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Quantum Physics - Werner Heisenberg: Uncertainty Principle

Updated on January 5, 2012

Werner Heisenberg

One of the greatest Theoretical Physicists of the 20th Century, produced countless papers and the infamous Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.
One of the greatest Theoretical Physicists of the 20th Century, produced countless papers and the infamous Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

Werner Heisenberg was born on 05/12/1901 in Wurzburg. His father, Dr. August Heisenberg was professor of medieval and modern Greek Languages at the University of Munich, his mother was Called Annie Wecklein and not much is known about her.

Heisenberg went to the MaximilianSchool in Munich where he excelled in all subjects. In 1920 he went to the University of Munich to study Physics and mathematics. Here he studied under Sommerfield and Wien, two great physicists. In 1922 he moved to the University of Gottingen where he continued his studies on Physics and mathematics under the very famous Max Born and David Hilbert and he received his doctorate in 1923, and his habitation in 1924(equivalent to a PhD) it was on turbulence and the stability in a laminar flow he completed it after just a year; quite an achievement.

In the same year till 1925 he worked at the University of Copenhagen at the Institute of Theoretical Physics with the director Niels Bohr, Heisenberg was a great admirer of Bohr’s work on atomic physics having seen him lecture in the Bohr festival in 1922 where he lectured on quantum atomic theory.

Werner Heisenberg

Uncertainty Principle

Following this in 1926 he returned to Gottingen and under Born developed the matrix mechanics formulation of quantum mechanics he did this in just 6 months and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for 1932. On 01/05/1926 he started as a full time lecturer and assistant to Bohr in Copenhagen. It was here in 1927 that Heisenberg developed the most famous of his theories; Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. He did this while working with the mathematics of quantum mechanics and it basically means:

uncertainty principle states that certain pairs of physical properties, like position and momentum, cannot both be known to arbitrary precision. That is, the more precisely one property is known, the less precisely the other can be known. It is impossible to measure simultaneously both position and velocity of a microscopic particle with any degree of accuracy or certainty.”

In 1927 Heisenberg was appointed professor of Theoretical Physics and head of department of Physics at the University of Leipzig. In his very first paper published from Leipzig he used the Pauli Exclusion Principle to solve the mystery of ferromagnetism (the mechanism by which certain materials form permanent magnets). Heisenberg was extremely successful at Leipzig producing some of the worlds best modern-day physicists.

In 1929 he and Pauli submitted the first of two papers which was to be the foundations of quantum field theory, later that year he went on a tour of the US, Japan, China and India where he lectured on Quantum Mechanics.

Heisenbergs Uncertainty Principle

The Uranium Club

Books on the Uranium Club

Hitler’s Uranium Club: The Secret Recordings at Farm Hall
Hitler’s Uranium Club: The Secret Recordings at Farm Hall
Very interesting book about a secret recording taken at the uranium Club, well worth a read.

From here Heisenberg developed a lot of peoples work and experiments into fully functioning theories.

James Chadwick discovered the Neutron in 1932 and shortly after this he submitted 3 papers which developed the neutron-proton model of the atomic nucleus. Dirac derived the relativistic wave equation of quantum mechanics which hypothesized the existence of a positive electron, later to be coined the positron, this was confirmed in 1932 when Carl Anderson photographed cosmic rays from a cloud chamber and identified tracks which were made by positrons. In 1933 Heisenberg presented his theory of he positron, which he developed into two famous papers published in 1934 and 36 which detailed the positron’s existence and it’s relationship to the standard model of particle physics.

When Hitler came to power in 1933 he attacked members of the theoretical physics world and launched a personal attack on Heisenberg in a socialist party paper in 1936 and in the periodical Schutzstaffel in 1937. This was the beginning of the Heisenberg Affair. In this, Heisenberg was called a "White Jew" who should be made to disappear. These attacks were taken seriously, as Jews were violently attacked and incarcerated. Heisenberg fought back with an editorial and a letter to Himmler, in an attempt to resolve this matter and regain his honor.

At one point, Heisenberg's mother visited Himmler's mother. The two women knew each other as Heisenberg's maternal grandfather and Himmler's father were rectors and members of a Bavarian hiking club. Eventually, Himmler settled the Heisenberg affair by sending two letters, one to SS-Gruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich and one to Heisenberg, both on 21 July 1938. In the letter to Heydrich, Himmler said Germany could not afford to lose or silence Heisenberg as he would be useful for teaching a generation of scientistsTo Heisenberg, Himmler said the letter came on recommendation of his family and he cautioned Heisenberg to make a distinction between professional physics research results and the personal and political attitudes of the involved scientists. Overall it is seen that the Heisenberg affair was a great success improving standards and professionalism in the academic world.

Heisenberg Cartoon

In 1939 Heisenberg joind the German nuclear Energy Project also known as the Uranium Club were he was on of the main scientists leading the R&D of the project. Very little is known about his time here due to the top secret nature of the work. On 1942 he presented a lecture to Reich officials on producing energy from nuclear fission. However the Germans reused this research and used it to produce nuclear bombs.

In 1943 Heisenberg was appointed to the Chair of Theoretical Physics at the what is now University of Berlin, where his personal life was moved all over the country to try to avoid the heavy bombings Berlin was taking.

At the end of the Second World War he, and other German physicists, were taken prisoner by American troops and sent to England under operation Alsos and Epsilon, but in 1946 he returned to Germany and reorganized, with his colleagues, the Institute for Physics at Göttingen. This Institute was, in 1948, renamed the Max Planck Institute for Physics.

Heisenberg lectured in U.S., Cambridge, Edinburgh, Bristol and St Andrews, the later of his lectures being published into a book. In 1948 he published 3 papers on understanding superconductivity, the basis of modern computing. Heisenberg became director of the Max Plank Institute from 1960 -70, where his interests included cosmic-ray showers, mesons, unified field theory and elementary particles during this time he published many papers on these and other subjects making him one of the greatest physicists of our time.

Heisenberg died on 01/02/1976 of cancer in his home and is still remembered fondly at the Institute of Physics today. If you are interested in fiding out more please look at the books on the right hand side.


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    • ss sneh profile image

      ss sneh 

      9 years ago from the Incredible India!

      It was Neils Bohr who interpreted Hesenberg's equation properly and supported it to become one of the fundamental principles of quantum mechanics. -- Thanks

    • dipless profile imageAUTHOR


      11 years ago from Manchester

      only certain if we don't measure it ;) Anyway I was going to do some hubs on string theory and the difffernt interpretations I shall add it t my list :)

    • RVDaniels profile image


      11 years ago from Athens, GA

      Are you certain? ha ha Seriously, a good hub. Can you do one on Kaku's string theory?


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