Great Physicists: The Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking

By William H. Cropper | Go to book overview

18
Matrix Mechanics
Werner Heisenberg

Twins

The birth of the grand synthesis of quantum theory—now known as “quantum mechanics”—was not the happy event it might have been. To everyone's surprise, what came into the world was not one infant but two—twins. And to make matters worse, the two births were months apart, with different doctors officiating; there were even some ugly rumors about the parentage of the two arrivals. Erwin Schrödinger and his colleagues in Munich and Berlin, who claimed the child they called “wave mechanics,” found little to admire in the other child, called “matrix mechanics,” claimed by Werner Heisenberg and his friends in Göttingen and Copenhagen. Said Schrödinger about matrix mechanics: “I was discouraged, if not repelled, by what seemed to me a rather difficult method of transcendental algebra, defying any visualization.” And Heisenberg had this to say about wave mechanics in a letter to Wolfgang Pauli: “The more I think about the physical portion of the Schrödinger theory, the more repulsive I find it…. What Schrodinger writes about visualizability ‘is probably not quite right’ [one of Bohr's favorite euphemisms], in other words it's crap.” For a time, it appeared that physics would have to support two infant versions of quantum mechanics, with an embarrassing rivalry on matters of heritage and title. But fortunately there were some who appreciated and understood both children. All were relieved to find that both twins were healthy and legitimate and deserving of the family name, quantum mechanics.


Wunderkind

Werner Heisenberg, whose skill in the delivery of far-reaching theories brought matrix mechanics into the world (a few months before Schrödinger attended the birth of wave mechanics), was born in Wurzburg, Germany, late in 1901. At the time, Werner's father, August, taught ancient languages at the Altes Gymnasium in Wurzburg. According to David Cassidy, Heisenberg's most recent biographer,

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