Pascual Jordan: Forgotten Quantum Pioneer


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Jordan’s Politics and the War

Pascual Jordan was an ultra-right-wing conservative, and intense anti-communist.  He wrote bellicose articles under a pseudonym “dedicated to the spirit of German heritage.” When Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, Jordan joined the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, also known as the Nazi party. Later that year, he became a storm trooper, replete with “brown uniform, jackboots, and swastika armband.”

To his credit, Jordan acknowledged the accomplishments of Jewish physicists in his writings, including Einstein’s. On the other hand, he urged the government to conduct research programs in the new physics for possible weapons of war. However, the Hitler regime distrusted Jordan because of his defense of “Jewish physics” and past associations with Courant, Born, and Pauli (all Jewish). Ignored by his fellow Nazis, Jordan ended up in political and scientific isolation.

After WWII, Jordan lost his long-standing position as Professor of Theoretical Physics at University of Rostock due to his party membership. With the support of Wolfgang Pauli, he was declared  “rehabilitated” two years later and returned to academia. Jordan regained full professorship in 1953 at the University of Hamburg, where he worked till his retirement in 1971.

Jordan also served in Germany’s Parliament under the Christian Democratic Union from 1957 to 1961 — where he supported the Adenauer government’s idea to arm the new German military with tactical nuclear weapons.

Probability density (wavefunction) for electron in hydrogen atom. (Quantized energy levels increase from top to bottom. Angular momentum increases from left to right.) Image by FlorianMarquardt

Physics: Nobel Prize Misses

Pascual Jordan’s  colleagues — Heisenberg, Born, Pauli, Fermi, Dirac, and Wigner — were all awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. But not Jordan.He was nominated twice in the 1920’s by Einstein, but Heisenberg and Born considered Jordan more of a mathematician than a physicist — hurting his chances. In addition, Jordan suffered from a severe stammer, limiting his ability to communicate to a wider audience.

Jordan’s mentor, Max Born, was awarded the Nobel in physics in 1954 for his early work in quantum mechanics. Had it not been for his Nazi past, Pascual Jordan most likely would have received the award along with Born.

Eugene Wigner proposed Jordan for the Nobel once more in 1979, but it was given to Glashow, Salam, and Weinberg for unification of the electromagnetic and weak forces — the winners were “three practitioners of the art that Jordan had invented” according to physicist Engelbert Schucking; Jordan died less than a year later at age 78.

In his lifetime, Jordan received the Max-Planck medal of German Physical Society (1942), and the Gauss Medal (1955). However, his contributions to quantum mechanics are still widely unknown. There is no major biography of Jordan, no complete bibliography of his writings, and several current dictionaries of scientists do not mention him at all.

Science vs. Politics and Opinion

The question remains: Is it OK to ignore the accomplishments of a scientist because of his loathsome political past or opinions? I feel that we should be aware of Jordan’s seminal role in the creation of quantum mechanics. However, I do not think I, personally, could have supported him for a Nobel Prize.

What do you think?


Science Week. On Pascual Jordan and Nazi Physics. (2004). Accessed May 30, 2012.

Schroer, B. Pascual Jordan, his contributions to quantum mechanics and his legacy in contemporary local quantum physics. (2003). Accessed May 30, 2012.

The Information Philosopher. Pascual Jordan. Accessed May 30, 2012. Ernst Pascual Jordan. Accessed May 30, 2012.

Harvey, A., Editor. On Einstein’s Path: Essays in Honor of Engelbert Schucking. (1998)New York: Springer. pp. 1-6. Accessed May 30, 2012.

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