Ernst Stueckelberg 1905 - 1984

Ernst Stueckelberg
Source: A physics course by Stueckelberg published at the University of Geneva.
He was once called the Baron Ernst Stueckelberg von Breidenbach, the most brilliant scientist you have never heard of".

The Swiss physicist Ernst Stueckelberg formulated already early (in 1938) a divergence free model for massive vector fields. It is called now the Stueckelberg action. In 1934 he provided a first perturbation theory for quantum fields. Before Yukawa, already in 1934, he proposed a nuclear interactions due to the exchange of vector Bosons.

Born in Basel in 1905, Stueckelberg studied in Basel, obtained also his PhD under the guidance of A. Hagenbach in Basel. He taught first at the university of Zürich before moving to Princeton in 1927. He got his Habilitation from the university of Zürich. He taught then theoretical physics at the university of Geneva and the university of Lausanne from 1930-1970. He taught also shortly at ETH Zürich in 1943, while Pauli was in the USA. He is considered one of the most eminent Swiss physicists of the 20th century. He died in 1984 in Basel.

click for larger picture Sources: Wikipedia, Mac Tutor, Math Genealogy. (By the way, Jean-Pierre Eckmann is an academic grandson of Stueckelberg. Therefore, some ``dynamics people" familiar to me like Viviane Baladi, Pierre Collet, Gerhard Hartsleben, Peter Wittwer or Hans Koch are academic grand-grand children of Stueckelberg).

Source: Wikipedia picture, colorized and animated.

Tells Chapel near Lake Lucerne. Picture by Thomas Miles Richardson. Google Map
Here are some iconic moments. They are remarkable even in all of the history of science:
  • Ridiculous! Not even Wrong!"
    Already appointed at the university of Geneva, in 1935 Stueckelberg gave an explanation of nuclear interactions as being due to the exchange of vector Bosons. He did not publish this because Pauli told him that it was ``ridiculous". Yukawa would get in 1949 the Nobel prize for giving a similar explanation. (*)
  • A programme, not a paper!"
    In the early 1940s, he outlining a complete and correct description of the renormalization procedure for QED. Physical review rejected it because ``it was a programme, outline, proposal" and not a paper. Schwinger and Feynman published their version and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, Julian Schwinger and Richard P Feynman got the Nobel.
  • "Walking alone in the sunset"
    After receiving the Nobel Prize, Feynman lectured at CERN to an audience which included Stueckelberg. According to this biography: after the lecture, Stueckelberg was making his way out alone ... from the CERN amphitheater, when Feynman - surrounded by admirers - made the remark:
    "Stueckelberg did the work and walks alone toward the sunset; and here I am covered in all the glory which rightfully should be his!"
(*) In this interview with Konrad Bleuler about Pauli and that episode:
"I remember one special seminar in which, of course this seminar could be rather called a High Court, with scientific papers in the docket, sometimes really sentenced to death. From that one might record Pauli's classification of scientific papers. There were two classes or else there were old and right. Or the other class, new and wrong. But hardly anything intermediate. If it was even worse, Pauli would have said "it's not even wrong." That was the kind of atmosphere. But all what is written in physics is either understood or else it's thrown away, and not this half-and-half, what we see at present. But then in this connection it was a search for truth. And for Pauli, a lecture hall was a kind of a holy place where only truth was allowed. And a wrong statement was a sacrilege, and in that sense one should understand his rather extremely sharp remarks he might make to some lecturer who seemed not to present things in a quite logical way. But coming to that special, to another special seminar is the following: Stueckelberg always knew really special - I might say prophetic - ideas. He gave a lecture and of course Pauli - it happened very often - didn't agree. And said "you are not allowed to say such things." But you see, Stueckelberg being a prophet, he's not so easily stopped uttering his prophecies. So Pauli in despair menaced Stueckelberg with a stick and it seemed - I was not present myself but I was told - that the seminar ended like the war of Troy, Pauli, rather corpulent, with his stick after Stueckelberg around the table in the lecture hall. That was the kind of attitude at this period.

