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Review of UNCERTAINTY, Biography of Werner Heisenberg, Part I

Updated on July 22, 2010

Part 1 of 2

In the preface of Uncertainty, David Cassidy clearly lays out the biography’s objective: “to understand Heisenberg historically and biographically, as the complicated, multidimensional human being that he was, to comprehend what Heisenberg did and why he did it in the context of his own life, motives, science, thinking, and surroundings” (xi). This is an important task for any biography, but perhaps more so for one about a man such as Werner Heisenberg, whose life coincided with the greatest human tragedies in history: World War II and the Holocaust.

Heisenberg’s position in Nazi Germany as its leading scientist automatically subjects him to suspicion, and for good reason; his work on the Nazi atom bomb project does not lend itself to praise. Heisenberg’s own ambiguous actions and questionable compromises have led some to be extremely critical of the scientist; though Werner was not an official member of the Nazi party, according to his fiercest critics, he was all but a card-carrying member of the regime. Cassidy’s challenge as biographer is increased by the controversial nature of Heisenberg’s life. Cassidy acknowledges the responsibility to be fair and, overall, does a good job neither unfairly condemning Heisenberg nor unjustly absolving him of his sins.

Heisenberg is worthy of this biography not only due to his superstar status in the formation quantum mechanics but also because he was the face of German science during one of its most difficult and controversial periods – a period where the objectivity of science was corrupted by a regime bent on power and control. The years leading up to World War II saw the flight from Germany of many top scientists, mostly Jewish, who fled the increasingly meddling Reich and mistreatment at the hands of both German leaders and fellow scientists. Heisenberg, though he was not a Jew, had every reason to leave himself; he was accused of being the “spirit of Einstein’s spirit”, the leader of the weisse Juden (white Jews), and was vilified for his theoretical physics. He saw the mistreatment of his colleagues and friends by the Nazis and witnessed the terrors of die Kristallnacht. Despite this adversity, Heisenberg turned down the offers of foreign chairs and chose to stay in this rapidly deteriorating situation. A superficial conclusion might be that he was simply a Nazi sympathizer, but Cassidy takes care not to jump to conclusions. The strength of the biography is in Cassidy’s refusal to isolate Heisenberg’s actions but instead to contextualize them. The result of this analysis is the multidimensional image of Heisenberg that Cassidy had set out to illustrate.

Cassidy structures the work in a specific way in order to properly set Heisenberg’s actions in the proper historical contexts. Cassidy breaks up Heisenberg’s life into small chunks and analyzes each chunk in turn through different analytical lenses: as historian of science, personal biographer, and 20th century historian. This approach allows the reader to place Heisenberg’s actions as a scientist within the events of his personal life, the scientific establishment, and German and international politics. For example, Heisenberg’s scientific work in the 1930s on cosmic rays is juxtaposed with his response to the Reich’s interference in science and is further contextualized by the political actions of the Reich in Germany as it increased its stranglehold on power.

When dealing with Heisenberg’s personal development, Cassidy does a fine job showing how Heisenberg’s innate personality and the environment he developed in contributed towards Heisenberg’s science and ambitions; Werner was a product of both nature and nurture. Through anecdotes about Heisenberg’s competitive childhood (the bloody fight between Werner and his brother Erwin is especially striking), discussions of his natural aptitudes in math and science, and his experiences in his post-World War I youth group, Cassidy shows the development of a man who was simultaneously an objective scientist and an idealistic, perhaps even quixotic, youth.

What was most striking about Cassidy’s portrayal of Heisenberg was the fascinating dual life that Heisenberg led. Just as an electron may be viewed as a particle in one situation and could be conceptualized as a wave in another, so does Heisenberg’s personality maintain a similar duality. Heisenberg the scientist was incredibly hard working, focused, and serious; Heisenberg the youth group leader was carefree, relaxed, and immature. This ability to switch back and forth between “forms” enabled Heisenberg, according to Cassidy, to maintain his work level in physics and his sanity in general; Heisenberg’s life was subject to its own Copenhagen interpretation.

The concept of uncertainty is central to Cassidy’s work, and its use as the title is an appropriate choice. More explicitly, uncertainty is the crown jewel of Heisenberg’s work. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which banished exact measurement and determinism from scientific inquiry while cementing the significance of quantum physics, was Heisenberg’s greatest achievement and probably what he is most well known for. Cassidy’s treatment of 20th century science in the work can be dense at times, and is meant for the reader well acquainted with physics. However, as long as one understands the basic concepts and general trends of the science, not understanding the details does not detract from the overall story.

Continue here for PART II.

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