Werner Heisenberg Biography

German Physicist Known for Uncertainty Principle

Werner Karl Heisenberg’s brief bio. He laid the foundations of Quantum Mechanics, and formulated the “Uncertainty Principle” and “Matrix Mechanics.”

Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976) was a German physicist and philosopher. He is best known for his discovery of the “Uncertainty Principle” (1927). He laid the foundations for a new branch of physics known as Quantum mechanics and was awarded the 1932 Nobel Prize for his work.

He was married to Elisabeth Schumacher, with seven children, and died of cancer on February 1, 1976.

Early Life

Werner Karl Heisenberg was born on December 5, 1901, in Wurzburg, Germany. He was the younger of two sons born to Dr August Heisenberg, a scholar of classical languages, and his wife Annie Wecklein. The family moved to Munich in 1910. Heisenberg attended the Maximilian Gymnasium. He was an excellent all-round student, with highest marks in mathematics, physics and religion.

Aged 19, he enrolled at the University of Munich to study physics under the renowned physicist Arnold Sommerfeld. Here, he met his lifelong friend and colleague, Wolfgang Pauli. After completing their doctoral dissertations, he and Pauli went to the University of Gottingen, where they studied under the quantum theorist Max Born.

Bohr’s Atomic Model

In the autumn of 1924, Heisenberg went to the University of Copenhagen to study under Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist famous for his work on the atom and who had been at the forefront of developments in quantum theory.

The Bohr model needed improvement. Although it contained elements of quantum theory, it still ignored the wave character of the electron. Bohr’s model also worked only for single-electron hydrogen atoms. Heisenberg decided to try and develop new atomic model, more fundamentally based on quantum theory, that worked for all atoms.

Matrix Mechanics

From here, Heisenberg articulated the problem facing scientists in the early 20th century — that electrons and other subatomic particles did not possess a physical form, that sometimes they behaved like particles and at other times, like a wave. He resolved his quandary by coming up with “Matrix Mechanics,” which he developed in 1926, a year prior “Uncertainty Principle.”

The devise seemed to work, but the math was still abstract as it involved arrays of numbers (matrix) or matrices. While his colleagues were impressed with the effectiveness of matrix mechanics as a means of predicting subatomic behavior, they still found the mathematical formulation insufficient.

The Uncertainty Principle

It was while Heisenberg was studying the “transformation theory” of Dirac and Jordan that his uncertainty principle came about. He found out that whenever he tried to measure the position and velocity of a particle at the same time, the results were uncertain. His “Uncertainty Principle” (or indeterminancy principle) holds that it is impossible to precisely measure both the velocity and position of an object at one time.

Later years

Heisenberg’s involvement with the German atomic bomb project and political undertones during the Second World War is not the scope of this piece.

For the last years of his life Heisenberg spent time on new ideas, while also politically active in international science. He became professor at Leipzig and later in Berlin. He was head of the German delegation to the European Council for Nuclear Research when it was establishing CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, director of the Max Planck Institute, and president of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

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