Heroes of Space: Werner Heisenberg

He won the Nobel Prize for his revelations in the field of physics

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Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle is now common knowledge among physicists.

Werner Heisenberg is one of the key innovators when it comes to quantum mechanics, a subsection of science that explains the behaviour of the smallest particles composing the entire universe. His groundbreaking work in a time of raging war changed the world of physics for the better.

Born on 5 December 1901 in Würzburg, Germany, Heisenberg began his journey into physics and mathematics in the early 1920s, where he studied the subjects extensively at universities such as Munich, Göttingen and Copenhagen. At these institutes he worked with some of the world’s finest minds, including Niels Bohr and Max Born.

Throughout the 1920s there was an influx of discoveries surrounding the field of quantum mechanics. Slowly, the nature and behaviour of small particles was becoming clearer, and Heisenberg played a big part in that. While working as Professor of theoretical physics at the University of Leipzig, Heisenberg was revolutionising the field. In 1925, Heisenberg had formulated quantum variables in terms of ‘matrices’ and created matrix mechanics, which in possible layman’s terms states particles obey non-commutative rules and can only be explained with unobservable quantities. Shortly after, in 1927, the famous ‘Heisenberg uncertainty principle’ was formed, stating that a particle’s momentum and position cannot be known to a high degree of certainty, and that it’s either one or the other.

These concepts are still difficult to wrap one’s head around now, so for Heisenberg to formulate such equations and explanations is testament to his incredible intelligence and originality. This is what eventually led him to win the 1932 Nobel Prize for Physics, which wasn’t actually announced until November 1933, “for the creation of quantum mechanics, the application of which has, inter alia, led to the discovery of the allotropic forms of hydrogen”.

The Solvay Conference in 1927, on quantum mechanics, featured some of the biggest names in science, including Werner Heisenberg.

Unfortunately, in the same year of his Nobel Prize victory, the Nazi Party was looming towards power in Germany. Their ideas and beliefs led to Heisenberg, among others, becoming the target of much defamation due to the fact his work on theoretical physics opposed the ‘Deutsche Physik’ (German Physics) movement.

Being the German nationalist he was, Heisenberg continued to serve his country during World War II by working on their nuclear weapon project. The Nazis developing a nuclear weapon is a scary thought, but the Germans believed that if anyone could do it, it would be Heisenberg. Obviously, in hindsight, the Nazis had neither the collective minds nor the resources to pull off a project like this, leaving them in the shadow of the Manhattan Project.

After the war had ended, Heisenberg eventually went back to continuing his fantastic work in quantum mechanics, and cosmic rays in particular. Coupled with this work, Heisenberg took on many chief positions in multiple institutes, as well as ‘spreading the good word’ of his field in the form of public talks across Europe. Sadly, Heisenberg passed away on the 1 February 1976 due to cancer, closing the curtain on the vital role he played in developing our current understanding of physics.

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