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Werner Heisenberg

Werner Karl Heisenberg (December 5, 1901February 1, 1976) was a celebrated German physicist and Nobel laureate, one of the founders of quantum mechanics. He was born in Würzburg, Germany and died in Munich. Heisenberg was the head of Nazi Germany's nuclear energy program, though the nature of this project, and his work in this capacity has been heavily debated.



Heisenberg was born in Würzburg, Germany, the son of Dr. August Heisenberg and Annie Wecklein. He attended school in Munich and studied Physics at the University of Munich under, amongst others, Arnold Sommerfeld and Wilhelm Wien. As a young man, Heisenberg was an enthusiastic hiker and walker and greatly loved the outdoor life. In 1922 he studied physics at Göttingen where he was taught by Max Born and David Hilbert. His Ph.D. was from the University of Munich following which, he joined Max Born at the University of Göttingen. In 1924 he began work on Quantum Mechanics with Niels Bohr, at the University of Copenhagen. In 1926, was given a Lecturership in Theoretical Physics at the University of Copenhagen. In 1927 he was given a chair in theoretical physics at Leipzig. He won the Nobel Prize in 1932 for his work on Quantum Mechanics. In 1937 he married Elizabeth Schumacher.

He elected to remain in Germany for the Second World War, despite problems with the government. His war work is discussed in a separate section below. In 1941 he was appointed Professor of Physics at the University of Berlin. At the end of the Second World War he, and other German physicists, were captured by allied troops as part of Operation Alsos which targeted the capture of Axis nuclear scientists.

From the end of the war, Heisenberg toured various countries giving lectures including England, the United States and Scotland before moving to work in Munich at the Max Planck Institute for Physics.

He died on the 1st February 1976.

Quantum mechanics

As a student, he met Niels Bohr in Göttingen in 1922. A fruitful collaboration developed between the two.

He invented matrix mechanics, the first formalization of quantum mechanics in 1925. His uncertainty principle, discovered in 1927, states that the determination of both the position and momentum of a particle necessarily contains errors, the product of these being not less than a known constant. Together with Bohr, he would go on to formulate the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

He received the Nobel Prize in physics in 1932 "for the creation of quantum mechanics, the application of which has, inter alia, led to the discovery of the allotropic forms of hydrogen".

During the early days of the Nazi regime in Germany, Heisenberg was harassed as a "White Jew" for teaching the theories of Albert Einstein in contrast with the Nazi-sanctioned Deutsche Physik movement. After a character investigation that Heisenberg himself instigated and passed, SS chief Heinrich Himmler banned any further political attacks on the physicist.

Work during the War

Nuclear fission was discovered in Germany in 1939. Heisenberg remained in Germany during World War II, working under the Nazi regime. He belonged to a team led by Professor Walther Bothe to develop one of Germany's many nuclear weapon/nuclear power programs, but the extent of his cooperation in the development of weapons has been a subject of historical controversy. Heisenberg's work comprised various efforts to create sustained fission reactions and possibly the creation of a Plutonium breeder reactor at the cave in Hechingen. A rival Atomic bomb project was led by Prof Kurt Diebner for Heerswaffenamt. In contrast, Prof Kurt Diebner and Dr Paul Harteck worked on Uranium enrichment and a Uranium based Atomic Bomb.

It is indicated (from the Farm Hall transcripts) that Heisenberg, even in 1945, did not know how to calculate the critical mass of uranium for an atomic bomb, and therefore Germany was not even close to producing a nuclear weapon during the war (some historians have questioned the veracity of the transcripts, though, as Heisenberg was likely aware he was being monitored). Others point to the fact that Japanese physicist Dr Yoshio Nishina did manage to correctly calculate Uranium's critical mass and the co-operation between Nazi scientists and the Japanese project. Nazi Germany shipped Uranium-oxide to Japan for enrichment during 1944.

He revealed the program's existence to Bohr at a conference in Copenhagen in September 1941. After the meeting, the lifelong friendship between Bohr and Heisenberg ended abruptly. Bohr later joined the Manhattan Project. It is known that Riechs munitions minister Albert Speer was Heisenburg's strongest ally in the Nazi leadership and that Speer attempted to divert research funds away from nuclear weaponry. Speer came into conflict with other Nazi leaders for this stance. For this reason the SS ensured that funding was also given to rival nuclear projects without Speer's knowledge.

It has been speculated that Heisenberg had moral qualms and tried to slow down the project. Heisenberg himself attempted to paint this picture after the war, and Thomas Power's book Heisenberg's War and Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen adopted this interpretation. Part of this interpretation is based on the fact that Heisenberg did not champion the project to Albert Speer in a way which got it any attention or very much funding (which Samuel Goudsmit of the ALSOS project interpreted as being partially because Heisenberg himself was not fully aware of the feasibility of an atomic bomb). At best (for Heisenberg), he may have tried to hinder the German project; at worst, he may have just been ignorant of how to create an atomic bomb (it has been wryly commented that one can know either Heisenberg's morality in this respect, or his competence, but not both).

In a 1997 book that tells the story of the sabotage of the Norsk Hydro heavy water plant at Rjukan, Norway, a passage from a 1943 letter from Heisenberg to Dutch scientist Hendrik B. G. Casimir indicates that at the very least Heisenberg was a strong German nationalist:

History legitimizes Germany to rule Europe and later the world. Only a nation that rules ruthlessly can maintain itself. Democracy cannot develop sufficient energy to rule Europe. There are, therefore, only two possibilities: Germany and Russia, and perhaps a Europe under German leadership is the lesser evil.

