Werner Karl Heisenberg (December
5, 1901 – February 1, 1976) was a
celebrated German physicist and Nobel laureate, one of the founders of
quantum mechanics. He was born in Würzburg, Germany and died in Munich.
Heisenberg was the head of Nazi Germany's nuclear energy program, though
the nature of this project, and his work in this capacity has been
Heisenberg was born in Würzburg, Germany, the son of Dr. August
Heisenberg and Annie Wecklein. He attended school in Munich and studied
Physics at the University of Munich under, amongst others, Arnold
Sommerfeld and Wilhelm Wien. As a young man, Heisenberg was an
enthusiastic hiker and walker and greatly loved the outdoor life. In
1922 he studied physics at Göttingen where he was taught by Max Born and
David Hilbert. His Ph.D. was from the University of Munich following
which, he joined Max Born at the University of Göttingen. In 1924 he
began work on Quantum Mechanics with Niels Bohr, at the University of
Copenhagen. In 1926, was given a Lecturership in Theoretical Physics at
the University of Copenhagen. In 1927 he was given a chair in
theoretical physics at Leipzig. He won the Nobel Prize in 1932 for his
work on Quantum Mechanics. In 1937 he married Elizabeth Schumacher.
He elected to remain in Germany for the Second World War, despite
problems with the government. His war work is discussed in a separate
section below. In 1941 he was appointed Professor of Physics at the
University of Berlin. At the end of the Second World War he, and other
German physicists, were captured by allied troops as part of Operation
Alsos which targeted the capture of Axis nuclear scientists.
From the end of the war, Heisenberg toured various countries giving
lectures including England, the United States and Scotland before moving
to work in Munich at the Max Planck Institute for Physics.
He died on the 1st February 1976.
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. 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".
During the early days of the Nazi regime in Germany, Heisenberg was
harassed as a "White Jew" for teaching the theories of Albert Einstein
in contrast with 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
Work during the War
Nuclear fission was discovered in Germany in 1939. Heisenberg remained
in Germany during World War II, working under the Nazi regime. He
belonged to a team led by Professor 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
historical controversy. Heisenberg's work comprised various efforts to
create sustained fission reactions and possibly the creation of a
Plutonium breeder reactor at the cave in Hechingen. A rival Atomic bomb
project was led by Prof Kurt Diebner for Heerswaffenamt. In contrast,
Prof Kurt Diebner and Dr Paul Harteck worked on Uranium enrichment and a
Uranium based Atomic Bomb.
It is indicated (from the Farm Hall transcripts) that Heisenberg, even
in 1945, did not know how to calculate the critical mass of uranium for
an atomic bomb, and therefore Germany was not even close to producing a
nuclear weapon during the war (some historians have questioned the
veracity of the transcripts, though, as Heisenberg was likely aware he
was being monitored). Others point to the fact that Japanese physicist
Dr Yoshio Nishina did manage to correctly calculate Uranium's critical
mass and the co-operation between Nazi scientists and the Japanese
project. Nazi Germany shipped Uranium-oxide to Japan for enrichment
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. It is known that Reichs munitions minister Albert
Speer was Heisenburg's strongest ally in the Nazi leadership and that
Speer attempted to divert research funds away from nuclear weaponry.
Speer came into conflict with other Nazi leaders for this stance. For
this reason the SS ensured that funding was also given to rival nuclear
projects without Speer's knowledge.
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. Part of
this interpretation is based on the fact that Heisenberg did not
champion the project to Albert Speer in a way which got it any attention
or very much 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 (for Heisenberg),
he may have tried to hinder the German project; at worst, he may have
just been ignorant of how to create an atomic bomb (it has been wryly
commented that one can know either Heisenberg's morality in this
respect, or his competence, but not both).
In a 1997 book that tells the story of the sabotage of the Norsk Hydro
heavy water plant at Rjukan, Norway, a passage from a 1943 letter from
Heisenberg to Dutch scientist Hendrik B. G. Casimir indicates that at
the very least Heisenberg was a strong German nationalist:
History legitimizes Germany to rule Europe and later the
world. Only a nation that rules ruthlessly can maintain itself.
Democracy cannot develop sufficient energy to rule Europe. There
are, therefore, only two possibilities: Germany and Russia, and
perhaps a Europe under German leadership is the lesser evil.
(Blood and Water, Dan Kurzman, 1997, p. 35,
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. The context of this letter, however,
was the publication of the journalist Robert Jungk's Brighter Than a
Thousand Suns, which painted Heisenberg as having single-handedly and
purposely derailed the German project. Jungk printed an excerpt from a
personal letter from Heisenberg -- taken out of context -- to justify
the claim (in the full letter, Heisenberg was more demure about whether
he had taken a strong moral stance). Bohr was understandably flustered
by this apparent claim as it did not match with his own perception of
Heisenberg's war work at all.
Some historians of science take this as evidence that the previous
interpretation of Heisenberg's resistance was wrong, but others have
argued that Bohr profoundly misunderstood Heisenberg's intentions at the
1941 meeting, or an overly passionate reaction to Jungk's work. As a
piece of evidence, it has had little effect on overall historical
It is also thought that Italian scientist Gian Carlo Wick approached
Heisenburg 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 alarm about Nazi uranium research right up to war's end, but this
was part of Diebner's project and not Heisenberg's.
"He lies somewhere here" has been his epitaph.
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." Ref : Turbulence - Scientific American :