The Tragic Fate of Physicist Paul Ehrenfest
The Unraveling of a Probing Mind.
Physics is not immune from tragedy. Even brilliant minds sometimes grapple with inner demons. The worst situations involve not just the physicists themselves but also their families. Consider the tragic case of Paul Ehrenfest and his son Wassik.
Wassik Ehrenfest was a friendly boy with Down Syndrome who, like many children of his time with that condition, spent much of his life in hospitals and institutions. He lived for some time in a facility in Jena, Germany that was progressive for its age but expensive. Little is known of his life, except through his correspondence with his parents. Encouraged by his teachers, he sent many postcards to his parents to show them what he was learning. When the Nazis rose to power in spring 1933, he was transferred to the Waterink Institute for Afflicted Children in Amsterdam, Holland, founded by educational reformer Jan Waterink.
On September 25, 1933, Wassik’s father Paul Ehrenfest arrived in the waiting room of the Waterink Institute. He was carrying a pistol. He shot Wassik and immediately turned the gun on himself. Wassik survived his father by a few hours. Arguably the homicide/suicide was one of the most horrific tragedies in the history of modern physics, yet it is known by only a few within the field and discussed by even fewer.
The first time I heard of Paul Ehrenfest was in a graduate physics course, taught by my advisor Max Dresden at Stony Brook University. No matter what course I took with Dresden, the highlight was always his anecdotes. Dresden loved being dramatic.
One day Dresden came into class and said something like, “I am very troubled.” He paused for dramatic effect. “Ludwig Boltzmann committed suicide. His student Paul Ehrenfest committed suicide. Ehrenfest’s student, George Uhlenbeck, was my advisor. If Uhlenbeck commits suicide, I’m next.”
Dresden died of cancer in 1997, but I still remember his passion for the history of physics, even its darker side. Several years later I was privileged enough to meet Yale physicist Martin Klein, who was a friend of Dresden and…