His causal S-matrix and the renormalization group have influenced modern physics. In 1942, Stueckelberg interpreted the positron as a negative energy electron traveling backwards in time. He developed in 1938 the still today only available renormalizable theory for massive Abelian bosons. The unitary invariant Stueckelberg theory is a massive Abelian model that turned out to be renormalizable and turned out to be closely related for the Higgs mechanism and was used also in other contexts. The Stueckelberg extension of the standard model is still considered as a candidate for dark matter. To cite Cianfrani and Lecian: Among the brilliant results accomplished by Stueckelberg, the formulation of a divergence-free model for massive vector fields has been one of the most prolific ideas in modern Physics. Ernst Stueckelberg was the grandson of the painter Ernst Stueckelberg (1831-1903), who painted the four designs of the Tell's Chapel as seen in the following panorama

Tell Kapelle by Ernst Stueckelberg (1831-1903)
Remarkable also is that like others (Cantor, Nash or Goedel for example), Stueckelberg had to battle with mental problems: from this blog:

When he became older, Stueckelberg was increasingly mentally disordered. He had a dog which attended his lectures, and when Stueckelberg ran into difficulties performing his calculations on the blackboard, he began to discuss the subject with his dog. He was treated later with electroshocks, which was a very popular method in psychiatry at that time.

One might differ here a bit. One can see it as comedy. Actually, the idea of talking to a dog is a creative comical breakthrough which has been copied later: see Green's Elegant universe TV show of NOVA. It could well be that Brian Greene (or one of the script writers behind that scene) were inspired by Stueckelberg, talking to his dog.

Ernst Stueckelberg Why was Stueckelberg not making a bigger impact?

[P.S. I'm fascinated by figures like Jost Bürgi, Fritz Zwicky, Charles Sanders Peirce or Max Dehn, who were moderately successful but were not appreciated enough during life time but due to circumstances or Mannerism did not earn recognition (Buergi did not know Latin, Zwicky or Pierce were excentric, Dehn humble and unfortunate in circumstances.]
With Stueckelberg, it was maybe also his name and upbringing: his mother was Alice Breidenbach who could use the German nobility title von Breidenbach zu Breidenstein and Melsbach so that Stueckelberg's full name was

"Johann Melchior Ernst Karl Gerlach Stückelberg von Breidenbach zu Breidenstein und Melsbach" .

Well, this is not a name you want to cite!
The long name reminds of the following scene:

Here is the article of Gérard Wanders in the book E.C.G. Stueckelberg, An unconventional Figure of Twentieth Century Physics (Birkhäuser 2009).

Overview of Stueckelberg's Life as a Scientist

Gerard Wanders
Ernst Carl Gerlach Stueckelberg was born in Basel on February 1, 1905. His full name was: Johann Melchior Ernst Karl Gerlach Stueckelberg, Freiherr von Breidenbach zu Breidenstein und Melsbach. He inherited his German title from his mother's family. His father was a lawyer and his paternal grandfather was a well-known Swiss painter. At secondary school, the young Stueckelberg was a very gifted student. He obtained his "Matura" in 1923 and started to study physics at the University of Basel. As president of the Students' Union, he invited Arnold Sommerfeld, the eminent theoretical physicist, to give a talk in Basel. Sommerfeld accepted the invitation and was so impressed by Stueckelberg that he invited him to spend the academic year 1924-25 in Munich. The resulting stay in Munich was a crucial experience in Stueckelberg's life. He attended Sommerfeld's famous lectures in theoretical physics and discovered the early stages of quantum mechanics. He became also acquainted with Werner Heisenberg. Back home in Basel, Stueckelberg prepared his PhD thesis under A. Hagenbach's supervision. It is a rather unexceptional work on cathodes temperatures, both theoretical and experimental. He got his PhD in 1927 and also succeeded in becoming an officer in the Swiss army.

