Werner Heisenberg

Werner Heisenberg books and biography


Werner Heisenberg

Werner Karl Heisenberg
Werner Karl Heisenberg
Born December 5, 1901
Würzburg, Germany
Died February 1, 1976
Munich, Germany
Residence Germany
Nationality German
Field Physicist
Institution University of Göttingen
University of Copenhagen
University of Leipzig
University of Berlin
University of St. Andrews
University of Munich
Alma Mater University of Munich
Academic Advisor Arnold Sommerfeld
Notable Students Felix Bloch
Edward Teller
Rudolph E. Peierls
Friedwardt Winterberg
Known for Uncertainty Principle
Notable Prizes Nobel Prize for Physics (1932)
Religion Evangelische Kirche

Werner Karl Heisenberg (December 5, 1901 – February 1, 1976) was a celebrated German physicist and Nobel laureate, one of the founders of quantum mechanics, and acknowledged to be one of the most important physicists of the twentieth century. He was born in Würzburg, Germany and died in Munich. Heisenberg was the head of Germany's nuclear energy program, though the nature of this project, and his work in this capacity, has been heavily debated. He is most well-known for discovering one of the central principles of modern physics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle.


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, which he developed with the help of Max Born and Pascual Jordan. His uncertainty principle, developed in 1927, states that the simultaneous determination of two paired quantities, for example the position and momentum of a particle, has an unavoidable uncertainty. Together with Bohr, he formulated 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 ".

In the late 20s and early 30s, Heisenberg collaborated with Wolfgang Pauli, and along with Paul Dirac, developed an early version of quantum electrodynamics. However, at the time, nobody could get rid of the infinities plaguing the theory, and it was only after World War 2 that a technique called renormalization was invented to take care of the infinities.

After the discovery of the neutron by James Chadwick in 1932, Heisenberg proposed the proton-neutron model of the atomic nucleus and used it to explain the nuclear spin of isotopes.

During the early days of the Nazi regime in Germany, Heisenberg was harassed as a "White Jew" for teaching theories that Albert Einstein, a prominent Jew, had conceived. This was in contradiction to 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 1938. Heisenberg remained in Germany during World War II, ostensibly to help rebuild German science after the massive brain drain that occurred in the 1930s as a result of Nazi policies banning Jews from public institutions. Heisenberg by all accounts was loyal to Germany, but not the Nazi regime. The Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics (of which he was the Director) was appropriated by the Nazi Heerswaffenamt. He belonged to a team led by 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 much controversy. Heisenberg's work consisted of various efforts to create sustained fission reactions. A rival atomic bomb project was led by Kurt Diebner for Heerswaffenamt, who, with Paul Harteck worked on uranium enrichment and a uranium-based atomic bomb. Neither team was successful because of the end of the war and complications from various invasions toward the end of the war. Lack of funding from the government didn't help things either.

It has been speculated that Heisenberg had moral qualms and tried to slow down the project. Heisenberg himself may have 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. This is because during a June 1942 meeting with Albert Speer, the minister for Nazi munitions, Heisenberg did not champion the project in a way which got it much attention or 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, he tried to hinder the German project; at worst, he was just unable to create an atomic bomb.

The debate about Heisenberg's views on the use of atomic weapons is centered on the period from 1939-1942, during which time Germany made a decision not to pursue a nuclear weapons programme. During this period, several events give insight into Heisenberg's role in that decision. At various points evidence during the period suggested that Heisenberg deliberately was steering Germany's research efforts toward developing nuclear energy, rather than nuclear weapons. Some evidence suggests that Heisenberg attempted to communicate these views to the Allies. For example, in April 1941 a German Jewish physicist, Fritz Reiche, arrived in the United States bearing a message from Heisenberg's colleague and friend Fritz Houtermans which was relayed to American officials in the following handwritten note:

"a reliable colleague [Houtermans] who is working at a technical research laboratory asked him [Reiche] to let us know that a large number of German physicists are working intensively on the problem of the uranium bomb under the direction of Heisenberg, that Heisenberg himself tries to delay the work as much as possible, fearing the catastrophic results of a success." (Thomas Powers, Heisenberg's War: The Secret History of the German Bomb.)

