Werner Heisenberg

Werner Heisenberg (vĕr´nər hī´zənbĕrk), 1901–76, German physicist. One of the founders of the quantum theory, he is best known for his uncertainty principle, or indeterminacy principle, which states that it is impossible to determine with arbitrarily high accuracy both the position and momentum (essentially velocity) of a subatomic particle like the electron. The effect of this principle is to convert the laws of physics into statements about relative probabilities instead of absolute certainties. In 1926, Heisenberg developed a form of the quantum theory known as matrix mechanics, which was quickly shown to be fully equivalent to Erwin Schrödinger's wave mechanics. His 1932 Nobel Prize in Physics cited not only his work on quantum theory but also work in nuclear physics in which he predicted the subsequently verified existence of two allotropic forms of molecular hydrogen, differing in their values of nuclear spin.

Heisenberg was a student of Arnold Sommerfeld, an assistant to Max Born, and later a close associate of Niels Bohr. He taught at the universities of Leipzig (1927–41) and Berlin (1942–45). During World War II he headed German efforts in nuclear fission research, which failed to develop a nuclear reactor or atomic bomb. Although he claimed after the war to have had qualms about building nuclear weapons, it seems likely that the reasons Germany failed to do so were technical and logistical.

In 1958 he became director of the Max Planck Institute for Physics and Astrophysics, now located in Munich. His later work concerned the so-called S-matrix approach to nuclear forces and the possibility that space and time are quantized, or granular, in structure. His Physics and Philosophy (1962) and Physics and Beyond (1971) remain popular accounts of the revolutions in modern physics.

See D. C. Cassidy, Uncertainty: The Life and Science of Werner Heisenberg (1993); R. P. Brennan, Heisenberg Probably Slept Here: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Physicists of the 20th Century (1996).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2013, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Readings in Philosophy of Science: Introduction to the Foundations and Cultural Aspects of the Sciences
Philip P. Wiener.
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953
E=MC² A Biography of the World's Most Famous Equation
David Bodanis.
Walker Publishing, 2000
Nazi Science: Myth, Truth, and the German Atomic Bomb
Mark Walker.
Plenum Press, 1995
The Many Faces of Science: An Introduction to Scientists, Values, and Society
Leslie Stevenson; Henry Byerly.
Westview Press, 2000 (2nd edition)
Librarian’s tip: "Heisenberg's Attitude toward a German Atomic Bomb" begins on p. 169
Quantum Profiles
Jeremy Bernstein.
Princeton University Press, 1991
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of Werner Heisenberg begins on p. 31
To Light Such a Candle: Chapters in the History of Science and Technology
Keith J. Laidler.
Oxford University Press, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of Werner Heisenberg begins on p. 304
The Mind Matters: Consciousness and Choice in a Quantum World
David Hodgson.
Clarendon Press, 1991
Librarian’s tip: "Heisenberg and Matrix Mechanics" begins on p. 218
Chaos Theory versus Heisenberg's Uncertainty: Risk, Uncertainty and Economic Theory
Khalil, Elias.
American Economist, Vol. 41, No. 2, Fall 1997
Doubt and Certainty
Tony Rothman; George Sudarshan; Shannon K. Comins.
Perseus Publishing, 1998
Librarian’s tip: "Heisenberg: Uncertainity Principle" begins on p. 163
Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking
William H. Cropper.
Oxford University Press, 2001
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 18 "Matrix Mechanics"
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