Werner Heisenberg

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  • Topic: Quantum mechanics, Werner Heisenberg, Uncertainty principle
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  • Published : October 8, 1999
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Werner Heisenberg

One cannot fully appreciate the work of Werner Heisenberg unless one examines his contributions in the context of the time in which he lived. Werner Karl Heisenberg was born in Wuerzburg, Germany, on December 5, 1901, and grew up in academic surroundings, in a household devoted to the humanities. His father was a professor at the University of Munich and undoubtedly greatly influenced young Werner, who was a student at the Maximilian Gymnasium.

Heisenberg had the opportunity to work with many of the top physicists in the world including Niels Bohr and Max Born. Like many of the top physicists of the time Heisenberg received his doctorate at an early age. In Heisenberg's case he received it at the young age of twenty three. Heisenberg was not just a researcher. He was also a professor and author. During his career he taught at many prestigious universities, including the Universities of Leipzig, Goettingen, and Berlin. He also wrote many important books including, Physical Principles of the Quantum Theory, Cosmic Radiation, Physics and Philosophy, and Introduction to the Unified Theory of Elementary Particles. In 1932 he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in Quantum Mechanics.

With the Nazi's in power, and World War two on the horizon it was inevitable that his German heritage would play a crucial role in his career. Before Germany's blitzkrieg on Poland Heisenberg decided to make one final visit of his friends in the West. Many tried to convince him to stay and accept a professorship at Columbia, but Heisenberg declined. He felt that it was his duty to preserve the foundation of science in Germany during the war. He also believed that by staying in Germany during the war, he could help individual German scientists. In fact, he did offer jobs to Jewish scientists when they were fired from their posts at other universities. As time passed, Heisenberg found that he was powerless to protect his friends. Heisenberg himself was personally attacked, and his appointment at the University of Munich was blocked. For over a year Heisenberg was attacked in the SS newspaper, which referred to him as a "white Jew." The attack became so threatening that Heisenberg's mother, who had a slight connection to Himmler's family, wrote to Himmler's mother asking Himmler to intercede. Himmler personally cleared Heisenberg of the charges leveled against him a year later, but he was told to study science and avoid discussing scientists. The strain of the investigation surely affected Heisenberg's creativity.

During the war Heisenberg worked on the German A-bomb project along with a number of other German scientists. It has been proposed in the novel Heisenberg's War, written by Thomas Powers, that Heisenberg deliberately sabotaged this project to keep the bomb out of Hitler's hands. After the war was over, all of the scientists in Germany working on the A-bomb project, including Heisenberg, were interned in England to be questioned about their work on the project.

Heisenbergs nationalism eventually ruined many of his academic friendships. His close relationship with Neils Bohr was destroyed by his decision to remain in Germany during the war. His failure to be more specific about his stand in whether or not to seriously work to develop a German bomb played an important part in his inability to reestablish ties with friends who moved to the West. The creative interaction with many leading scientists prior to the war was not resumed at the war's end.

Heisenberg's most important finding, the Uncertainty Principle is the corner stone of Quantum Mechanics. However, many advances in Quantum Mechanics had to be made before Heisenberg found it. Everything started with Rutherford's model of the atom. Consisting of a positively charged central nucleus, surrounded by orbiting planetary electrons. Around the same time that Rutherford was discovering the basic structure of the atom, Plank...
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