Next, there was Heisenberg's visit with an old friend Niels Bohr in occupied Copenhagen in September 1941, the purpose of which has been subject of great debate. Further, German scientist Hans Peter Jensen visited Niels Bohr in Copenhagen during 1943, of which Bohr wrote that Jensen

"talked [about] efforts to increase the production of heavy water in Norway and hinted in this connection that the German physicists were only considering general technical energy generation."[2]

Finally, in May 1943 the German spy Erwin Respondek passed a report to Sam Woods, an American consular official in Zurich, that

"the Kaiser Wilhelm group [where Heisenberg was chief of theoretical work in Berlin] purposely raised 'difficulties' to slow down work on the project." (Powers, id.)

According to some Heisenberg critics, the German war efforts stalled in 1940 not because of moral qualms, but because Heisenberg had made a gross overestimate of the "critical mass" of fissionable material (Uranium 235) required for a bomb. An estimate of this amount was crucial to the decision about proceeding with a serious nuclear weapons programme because of the enormous difficulty and expense of separating the U235 from the U238 that makes up the vast bulk of natural uranium, and the length of time it would take to develop a reactor capable of transmuting the uranium into plutonium. According to some critics, Heisenberg had miscalculated the "critical mass" by not taking into account the "drunkard's walk" trajectory of the slow neutrons emitted, thereby overestimating the amount needed as being in the order of tons, not kilograms as was in fact the case.

However, the contention that Heisenberg had wrongly determined in 1940 that a uranium bomb was not technically feasible is at odds with other evidence. First, during the 1941 visit with Bohr, Heisenberg stated that

"in the preceding years [Heisenberg] had devoted [him]self almost exclusively to the question and were quite certain that it could be done," and that he "felt certain that the war, if it lasted sufficiently long, would be decided with atomic weapons."[3]

According to Bohr's later notes,

"Heisenberg said explicitly that he did not wish to enter into technical details but that Bohr should understand that he knew what he was talking about as he had spent 2 years working exclusively on this question.

It is unclear why Heisenberg would report to Bohr in 1941 that his research efforts had led him to conclude that a usable nuclear weapon was feasible if, in fact, a miscalculation in 1940 had led him to conclude that it was not feasible.

Second, after the war, Heisenberg and other German physicists were taken by the British to Farm Hall, where their conversations were monitored. The transcripts, however, are ambiguous, and subject to debate. At points, it appeared that Heisenberg had miscalculated the critical mass of uranium required for an atomic bomb —covert eavesdropping revealed that, on hearing of the Allied bombing of Hiroshima, he was at first convinced it was a propaganda trick, so sure was he that the critical mass was impracticably large. Some historians have questioned the reliability of the transcripts, as Heisenberg probably knew he was being monitored.

Indeed, there are indications that Heisenberg had made the correct calculation earlier. In June 1942 Heisenberg answered a question about the size of the fissionable core of a bomb by holding his hands to suggest something the size of a football or pineapple, which would have been roughly right. Indeed, after presenting the "incorrect" calculation to the Farm Hall scientists (including those sympathetic to the Nazi regime), one of Heisenberg's confidants, Otto Hahn, questioned Heisenberg's remark that "tons" of U-235 were needed for a bomb "But tell me why you used to tell me that one needed 50 kilograms of 235 in order to do anything. Now you say one needs two tons."[4]

Later, Heisenberg told Hahn,

"Quite honestly I have never worked it out as I never believed one could get pure 235. I always knew it could be done with 235 with fast neutrons. That's why 235 only can be used as an explosive. One can never make an explosive with slow neutrons, not even with the heavy water machine [the German nuclear reactor], as then the neutrons only go with thermal speed, with the result that the reaction is so slow that the thing explodes sooner, before the reaction is complete."

Ultimately, upon seeing the reports of the bombing of Hiroshima, Heisenberg told his friend, von Weizsäcker

"I was absolutely convinced of the possibility of our making an uranium engine [reactor] but I never thought that we would make a bomb and at the bottom of my heart I was really glad that it was to be an engine and not a bomb. I must admit that."

Whatever the cause, it is clear that on June 4, 1942, Heisenberg met with German Minister Albert Speer concerning possible uses of Heisenberg's nuclear research, and particularly its potential suitability for the development of nuclear weapons. Notwithstanding Heisenberg's September 1941 report to Bohr that he felt certain nuclear weapons could be constructed and powerful enough to conclude the war if it lasted long enough, during this meeting with Speer he highlighted the technical difficulties and vast time and materials required to separate the uranium needed for the project.

It was this meeting, and Speer's report on it to Hitler, that effectively scuttled any military applications for his work, and limited Heisenberg's work during the remainder of the war to theoretical uses of nuclear energy. As Speer wrote,

"Difficulties were compounded, Heisenberg explained, by the fact that Europe possessed only one cyclotron, and that of minimal capacity. Moreover, it was located in Paris and because of the need for secrecy could not be used to full advantage."

