Heinz Pagels

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Heinz Pagels
Heinz Rudolf Pagels.jpg
Heinz Rudolf Pagels (1939–1988)
BornFebruary 19, 1939
New York City, New York United States
DiedJuly 23, 1988 (1988-07-24) (aged 49)
Alma materPrinceton University
Stanford University
Woodberry Forest School
(m. 1969)
Scientific career
InstitutionsRockefeller University
New York Academy of Sciences
Doctoral advisorSidney Drell
Doctoral studentsSeth Lloyd

Heinz Rudolf Pagels (February 19, 1939 – July 23, 1988) was an American physicist,[1] an associate professor of physics at Rockefeller University, the executive director and chief executive officer of the New York Academy of Sciences, and president of the International League for Human Rights. He wrote the popular science books The Cosmic Code (1982), Perfect Symmetry (1985), and The Dreams of Reason: The Computer and the Rise of the Sciences of Complexity (1988).


Pagels obtained his PhD in elementary particle physics from Stanford University under the guidance of Sidney Drell.[2] His technical work included the Physics Reports review articles Quantum Chromodynamics (with W. Marciano) and "Departures from Chiral Symmetry". A number of his published papers dealt with the source of the mass of elementary particles in quantum field theory, especially the Nambu–Goldstone realization of chiral symmetry breaking. He also published (with David Atkatz) a visionary paper entitled "Origin of the Universe as a quantum tunneling event" (1982)[3] that prefigured later work done in the field. The list of his graduate students includes Dan Caldi, Saul Stokar and Seth Lloyd.

Pagels was an outspoken critic of those he believed misrepresented the discoveries and ideas of science to promote mysticism and pseudoscience. In his capacity as executive director of the New York Academy of Science in 1986, Pagels submitted an affidavit in a case involving a former member of the Transcendental Meditation movement who had sued the organization for fraud.[4]

As president of the International League for Human Rights, Pagels worked to support freedom for researchers in other countries. He was a fellow of the New York Institute of the Humanities at New York University, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a member of the Science and Law Committee of the New York Bar Association, and a trustee of the New York Hall of Science.

In 1969, Pagels married Elaine Pagels, later theology professor, author, and MacArthur Fellow.[5] Their son Mark died in 1987 after a four-year illness. The couple had an adopted daughter Sarah and an adopted son David.

Heinz Pagels died in 1988 in a mountain climbing accident on Pyramid Peak, a 14,000-foot summit 10 miles to the southwest of the Aspen Center for Physics, where he spent his summers. Many writers of his obituary quote a dream he wrote about in his book The Cosmic Code:

Lately I dreamed I was clutching at the face of a rock but it would not hold. Gravel gave way. I grasped for a shrub, but it pulled loose, and in cold terror I fell into the abyss... what I embody, the principle of life, cannot be destroyed ... It is written into the cosmic code, the order of the universe. As I continued to fall in the dark void, embraced by the vault of the heavens, I sang to the beauty of the stars and made my peace with the darkness.

— The Cosmic Code

Pagels' work in chaos theory provided the inspiration for the character of Ian Malcolm in Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park.[6]

Pagels was a 1956 graduate of Woodberry Forest School in Virginia. The school awards The Heinz R. Pagels Jr. Physics Memorial Award each year to a graduating student who has demonstrated outstanding achievement in physics.

Popular writings[edit]

Pagels had a gift for explaining complex topics in easy to understand terms, avoiding both oversimplification and needless technicalities. The cosmologist David Schramm described Pagels' first book The Cosmic Code as "a beautiful account of modern physics". In reviewing Pagels' 1985 book Perfect Symmetry, Schramm wrote: "Heinz Pagels is one of less than a handful of active scientists who can write excellent prose about the scientific frontier for a general audience."

In his book, The Cosmic Code, Pagels wrote: "Science is not the enemy of humanity but one of the deepest expressions of the human desire to realize that vision of infinite knowledge," "Our capacity for fulfillment can come only through faith and feelings. But our capacity for survival must come from reason and knowledge." Science, he warned, is not "as resilient as commerce, religion, or politics. It needs careful nurturing." If humankind ultimately abandons science, it would be "an error that might cost us our existence."[7]

Regarding the change in mind-set that allowed for (or caused) the development of modern science Pagels wrote:

The capacity to tolerate complexity and welcome contradiction, not the need for simplicity and certainty, is the attribute of an explorer. Centuries ago, when some people suspended their search for absolute truth and began instead to ask how things worked, modern science was born. Curiously, it was by abandoning the search for absolute truth that science began to make progress, opening the material universe to human exploration.

— Perfect Symmetry: The Search for the Beginning of Time

Regarding the role complexity plays in the development of ideas, he wrote:

Perhaps our thinking exemplifies a selective system. First lots of random scattered ideas compete for survival. Then comes the selection for what works best — one idea dominates, and this is followed by its amplification. Perhaps the moral [...] is that you never learn anything unless you are willing to take a risk and tolerate a little randomness in your life.

— The Dreams of Reason:The Rise of the Sciences of Complexity


  • The Cosmic Code: Quantum Physics As the Language of Nature (1982). Simon & Schuster hardcover: ISBN 0-671-24802-2, 1984 Bantam mass market paperback: ISBN 0-553-24625-9
  • Perfect Symmetry: The Search for the Beginning of Time (1985). Simon & Schuster hardcover: ISBN 0-671-46548-1, 1991 Bantam paperback: ISBN 0-553-35254-7
  • The Dreams of Reason: The Computer and the Rise of the Sciences of Complexity (1988). Simon & Schuster hardcover: ISBN 0-671-62708-2, 1989 Bantam paperback: ISBN 0-553-34710-1

External links[edit]


  1. ^ Bernstein, Jeremy; Feinberg, Gerald (May 1989). "Heinz R. Pagels". Physics Today. 42 (5): 98–100. Bibcode:1989PhT....42e..98B. doi:10.1063/1.2811032. Archived from the original on 2013-10-05.
  2. ^ Part of this PhD research was published in the article S. D. Drell and H. R. Pagels, "Anomalous Magnetic Moment of the Electron, Muon, and Nucleon", Phys. Rev. 140, B397 - B407 (1965).
  3. ^ Phys. Rev. D 25, 2065–2073 (1982)
  4. ^ Skolnick, A. A. "Maharishi Ayur-Veda: Guru's marketing scheme promises the world eternal 'perfect health'." Journal of the American Medical Association. 1991 Oct 2;266(13):1741–2, 1744–5, 1749–50
  5. ^ Encyclopedia of Women in Today's World – Page 1062 Mary Zeiss Stange, Carol K. Oyster, Jane E. Sloan – 2011. In 1969, she married Heinz R. Pagels, a noted theoretical physicist, and subsequently gave birth to two children.
  6. ^ Crichton, Michael, Jurassic Park (1990). NY: Ballantine Books. Page unnumbered, information listed in Acknowledgments.
  7. ^ Pagels, Heinz, The Cosmic Code (1982). NY: Simon & Schuster