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The Unpredictable Life of Werner Heisenberg.

Master physicist Werner Heisenberg was one of two things: the mastermind behind the Nazi atomic bomb project, or the hero who intentionally thwarted it.


Werner Heisenberg (Photo Credit: Bob Gardner)

Werner Heisenberg [wiki] was born in Würzburg, Germany, on December 5, 1901, and from birth, he seemed destined to become a concert pianist. With help from his mother, Anna, Werner was reading sheet music by age 4 and conquering the masterworks on the family's piano by the time he was 15. But Heisenberg's musical aspirations were slowly sabotaged by the family's book collection. His father, Albert, was a professor of Greek at the University of Munich, and Werner took a liking to rummaging through his dad's bookshelves. Before long, the young Heisenberg decided he preferred Archimedes to Mozart, and science replaced music as his passion.


Werner (right) with his brother Erwin and father, before he went to fight in World War I (Photo: Max-Planck Institut, AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives)

Werner spent plenty of time contemplating the classics, but that wasn't the only trait he inherited from his father. In a novel effort to foster spirit of competition in his children, Albert regularly goaded Werner and his older brother into beating the tar out of each other. And though Heisenberg may have emerged from his eccentric childhood more than a little bruised, he also emerged disciplined, competitive, and blessed with a healthy dose of arrogance. Given his talents, Werner could have had a bright future - if not for the outbreak of World War I.

At some point during those long years leading up to Germany's defeat, and the even longer years of chaos that followed, Heisenberg became disillusioned with all things non-German. He and his peers were understandably anxious to help the nation emerge from the degradation that followed the war, but they also believed Germany was destined to be the strongest force in Europe. So when communist forces from Russia tried to pacify the country, Heisenberg was there, rioting with his friends in the streets.

Despite his political activism, Heisenberg found time to earn a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Munich. (Perhaps taking a cue from his own life, his thesis was on the mathematics of turbulence.) He then went on to study atomic theory, but not in a by-the-book sort of way. Heisenberg always leaned away from classical physics. Instead, his intuition compelled him to question traditional thought. This was evident even in his early work, which focused on how atoms behave in a magnetic field. Classical theory predicted that electrons, neutrons, and protons would follow certain paths as they bailed out of a shattered atom, though most physicists couldn't find a way to verify this claim.

Part of the problem was realizing that nature is a world of chaos, not the smooth and beautiful creature scientists had always imagined. Heisenberg was one of the first to accept this new idea. His early work involved trying to apply mathematics to quanta of energy, an intimidating course of study now known as quantum theory. Although his initial attempts did not successfully prove the chaos of atoms, Heisenberg's intuition was leading him away from traditional physics and closer to a whole new realm of thinking.

The Most Important Bout of Hay Fever in History

Throughout the early 1920s, Heisenberg's reputation as a top-notch physicist spread, eventually landing him a dream job as a research associate with Danish science-superhero Niels Bohr in 1924. Bohr had already collected a Nobel Prize two years earlier and established himself as the epicenter of the physics revolution. In fact, he was half-jokingly referred to as the Pope of the field.

Together, Bohr and Heisenberg formed the original odd couple. Heisenberg was quietly stubborn, while Bohr was more of a nerdy antagonist. In fact, Bohr was known to start physics discussions that famously reduced colleagues to tears. But Heisenberg took Bohr's outbursts in stride. Most notably, he proved unflappable when Bohr challenged him to describe how subatomic particles worked mathematically. Because both men knew no one had ever come close to solving the problem, it was the physics equivalent of a double-dog dare. And Heisenberg rose to the occasion.

In May of 1925, Heisenberg came down with what might be the most important attack of hay fever in history. Seeking relief from sneezing, he holed up in Helgoland, a speck of land in the North Sea. While the change of atmosphere may not have cured his allergies, it did get him away from Bohr's pestering. And there, he rewrote the book on physics.

Let's Get Physical

Heisenberg's response to Bohr's atomic challenge ultimately became the cornerstone of quantum physics. After years of questioning the determinism view of the universe that had ruled science for the past two millennia, Heisenberg was finally able to throw a little chaos into the mix. According to classical theory, if you knew exactly what a certain group of atoms was up to at any given instant, you could (with the right equation and enough brainpower to solve it) predict exactly what those atoms would be doing a million years in the future. But Heisenberg tore that idea apart using a complex bit of mathematics called matrix algebra. He proved that even if you know where a particle is, you can't predict where it's going; and if you know where it's going, you no longer know where it is. Ultimately, the precise equations Bohr had challenged Heisenberg to come up with could never be found, and 2,000 years of determinism were suddenly dead.

Heisenberg's new theory was dubbed the Uncertainty Principle [wiki], and physicist despised it. With precision declared impossible, scientists suddenly found themselves stuck expressing outcomes in odds like cheap Vegas bookies. Reason and logic were losing cards in Heisenberg's new game.