(Blood and Water, Dan Kurzman, 1997, p. 35, ISBN 0-8050-3206-1)

In February 2002, a letter written by Bohr to Heisenberg in 1957 (but never sent) emerged. In it, Bohr relates that Heisenberg, in their 1941 conversation, did not express any moral problems with the bomb making project, that Heisenberg had spent the past two years working almost exclusively on it, and that he was convinced that the atomic bomb would eventually decide the war. The context of this letter, however, was the publication of the journalist Robert Jungk's Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, which painted Heisenberg as having single-handedly and purposely derailed the German project. Jungk printed an excerpt from a personal letter from Heisenberg -- taken out of context -- to justify the claim (in the full letter, Heisenberg was more demure about whether he had taken a strong moral stance). Bohr was understandably flustered by this apparent claim as it did not match with his own perception of Heisenberg's war work at all.

Some historians of science take this as evidence that the previous interpretation of Heisenberg's resistance was wrong, but others have argued that Bohr profoundly misunderstood Heisenberg's intentions at the 1941 meeting, or an overly passionate reaction to Jungk's work. As a piece of evidence, it has had little effect on overall historical conclusions.

It is also thought that Italian scientist Gian Carlo Wick approached Heisenburg in January 1944 as an emissary for the OSS as part of Operation Sunrise, to negotiate the capitulation of Nazi scientists to the ALSOS mission. Allied intelligence through Stockholm continued to sound alarm about Nazi uranium research right up to war's end, but this was part of Diebner's project and not Heisenburg's.

Looking back

"He lies somewhere here" has been his epitaph.

According to an apocryphal story, Heisenberg was asked what he would ask God, given the opportunity. His reply was: "When I meet God, I am going to ask him two questions: Why relativity? And why turbulence? I really believe he will have an answer for the first."

This story is probably untrue , as it bears an uncanny likeness to the following reported incident : The difficulty of explaining and studying turbulence in fluids was wittily expressed in 1932 by the British physicist Horace Lamb, who, in an address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science, reportedly said, "I am an old man now, and when I die and go to heaven there are two matters on which I hope for enlightenment. One is quantum electrodynamics, and the other is the turbulent motion of fluids. And about the former I am rather optimistic." Ref : Turbulence - Scientific American :


  • David C. Cassidy, "Uncertainty: The Life and Science of Werner Heisenberg", (W. H. Freeman) ISBN 0716725037
  • James Glanz, "New Twist on Physicist's Role in Nazi Bomb". The New York Times, February 7, 2002.
  • Irving, David, Virus House, a history of the Nazi atomic bomb project, directed by Heisenberg. See Irving link to get a sense of his reliability as historian and link to the online book.
  • Mark Walker, German National Socialism and the Quest for Nuclear Power, 1939-1949 (London: Cambridge University Press, 1990). ISBN 0521364132 (Hardcover) ISBN 0521438047 (Paperback)
  • Thomas Powers. Heisenberg's War: The Secret History of the German Bomb (Knopf) ISBN 0394514114 (Hardcover) ISBN 0316716235 (Paperback)
  • Heisenberg, Werner. Across the frontiers  ; translated from the German by Peter Heath. (Ox Bow Press, 1990) ISBN 0918024803 (Hardcover) ISBN 0918024811 (Paperback)
  • -- Encounters with Einstein: and other essays on people, places, and particles. Princeton University Press; Reprint edition (October 1, 1989) ISBN 0691024332
  • -- Introduction to the unified field theory of elementary particles. 1966
  • -- Natural law and the structure of matter English version by the author. 1970 Warm Wind Books (July 1, 1981) ISBN 0900615273
  • -- Nuclear physics. 1953
  • -- et al ,On modern physics. English translation by M. Goodman and J.W. Binns. 1961
  • -- Philosophic problems of nuclear science. Translated by F. C. Hayes. 1952; Ox Bow Press (June 1, 1979) ISBN 0918024145 (Hardcover) ISBN 0918024153 (Paperback)
  • -- Physical principles of the quantum theory, translated into English by Carl Eckart and Frank C. Hoyt ... 1930
  • -- Physicist's conception of nature. Translated from the German by Arnold J. Pomerans. Greenwood Press Reprint (March 9, 1970) ISBN 0837131073
  • -- Physics and beyond; encounters and conversations. Translated from the German by Arnold J. Pomerans. 1971 ISBN 0049250205
  • -- Physics and philosophy : the revolution in modern science, introduction by F.S.C. Northrop. 1999 ISBN 1573926949 (Paperback) ISBN 0061305499 (also Paperback)
  • -- Tradition in science. 1981 Continuum Intl Pub Group (November 1, 1982) ISBN 0826400639
  • -- Two lectures. 1949
  • -- et al. Uncertainty principle and foundations of quantum mechanics : a fifty years' survey , edited by William C. Price, Seymour S. Chissick. 1977
  • -- The Part and The Whole about his life, his friendship with Bohr, and the evolution of quantum physics.

One author wrote that Heisenberg was an unexpectedly good essayist.

See also

External links

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