Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Plural or Singular

Wolfgang Pauli postulated his hypothesis of the existence of the neutrino in his letter to a gathering on radioactivity in Tübingen in 1930. The letter begins by the words, "Dear radioactive ladies and gentlemen" [1, 2]. Sin'itiro Tomonaga [3] quotes this letter and says, "By the way, radioactive lady apparently refers to Lise Meitner."

Pauli used the plural form, "radioactive ladies." Therefore, referring to these words in the singular form is inconsistent. Meitner was surely the key person who had found the experimental result that had led to Pauli's hypothesis. Was not there, however, other ladies, for example, Marie Curie, at the gathering? Even if he had had a firm proof that Meitner had been the single lady present, Tomonaga should have said, "By the way, radioactive ladies actually meant Lise Meitner."

By the way, I once started my presentation at an academic meeting by the words, "Good afternoon, a lady and gentlemen!" I wrote about that in "The Stolen Joke" [4]. Interestingly, the neutrino appears also in that story, though I have been forgetting about this fact.

  1. A. Pais, Inward Bound (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1986) p. 315.
  2. K. Riesselmann, Logbook: Neutrino invention.
  3. S. Tomonaga, The Story of Spin, translated by T. Oka (Univ. Chicago Press, Chicago, 1997) p. 219.
  4. The Stolen Joke IDEA-ISAAC Web site (August 18, 1999).

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