Werner Heisenberg: biography of this German theoretical physicist

Werner Heisenberg is one of the most important figures in physics of the twentieth century. Its principle of uncertainty as well as its discoveries in quantum and nuclear theory have shaped this science during the last century and today.

Born at the beginning of the 20th century, his life was marked by a remarkable boom thanks to his supposed theorists but also to the misfortune of having lived in a Germany which would soon be taken by the Nazis who would have dark plans for his experiments.

Heisenberg’s life could have been that of someone who had built one of the deadliest weapons in history, but luckily this scientist had a morality that prevented him from materializing it. Let’s look at his story through this biography of Werner Heisenberg.

    Brief biography of Werner Heisenberg

    Werner Karl Heisenberg was born on December 5, 1901 in Würzburg, Germany. Son of Annie and August Heisenberg, professor of humanities specializing in Byzantine history.

    From an early age, Heisenberg turned to mathematics, and to a lesser extent to physics.

    Academic career

    In 1920 he tried to start his doctorate in pure mathematics with Ferdinand von Lindemann as his tutor, but he rejected it as a student because the professor was about to retire. Lindemann himself recommended that he do his doctoral studies with the physicist Arnold Sommerfeld as his supervisor, who readily accepted him.

    During his doctoral thesis, Heisenberg is partnered with Wolfgang Pauli, with whom he will work closely in the development of quantum mechanics.

    In his first year he mainly took math classes with the intention of working in number theory whenever he had the chance, but over time he began to take an interest in number theory. theoretical physics. Werner Heisenberg tries to work on Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and his colleague Pauli advises him to devote himself to atomic theory in which there were still many divergences between theory and experimental proofs.

    During his studies at the University of Munich, he opted for physics, without giving up his interest in pure mathematics.. At that time, physics was essentially an experimental science. Arnold Sommerfeld recognized his extraordinary abilities for mathematical physics, but also showed some opposition to Heisenberg’s doctorate due to his great lack of experience in experimental physics. However, in the end, Werner Heisenberg received his doctorate in 1923, presenting an article on fluid turbulence.

    From Munich, Heisenberg went to the University of Göttingen, where he taught Max Born and, in 1924 he moved to the Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen under Niels Bohr. There Heisenberg will meet other important physicists such as Albert Einstein, and thus begin his most productive period, culminating in the creation of matrix mechanics. This success will be recognized by winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1932.

    In 1927 he became a professor at the University of Leipzig, teaching theoretical physics.

      Matrix mechanics and uncertainty principle

      In 1925, Werner Heisenberg developed quantum matrix mechanics. This theory is distinguished by its great pragmatism because, instead of focusing on the evolution of physical systems from start to finish, it focuses its efforts on obtaining information knowing the initial and final state of the system, without worry about knowing precisely what happened. to the medium.

      Heisenberg discusses the idea of ​​grouping information in the form of double entry boxes, something Max Born drew attention to because it had been studied by mathematicians before, which was no different from matrix theory. Likewise, one of the most striking results is that the multiplication of matrices was not commutative, so associations of physical quantities with matrices should reflect this mathematical fact. Accordingly, Heisenberg enunciates the principle of indeterminacy.

      The so-called uncertainty or indeterminacy principle, also called Heisenberg’s principle, states that it is not possible to know, with arbitrary precision and when the mass is constant, the position and the moment of a particle. It follows that the product of the uncertainties of the two quantities must always be greater than that of Planck’s constant.

      The statement of the uncertainty principle caused much agitation among the physicists of the time, because it assumed the definitive disappearance of classical certainty in physics and the introduction of an indeterminism which affected the foundations of matter and the material universe. This principle means the practical impossibility of making perfect measurements because the mere presence of an observer disturbs the values ​​of the other particles considered and influences the measurement he takes.

      Werner Heisenberg also predicted, thanks to the principles of quantum mechanics, the double spectrum of the hydrogen atom and was able to explain, also, that of the helium atom. His work on nuclear theory also allowed him to predict that the hydrogen molecule could exist in two states., one as orthohydrogen, in which the nuclei of its two atoms rotate in the same direction, and another as parahydrogen, in which their nuclei rotate in opposite directions.