Curiously, Heisenberg did not mention the cyclotron in Copenhagen as a possible source for enriching uranium.

Biography and controversy

In 1956, journalist Robert Jungk published a book titled Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, which painted Heisenberg as having single-handedly and purposely derailed the German project for moral reasons. To justify the claim, Jungk had printed an excerpt from a personal letter from Heisenberg. The excerpt, however, was taken heavily out of context, and in the full letter Heisenberg was far more demure about whether he had taken a strong moral stance. After reading the excerpt, Bohr was understandably flustered that Heisenberg was (apparently) claiming to have purposely derailed the Nazi bomb project, as it did not match his own perception of Heisenberg's war work at all.

Some historians of science have taken the Bohr's draft letters as evidence against Heisenberg's contention that he had met with Bohr to signal that Germany's scientists would not pursue the development of nuclear weapons. Others have argued that Bohr profoundly misunderstood Heisenberg's intentions at the 1941 meeting, and that his reaction to Jungk's work was overly passionate. Significantly, Bohr's draft letters confirm virtually all of Heisenberg's recollection to Jungk of the substance of the meeting. However, as a piece of evidence the letters cannot provide an answer to the question of why Heisenberg broached the topic of nuclear weapons -- but not their technical aspects —with Bohr, or whether Bohr formed the correct "impression" of what Heisenberg wanted to say.

It is also thought that Italian scientist Gian Carlo Wick approached Heisenberg 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 the alarm about Nazi uranium research right up to war's end, but this was part of Diebner's project, not Heisenberg's.

Looking back

"He lies somewhere here" has been his epitaph (original German: "Er liegt irgendwo hier").

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." [5]


  • Father: Dr. August Heisenberg, professor of Byzantine studies at the University of Wurzburg (Germany); Mother: Annie Wecklein; Wife: Elisabeth Schumacher (m. 1937, seven children including neurobiologist and geneticist Martin Heisenberg)
  • Nobel Prize for Physics 1932, Matteucci Medal 1929
  • Fellow, Royal Society, American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • Places he worked at: University of Göttingen (1924), University of Copenhagen (1926-27), University of Leipzig (1927–41), University of Berlin (1941), University of St. Andrews (1955-56), University of Munich (1958)
  • One author wrote that Heisenberg was an unexpectedly good essayist.
  • In 1929 he visited India and met Rabindranath Tagore. He was critical of the British colonial administration. [1]


  1. ^ Letter to his parents. Darjeeling, October 5,1929 [1]
  • David C. Cassidy, "Uncertainty: The Life and Science of Werner Heisenberg", (W. H. Freeman) ISBN 0-7167-2503-7
  • 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 0-521-36413-2 (Hardcover) ISBN 0-521-43804-7 (Paperback)
  • Thomas Powers. Heisenberg's War: The Secret History of the German Bomb (Knopf) ISBN 0-394-51411-4 (Hardcover) ISBN 0-316-71623-5 (Paperback)
  • Paul Lawrence Rose. Heisenberg and the Nazi Atomic Bomb Project, 1939-1945: A Study in German Culture. University of California Press, 1998, ISBN 0-520-21077-8
  • Heisenberg, Werner. Across the frontiers  ; translated from the German by Peter Heath. (Ox Bow Press, 1990) ISBN 0-918024-80-3 (Hardcover) ISBN 0-918024-81-1 (Paperback)
  • -- Encounters with Einstein: and other essays on people, places, and particles. Princeton University Press; Reprint edition (October 1, 1989) ISBN 0-691-02433-2
  • -- 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 0-900615-27-3
  • -- 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 0-918024-14-5 (Hardcover) ISBN 0-918024-15-3 (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 0-8371-3107-3
  • -- Physics and beyond; encounters and conversations. Translated from the German by Arnold J. Pomerans. 1971 ISBN 0-04-925020-5
  • -- Physics and philosophy : the revolution in modern science, introduction by F.S.C. Northrop. 1999 ISBN 1-57392-694-9 (Paperback) ISBN 0-06-130549-9 (also Paperback)
  • -- Tradition in science. 1981 Continuum Intl Pub Group (November 1, 1982) ISBN 0-8264-0063-9
  • -- 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.
  • -- In the science fiction series Star Trek the Heisenberg Compensators are used in the Transporters as a way of explaining why transportation is possible in spite of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

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