At the end of 1927, Stueckelberg left for the United States. On Sommerfeld's recommendation he got a position as research associate at the prestigious Palmer Physical Laboratory in Princeton, led by K. T. Compton. There he worked on the quantum properties of molecules, a new subject, at the fore- front of research at that time. He was very efficient, collaborated with J. G. Winans and P. Morse and became assistant professor in 1930. In January 1932 Stueckelberg suffered from the first attack of a serious mental illness (manic-depressive psychosis) which would severely handicap him for the rest of his life. He felt unable to carry on with a scientific career in the United States, left Princeton and returned to Switzerland. A. Hagenbach managed to provide him with an assistant post at the University of Basel and, by the end of 1933, Stueckelberg was offered a position as "Privatdozent" at the University of Zürich. This put him in contact with two prominent leaders in theoretical physics, Wolfgang Pauli, at the ETHZ, and Gregor Wentzel, at Zürich University. He abandoned once and for all his previous research field and embarked on a completely new subject, the theory of elementary particles. As a mere "Privatdozent", Stueckelberg was faced with serious financial difficulties and he even contemplated a career in the army. But his situation improved at the end of 1934. After Arthur Schidlof's death, the University of Geneva asked Stueckelberg to take over the teaching of theoretical physics. Stueckelberg replaced Schidlof ad interim, before being appointed as "professeur extraordinaire" in Spring 1935, which provided him financial security. In 1942, he also started to teach theoretical physics at the University of Lausanne as "chargé de cours". Details on Stueckelberg's life after his nomination in Geneva can be found in the next contribution "Stueckelberg in Geneva and Lausanne". Ever since Stueckelberg started working at the University of Zürich, his research was mainly focused on the theory of elementary particles. He took part, as an outsider in some ways, in the development of relativistic quantum field theory. His contributions range from an explanation of the nuclear forces, in the 1930s, to construction of the renormalized S-matrix - a tool providing the description of elementary particle collisions - with Dominique Rivier, in the late 1940s. He invented also the renormalization group with André Petermann, in the early 1950s. Stueckelberg had a very original approach and disregarded conventional methods. He carried out his research in his own way, always working in parallel with outstanding physicists of the 20th century, such as Hideki Yukawa and Richard P. Feynman. Besides elementary particles, thermodynamics was another recurrent topic of interest to Stueckelberg. This led to a formulation of relativistic thermodynamics in 1953, and, subsequently, to various studies on non-relativistic thermodynamics in the 1960s. The outcome was a book written by Stueckelberg and Paul B. Scheurer.

Apart from his relationship with Wolfgang Pauli, Stueckelberg had little contact with the scientific community. This was partly due to his mental illness. But he nevertheless attended an International Conference on Fundamental Particles and Low Temperature held at the Cavendish Laboratory (Cambridge, UK) in 1946. He also went to Copenhagen where he met Niels Bohr in 1947, and he was in Basel in 1949 for the Basel-Como Konferenz über Kernphysik und Quantenelektrodynamik. Teaching theoretical physics was an important and gratifying mission in Stueckelberg's life. His classes were meticulously designed, detailed "talk and chalk" lectures, modelled on Arnold Sommerfeld's teaching. Although classical in style, his lectures were original in content, particularly in the unconventional way Stueckelberg introduced new subjects. Anyone who attended one of Stueckelberg's lectures realized immediately that he was in the presence of an exceptional character. During Wolfgang Pauli's stay in the United States, Stueckelberg took over his teaching at the ETH, with Markus Fierz, in the year 1943. Stueckelberg was also invited to lecture at the University of Bern during the academic year 1960-61. With regard to honours, the doctorate honoris causa was conferred on Stueckelberg by the Universities of Neuchâtel and Bern in 1962. He was elected correspondent member of the Academy of Coffmbra (Portugal) in 1944 and of the Academy of Chieti (Italy) in 1965. Stueckelberg was awarded the "Prix des Sciences de la Ville de Genève" in 1971 and the Max-Planck Medal of the German Physical Society in 1976. In 1975, Stueckelberg retired from the Universities of Geneva and Lausanne, which both awarded him the title of "professeur honoraire". He died in Geneva nine years later, on September 4, 1984. Ernst Carl Gerlach Stueckelberg is an unusual figure of 20'th century theoretical physics. Despite his severe mental illness and his countless stays in psychiatric hospitals, he was able to pursue a scientific career, always at the forefront of research. Due to his lack of contact with the scientific community after the Princeton period, his contributions were poorly recognized or simply ignored. So he did not participate in a clearly visible way in the advancement of the theory of elementary particles, in spite of his exceptionally original and sound ideas. A detailed account of Stueckelberg's life is given in: Wenger, R. Ernest C. G. Stueckelberg von Breidenbach - étude biographique. Genève: Université de Genève, Bibliothèque de l'Ecole de Physique, 1986, p. 42. An interview of Stueckelberg in his old age gives a pleasant idea of his personality: Crease, R. P. and Mann, Ch.C. "The physicist that physics forgot: Baron Stueckelberg's brilliantly obscure career"; in The Science, July-Aug. 1985, vol. 25, no 4, pp. 1823. Stueckelberg's achievements in quantumfield theory are acknowledged in: Schweber, ``QED and the men who made it". Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994, pp. 576-582. A chapter has been devoted recently to Stueckelberg in a book by Peter Freund, A Passion for physics.

Oliver Knill, Posted February 27, 2022