        World War II

        In 1935 he tried to replace Sommerfeld by retiring from teaching in Munich. With the rise of the Nazis, however, Heisenberg’s wishes are truncated.

        The Nazi Party wanted to eliminate all “Judaizing” physical theory, and in this curious category belonged quantum mechanics and relativity, two theories taught by Heisenberg in his courses and whose referents were the Jews Max Born and Albert Einsen. As a result, the Nazis prevented Heisenberg’s appointment.

        However, his fate would change when, in 1938, the Nazis “kindly” invited him to lead his attempt to manufacture an atomic weapon. For this reason, between 1942 and 1945, Werner Heisenberg succeeded in directing the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics in Berlin. During World War II, he worked with Otto Hahn, one of the discoverers of nuclear fission, collaborating on the manufacture of a nuclear reactor.

        For many years there was doubt as to whether this project failed because its members simply did not succeed or because Heisenberg and his collaborators expressly sabotaged it by suspecting what Adolf Hitler would have. could do with an atomic bomb.

        In September 1941, Heisenberg traveled to Denmark to visit Niels Bohr. In an act which according to the Nazis could only be described as treason and which put him in serious danger, Heisenberg told Bohr about the German atomic bomb project and even drew a picture of a reactor..

        Heisenberg knew that Bohr had contacts outside unoccupied Europe and proposed a joint effort by Axis and Allied scientists to delay nuclear research until the end of the war. In June 1942, another German scientist, J. Hans D. Jensen, told Bohr that German scientists were not working on a nuclear bomb, but only on a reactor.

        Heisenberg and other German scientists have always said that, for moral reasons, they did not attempt to build the Nazi atomic bomb., in addition to which the circumstances did not arise to do so. These statements were denounced by scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, claiming that Heisenberg did not actually make the German atomic bomb to be wrong in his calculations of the amount of Urani-235 needed and the critical mass to sustain. the reaction.

          Heisenberg facing new nuclear technologies

          At the end of the war in Europe and as part of Operation Epsilon, Heisenberg along with other scientists, including Otto Hahn, Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker and Max von Laue, were arrested and interned at a farm called Farm Hall. in England. . This prison house had hidden microphones which recorded all the conversations of the prisoners.

          Being in this house on August 6 at six in the afternoon, Heisenberg and fellow inmates overheard BBC report on Hiroshima atomic bomb. The following night, Werner Heisenberg gave a lecture to his colleagues, as a report, which included an expensive approximately correct critical mass and required uranium 235, in addition to the design features of the pump.

          This speech is seen as proof that Heisenberg really could have made these calculations when he worked for Nazi Germany, but he didn’t want to, which strengthens the argument that he didn’t really build the bomb. for moral objections. .

          Perhaps the phrase that best sums up his position on the end use that has been given to atomic theory is:

          “Ideas are not responsible for what men do with them.”

            Last years

            After the war finally ended, Heisenberg was eventually released and allowed to continue working in physics in his native Germany. In 1946, he was appointed director of the Max Planck Institute, then organized and directed the Institute of Physics and Astrophysics in Göttingen., which was moved in 1958 to Munich.

            In this city, Heisenberg focused on research on the theory of elementary particles, the structure of the atomic nucleus, the hydrodynamics of turbulence, cosmic rays and ferromagnetism.

            In 1970 he received the Sigmund Freud Prize for academic prose. He died a few years later, on February 1, 1976 in Munich, at the age of 74.

            Bibliographical references

            • Powers, Thomas (1993). The Heisenberg War: The Secret History of the German Bomb. New York: Knopf. ISBN 0394514114.
            • Heisenberg, Werner (1983). Encounters with Einstein: and Other Essays on People, Places, and Particles. Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691024332.
            • Fernández, Tomás and Tamaro, Elena. “Biography of Werner Heisenberg.” In Biographies and Lives. The online biographical encyclopedia [Internet]. Barcelona, ​​Spain, 2004.

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