Despite the frustration it brought his peers, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle survived every shot aimed at it. Eventually, it was adopted by everyone in the physics community—with the exception of Albert Einstein. Mocking the theory's reliance on probability, Einstein quipped, "God does not play dice with the Universe!" In response, Pope Bohr laughingly suggested Einstein should stop telling God what to do. Heisenberg won the day, as well as the 1932 Nobel Prize.

Mama's Gonna Make Everything All Right

While Heisenberg was taking victory laps on the lecture circuit, a new power was rising in Germany. Adolf Hitler was steering the world toward another war, and& - one by one - physicists with Jewish ancestry were leaving Germany and Italy behind. Ignoring pleas from his friends to leave, the patriotic Heisenberg clung to the idea that he could help his homeland. He also believed Hitler might not be as bad as he seemed.

It didn't take long for that illusion to wear thin, though. Heisenberg was pegged a Jewish sympathizer for his adherence to the "Jewish physics" of Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr. In fact, threats to Heisenberg's safety became so severe that Heisenberg's mother stepped in on his behalf. In an attempt to pull some strings for her son, Mrs. Heisenberg contacted the mother of Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler and expressed her concern for her dear Werner. Clearly, neither woman fully understood exactly what Heinrich did for a living, and word of Mrs. Heisenberg's attempt to protect her son quickly reached the Reich. The physicist was now officially suspected of harboring ties to Jewish dissidents, and he was hauled into Gestapo headquarters for questioning. Soon after, he was "recruited" to help the Nazis build a nuclear bomb.

The Other Uncertainty Principle


Heisenberg and Bohr (Image Credit: AIP Niels Bohr Library)

Because Heisenberg was a forced participant in the Uranium club, as the Nazi bomb project was called, no one knows what his intentions there really were. Virtually all aspects of his involvement can be interpreted multiple ways. But the most notorious example of this was Heisenberg's 1941 trip to occupied Copenhagen to visit Niels Bohr.

When Heisenberg arrived, Bohr assumed his friend was trying to lure him into blabbing Allied secrets. Instead, Heisenberg encouraged Bohr to stop his atomic research. It's likely Heisenberg was secretly trying to warn Bohr that the Nazis were well on their way to building a bomb, but Bohr thought it was Heisenberg's strategic attempt to limit Allied military research. Sitting in an occupied country, Bohr found this idea particularly distasteful, and a bitter argument ensued. The encounter snapped the physicists' friendship (though it also provided the plot for the Tony Award-winning 2000 play, "Copenhagen"). Following the meeting, Bohn warned the Allies that Heisenberg was working on an atomic bomb for Hitler. The tip-off launched a frantic spy campaign, which escalated to the point that the United States and Britain both entertained plans to assassinate Heisenberg.

In reality, the Allies had little to fear. Heisenberg told the Nazis that Germany didn't have access to enough uranium for an atomic bomb, conveniently overestimating (by a huge margin) the amount needed. It's possible he made an honest mistake in his calculations, but German documents disclosed after the war reveal the Nazis already suspected Heisenberg of intentionally leading the program astray. The truth will never be known for sure—a fitting riddle for the man who removed certainty from the universe.

Coming Into His Own

After the war (and with the Nazi agenda out of the picture), Heisenberg's prestige soared, which did a lot to salvage the reputation of German science. In that respect, Heisenberg fulfilled his dream of saving a small portion of his beloved homeland. As the man behind the Uncertainty Principle, he continued to be recognized. During the Cold War, people loved hearing that atomic scientists didn't have all the answers. In the psychedelic 1960s, they were just as happy to know there were some really far-out things happening in the universe. And, of course, there was the growing opinion that Heisenberg had saved the world from Hitler. (In the late 1930s, Heisenberg referred to the Nazis as a "spreading rot" - a phrase that would save him from much public scrutiny after the war.)

Despite numerous questions, Heisenberg never gave a straight answer to why he stayed in Germany. His supporters suggest that Heisenberg never would admit to betraying his homeland by sabotaging its military program, so his silence was the only answer he could reasonably give.

Throughout the 1950s, Heisenberg spent his time doing exactly what Einstein did at the end of his life - seeking a single set of equations that would describe every force in the universe. He even announced success at one point, though by late in the decade, it was clear that his theory was incorrect. Half a century later, this "Unified Field Theory" remains the great, as yet unclaimed, prize in all of physics.

In 1973, Werner Heisenberg was diagnosed with cancer. The disease apparently went into remission, but returned two short years later. He died in Munich on February 1, 1976. His unofficial epitaph is a fitting reflection of the Uncertainty Principle. It states, "He lies somewhere here."

The article above, written by William S. Kirby, titled "A Bomb, A Qualm, and One Overprotective Mom: The Unpredictable Life of Werner Heisenberg" is reprinted with permission from mental_floss magazine (Jan-Feb 2006 issue).

Don't forget to feed your brain, subscribe to the magazine and visit mental_floss' extremely entertaining website and blog!


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