and wiser” so he “anticipated a negative reception at the Physical Review to such bizarre entities as unobservable, fractionally charged elementary particles, and he published his first quark paper in Physics Letters. Zweig’s theory went unpublished except in a CERN report, but it and its author acquired a certain reputation. When Zweig sought an appointment at a major university, the head of the department pronounced him a ‘charlatan’.”

    So much for Professor Sean Carroll’s simplistic advice on his blog a few years ago, that anyone with a radical and correct theory will be warmly welcomed, immediately understood, and taken seriously. The problem is, great new ideas are born more like helpless, useless looking babies than like fully developed end products, so they’re not so easy to judge!

  4. Indeed, it’s seems like if one puts the whole of one’s energy in discoverying only, and zero percent of one’s effort in communicating about it, then one is likely to go very far beyond the research cutting-edge… but on one’s own… That’s THE problem here. One had better accept to not go that far and spare part of one’s skills and talent for talking about what was discovered. I guess Stückelberg was one who liked to discover important things, and that was it… On the contrary, Einstein made great efforts to propose his work to others, as in most of his articles was pointed out the hope his paper inspires other physicists for experimentation. Maybe is there the secret of Einstein’s overwhelming success.

    Regards,

  5. @Nigel : “I’m just wondering where the censors are coming from, how they think.”

    That is a very good question, as no one knows where they come from, although being everywhere… The fact is, manuscripts are bunches of letters and symbols prior to being development of ideas and theories; the consequence of this is that a great discoverer with poor writing skills could be one like Stückelberg (for example).

    Best,

  6. Chris Oakley says:

    No-one ever thought that Stückelberg was a crackpot, at least not in physics terms (he became mentally ill towards the end of his life), so I resent the title of this post.

    It is, however, true to say that he was diffident about his genuine contributions to physics, the most important of which, IMHO, was his 1934 covariant perturbation theory. I do not know the full story here, but it seems entirely possible that Stückelberg was yet another victim of Pauli’s withering criticism and may have abandoned this (and maybe other ideas as well) on account of this.

    However, one should stick up for what one believes in, and if the great man was not prepared to do that then I am afraid that I am not especially sympathetic.

  7. Philip Gibbs says:

    Chris, It is not the state of his mind at the end of his life that makes me think he was treated (to some extent) as a crackpot, and there is nothing in this post that should make anyone think that. It was the criticisms of Pauli, the rejection of his paper to Physical Review and the lack of recognition for his contributions in areas which led to Nobel prizes for others.

  8. Chris Oakley says:

    Philip,

    He was certainly marginalized. Weisskopf claimed that Stückelberg had the framework for solving the Lamb Shift, etc. long before Feynman et al. See here

    http://arxiv.org/abs/physics/9903023, page 49.

    Apparently, Pauli and others were unable to understand his work. How hard they tried one cannot be sure but I would not say that they regarded him as a crackpot.

  9. Phil Gibbs says:

    Chris, I dont think we disagree much over how Stueckleberg was treated. Perhaps we disagree more about what is meant by the term “crackpot” as used here. Of course Wikipedia defines a crackpot as someone who is in complete disagreement with everyone else and who will not accept evidence to the contrary. By such a definition a crackpot could almost never be right, although wikipedia does mention the case of Wegener.

    However, some people do treat people as crackpots for lesser reasons. Sometimes they even use the word “crackpot” for people who have quite reasonable views that they just did not agree with. Pauli was very much like that and I am sure you can think of some more current examples. The examples here are people whose work was rejected to a significant extent at one time by scientists who were considered authorities in their field. I have put the word crackpot in quotes in the title to indicate that I am referring to people who are treated in this way rather than people who are really wrong and wont accept it.

  10. Dear Chris,

    I personnally figure out with this ‘”crackpots” who were right’ series that Philip Gibbs is developing a sequence of known instances, in which the discovery was serious, but the person who made the discovery was not powerful enough in the scientific world of the time to have scientists regarding his contribution. To some of us (I guess and I hope), it is absurd that discoveries may be refutable BECAUSE the established hierarchy doesn’t like the guy who discovers… It’s just another case of discrimination, like racism.

    The problem raised here with Stückelberg and others raises the following important question : Is the scientific system always able to let the truth emerge, no matter who for a scientist makes the discovery? If not, if it is not always able to for such a reason, then it is essential to question a lot about that fact, as it would prove there exists a huge lack of objectivity in the science world, which does evidently not fit with principles of Science. The term crackpots is currently used in the form of a killing weapon, particularly by some claiming to provide us with a reference frame for physics…

    Regards,

  11. Chris Oakley says:

    Unlike fields such as Air Traffic Control, where it is normally obvious when things have gone wrong, one can never satisfactorily prove that cutting edge theoretical physics research has taken a wrong turning. That is the nature of the beast.

    Personally, and subjectively, if someone had a theory that only works in 25+1, 10+1 or 9+1 dimensions and doggedly persists with it, despite 25 years of evidence that it in no way connects with the real world, then I would call them a crackpot.

    But that is just me.

    Incidentally, depite Weisskopf’s claim (above) I have not been able to establish that one *can* get the Lamb shift from Stückelberg’s covariant P.T. – not rigorously, anyway. I am working on it now, and hopefully will be able to post something on my web site soon, but unlike Stückelberg I have to earn a living outside physics as well, so it is a slow process.

    • “I have to earn a living outside physics as well, so it is a slow process.”

      Oh Chris, hence I understand you are working as an independent scientist, and I would like to encourage you for that. I hope you realize the chance it is to live such a situation… No pressure on you as to what you should search for, it’s a chance, really. You’ve done the way back to th roots of Science : one man and the Nature. Keep heading on anyway !

      Best regards,

  12. Chris Oakley says:

    Jerome,

    Thanks for the encouragement. Had I known how utterly, utterly uninterested the HEP community is in finding alternatives to renormalization I would have switched to Molecular Biology at age 22 (I have, for example, never been invited to talk on my work – & only given seminars after putting on pressure). But the actual work is interesting, so that keeps me going.

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