Werner Heisenberg 1901 – 1976) was a German physicist and influential figure in the development of quantum mechanics. Heisenberg developed new theories for explaining the behaviour of sub-atomic particles. Contrasting with the established view of Newtonian mechanics, Heisenberg proved that at the sub-atomic level, there was not the same certainty, but the outcome was uncertain and based on probabilities. Later physicists slightly modified his quantum theories, but essentially kept it the same. For his work, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics in 1932.
“Light and matter are both single entities, and the apparent duality arises in the limitations of our language.”
– Werner Heisenberg
Heisenberg was born in Wurzburg, Germany on 5 December 1901. He was too young to fight in the First World War by in 1919, briefly served in the Freikorps to fight against the Communist revolution in Bavaria. He studied physics and mathematics and the University of Munich and received a doctorate in theoretical physics in 1923. After that he spent three years in Denmark with the great physicist Niels Bohr and this proved a fruitful relationship with Heisenberg being strongly influenced by Bohr’s lectures on quantum atomic physics.
In 1925, Heisenberg published his first groundbreaking work on quantum physics “Über quantentheoretische Umdeutung kinematischer und mechanischer Beziehungen” (“Quantum theoretical re-interpretation of kinematic and mechanical relations”), and in 1927, published his famous work on the uncertainty principle. In 1927, he was appointed head of theoretical physics at the University of Leipzig. He continued to work on aspects of quantum mechanics and developed a strong international reputation in this fields.
“Quantum theory provides us with a striking illustration of the fact that we can fully understand a connection though we can only speak of it in images and parables.”
– Werner Heisenberg
He was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics for 1932 though the announcement was not made until November 1933. After the election of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party in 1933, Heisenberg was attacked in the press for being a ‘white jew’ (An Aryan who acts like a jew) . The Aryan League of Physicists “Deutsche Physik,” tried to have him blocked from key posts within Germany. Heisenberg responded by defending himself from increasingly vitriolic attacks in Nazi supporting newspapers. Heisenberg even wrote a letter to Himmler arguing it was wrong to target him. In the late 1930s, he refused an opportunity to flee to the US but stayed in Germany during the war. In 1942, he gave a lecture to Reichs officials on the military potential of nuclear fission.
Towards the end of the war, he was captured by Allied forces during their special Alsos Mission which sought to examine the German developement of Nuclear weapons and use the knowledge of German scientists in the US’s own nuclear programme. Heisenberg was taken to England where he was placed under surveillance by MI6. Under hidden surveillance, Heisenberg said that he was glad Germany had lost the war and was genuinely surprised that the US had succeeded in building a bomb, because the German project never got close.
Heisenberg married Elisabeth Schumacher (brother of economist E.F. Schumacher) in 1937 and they had seven children. He was raised a Luteran Christian and retained an interest in religious matters throughout his life. In 1974, he was invited to give a lecture on Scientific and Religious Truth where he stated
“I have never found it possible to dismiss the content of religious thinking as simply part of an outmoded phase in the consciousness of mankind, a part we shall have to give up from now on. Thus in the course of my life I have repeatedly been compelled to ponder on the relationship of these two regions of thought, for I have never been able to doubt the reality of that to which they point.”
— Heisenberg 1974,
In 1929, he met the Indian poet and savant Rabindranath Tagore. They had a fruitful conversation which helped give Heisenberg a new perspective on the laws of Quantum Physics he had been formulating. His understanding of Indian philosophy helped to put his quantum mechanics in a new light
“After the conversations about Indian philosophy, some of the ideas of Quantum Physics that had seemed so crazy suddenly made much more sense. “
– Werner Heisenberg (as quoted by F. Capra)
He later confirmed this interest in a letter of 9 July 1971
“The kinship between the ancient Eastern teachings and the philosophical consequences of the modern quantum theory have [sic] fascinated me again and again…”
Heisenberg died in 1976.
Explanation of Heisenberg’s work on the development of modern physics
Ever since the work of Albert Einstein at the turn of the century, there was a growing awareness that Sir Isaac Newton’s law of mechanics only applied at the macroscopic level (bigger than an atom) But they were not always applicable at the microscopic level. The problem was that in the world of electrons, atoms elements did not fit into neat mechanical laws. Scientists could observe seemingly random behaviour that contradicted physics text books. The problem was that with this random behaviour, physicists could not make accurate predictions about what would happen nor measure with a degree of accuracy changes. There was also an awareness that the outcome of a result can be influenced by the behaviour of the observer. A oneness between
Heisenberg strove with this problem and developed the ‘uncertainty principle’ the idea that science can only make predictions about the likely probability of certain behaviours. For example, a scientist researching radioactivity, may make a prediction that 10% of atoms will decay and emit gamma radiation, but for an individual atom, it is not possible to correctly predict whether it will emit radiation – only the possibility.
Heisenberg made physics more complicated as in quantum physics, scientists use statistical analysis from the observance of large numbers of recurrences. Mathematical models in quantum mechanics are more complicated than Newtonian physics, but they enabled physicists to deal with the empirical evidence at this sub-atomic level.
Heisenberg’s work marked a real revolution in physics, replacing neat certainties with a different faith in possibilities, uncertainties and likely behaviour. Despite playing a leading role in the quantum revolution, Albert Einstein remained reluctant to accept Heisenberg’s findings, stating ‘I cannot believe that God plays dice with the universe.’
Quantum theory has practical applications in electron microscopes, lasers and atomic energy. It has also been extended to quantum chemisty, biology and astronomy.
Physics and Philosophy: Werner Heisenberg
Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science
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