The Tragic Fate of Physicist Paul Ehrenfest (Synopsis)

When you think of thermodynamics, and how energy, temperature, heat and entropy are all related in a system full of particles so numerous you could never hope to count them all in a thousand lifetimes, there are only a few names that stand out as titans in the field.

Paul Ehrenfest, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Paul Ehrenfest, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Boltzmann and Ehrenfest are perhaps two of the best-known, and while Boltzmann's tragedy is well known, Ehrenfest's story is perhaps even more heartbreaking, and has an even sadder ending.

Paul Ehrenfest, his son Paul Jr. and Albert Einstein, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Paul Ehrenfest, his son Paul Jr. and Albert Einstein, Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Paul Halpern has this sobering story that's very little-known, and even less talked about, despite its importance.

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All I could think about was Wendy O. Williams. In the late 70's New York punk scene, she and the Plasmatics were pushing boundaries. She had a great body that was usually on display, one of the best mohawks of all time, a voice that sounded like grinding asphalt, and lots and lots of explosives. By the 90's she wasn't relevant and she couldn't live with that. She wrote a reasoned note just like Paul Ehrenfest, and shot herself. That particular demon is a real bastard, but it also may be the driving force behind the great works they did in Part 1 of the biography.

Denier, that is indeed sad about Wendy O. Williams. Interesting comparison. Yes perfectionism can serve as a destructive force. It was also the reason Paul Ehrenfest couldn't accept his son Wassik, sadly enough, and considered him just a burden to society and the family. Tragic indeed!

By Paul Halpern (not verified) on 10 Feb 2015 #permalink

I'm sorry but I feel no compassion or empathy towards someone who sat an planned how to kill a child. It's loathsome and disgusting.

By Sinisa Lazarek (not verified) on 10 Feb 2015 #permalink

I’m sorry but I feel no compassion or empathy towards someone who feels no compassion or empathy. It’s loathsome and disgusting.


By The Peak Oil Poet (not verified) on 11 Feb 2015 #permalink

irony. See above posters...

What about Grigory Perelman, not as tragic but didn't he leave a million bucks on the table?

By Ragtag Media (not verified) on 12 Feb 2015 #permalink

Einstein's 'Paul Ehrenfest in Memoriam' is an essential supplement to this story/synopsis. It is in the collection 'Out of my later years.' I had never known of the history above, but the extraordinary intellectual, humanist, psychological insights in Eintein's memoriam are ....very Einstein. The sentence about Ehrenfest's 'critical faculties transcending his constructive capacities' has haunted me for years - I have know so many in my family, friendships and work that are described by Einstein's observations.

By william pace (not verified) on 26 Jan 2016 #permalink

Thanks for this. I read Paul Halpern's article.

By Arjun Janah (not verified) on 29 Feb 2016 #permalink

The Ehrenfests had a daughter, Galinka, who asked my parents if she was allowed to put up a tent on their property: a 4500 sq. meter terrain in the middle of Holland, next to an artillery shooting range. (around 1939). She was welcome, and made a beautiful textile artwork that we put up on a wall in the living room.

By hans vles (1935) (not verified) on 02 Sep 2016 #permalink

Hugo Ehrenfest was my great grandfather on paternal side. Difficult family dynamics. Thank you for your detailed write up.

By Ellen Richman (not verified) on 29 Mar 2017 #permalink