Monday, August 27, 2007

Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976)

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Natural science, does not simply describe and explain nature; it is part of the interplay between nature and ourselves.


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Werner Karl Heisenberg, (December 5, 1901- February 1, 1976), was a celebrated physicist and Nobel laureate, one of the founders of quantum mechanics. As a student, he met Niels Bohr in Gottingen 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".

Nuclear fission was discovered in Germany in 1938. Heisenberg remained in Germany during World War II, working under the Nazi regime. He lead Germany's atomic weapon's program, but the extent of his cooperation has been a subject of controversy. 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. Germany did not succeed in producing an atomic bomb. 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. 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. Most historians of science take this as evidence that the previous interpretation of Heisenberg's resistance was wrong, but some have argued that Bohr profoundly misunderstood Heisenberg's intentions at the 1941 meeting. Reference: James Glanz: New Twist on Physicists's Role in Nazi Bomb. The New York Times, February 7, 2002. [The material above is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License and uses material adapted in whole or in part from the Wikipedia article on Werner Heisenberg.][The biographical material below is adapted from MacTutor and sheds more light on the controversial years in Heisenberg's life.]

In 1935 the Nazis brought in a law whereby professors over 65 had to retire. Sommerfeld was 66 and he had already indicated that he wanted Heisenberg to succeed him. It was an appointment which Heisenberg badly wanted and in 1935 Sommerfeld again indicated that he wanted Heisenberg to fill his chair. However this was the period when the Nazis wanted "German mathematics" to replace "Jewish mathematics" and "German physics" to replace "Jewish physics". Relativity and quantum theory were classed as "Jewish" and as a consequence Heisenberg's appointment to Munich was blocked. Although he was in no way Jewish, Heisenberg was subjected to frequent attacks in the press describing him to be of "Jewish style".

In 1937 Heisenberg married Elisabeth Schumacher. He met her through his music which was important to him throughout his life. An excellent pianist, Heisenberg met Elisabeth Schumacher at a concert in which he was performing at the house of a published friend. Elizabeth was only 22 when they met, Heisenberg was 35. They were married on 29 April 1937, less than three months after they first met. Heisenberg had been asked to take up the appointment at Munich in March but had asked for the date to be delayed until August because of his wedding. It was agreed that he should take up the appointment on 1 August. He and his wife arrived in Munich in July but his appointment was blocked by the Nazis. During the Second World War Heisenberg headed the unsuccessful German nuclear weapons project. He worked with Otto Hahn, one of the discoverers of nuclear fission, on the development of a nuclear reactor but failed to develop an effective program for nuclear weapons. Whether this was because of lack of resources or a lack of a desire to put nuclear weapons in the hands of the Nazis, it is unclear.

[Otto Hahn maintained a collaborative relationship throughout the Second World War with the co-discoverer of fission, the Austrian born Jewish physicist Lise Meitner. Meitner worked together with Hahn for 30 years, each of them leading a section in Berlin's Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry. Hahn and Meitner collaborated closely studying radioactivity, with her knowledge of physics and his knowledge of chemistry working in tandem. In 1918, they discovered the element protactinium. In 1923, she discovered the radiationless transition known as the Auger effect, which is named for Pierre Auger, a French scientist who discovered the effect two years later. After Austria was annexed by Germany in 1938, Meitner was forced to flee Germany for Sweden, She continued her work at Manne Siegbahn's institute in Stockholm, but with little support. Hahn and Meitner met clandestinely in Copenhagen in November to plan a new round of experiments. The experiments which provided the evidence for nuclear fission were done at Hahn's laboratory in Berlin and published in January 1939. In February 1939, Meitner published the physical explanation for the observations and named the process nuclear fission. In 1945, Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics, and Meitner was ignored by the Nobel comittee. This was partially corrected in 1966, when Hahn and Meitner together were awarded the Fermi Prize. Element 109 is named meitnerium in her honor.]

After the war Heisenberg was interned in Britain with other leading German scientists. However he returned to Germany in 1946 when he was appointed director of the Max Planck Institute for Physics and Astrophysics at Gottingen. In the winter of 1955-1956 he gave the Gifford Lectures "On physics and philosophy" at the University of St Andrews. When the Max Planck Institute moved to Munich in 1958 Heisenberg continued as its director. He held this post until he resigned in 1970.

He was also interested in the philosophy of physics and wrote Physics and Philosophy (1962) and Physics and Beyond (1971). [Adapted from MacTutor]

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