WERNER HEISENBERG (December 5th, 1901 – February 1st, 1976)
German theoretical physicist and philosopher.
- Developed the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.
- Winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1932.
- Co-founder of the European Council for Nuclear Research (CERN).
One of the most influential physicists of the 20th century, Werner Heisenberg was the founder of the uncertainty principle and one of the founders of quantum mechanics. He also played a controversial role as a leader of Nazi Germany’s nuclear program during World War II.
Werner Heisenberg was born on December 5, 1901, to Dr. August Heisenberg and Annie Wecklein. August was a professor of Greek philology and literature at the University of Munich. As a child, Heisenberg studied at the Maximilians Gymnasium in Munich. During high school, he had to leave to harvest crops in Bavaria because of the destruction left by World War I. After the war, he volunteered with the Democratic Socialists in Munich to overthrow the communist government that had taken over Bavaria. He became a New Boy Scout and was involved in other youth programs in attempts to better the German community.
In 1920, he attended the University of Munich to study math, soon transferring to physics. Professors there at the time included Arnold Sommerfeld, Wilhelm Wien, Alfred Pringsheim, and Arthur Rosenthal. In the winter of 1922, he traveled to continue studying physics in Göttingen because Max Born, James Franck, and David Hilbert were teaching there.
In 1923, Heisenberg earned his Ph.D. from the University of Munich. His advisor had to advocate for him because he almost failed due to neglect of lab work. He went again to Göttingen because he was offered the position of assistant to Max Born, and by 1924, was authorized to teach there. From there, he traveled to the University of Copenhagen to work with Rockefeller Grant and Niels Bohr, where he stayed until the summer of 1925.
In the summer of 1925, Heisenberg published his work on quantum mechanics. He attempted to explain the energy movements of electrons within atoms, and though his work was a breakthrough; it was soon overshadowed by the clearer wave equation discovered by Erwin Schrödinger. However, the two systems were identical, as proved by Schrödinger, and only differed in their visual representations. Regardless, he was only 23 at the time, and his work laid the foundation for the discovery of allotropic forms of hydrogen.
In 1926, Heisenberg was appointed Lecturer in Theoretical Physics under Niels Bohr at the University of Copenhagen. He went back to Göttingen for the summer, and by 1927, he had become a professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Leipzig. He was the youngest professor in Germany. In 1929, Heisenberg toured the U.S., Japan, and India giving lectures. In 1932, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his theory of quantum mechanics.
During the 1930s, many scientists left Germany because of Hitler, though Heisenberg remained in an attempt to preserve traditions. Soon, Hitler controlled the universities, and the government, recognizing Heisenberg’s intelligence as important, named him director of the German bomb project. Heisenberg had no choice but to work on it, because the Nazis perceived theoretical physics as Jewish, and his life was in danger. He spent five years on the bomb project.
In 1937, Heisenberg married Elisabeth Schumacher. Together they had seven children. In 1941, Heisenberg became the professor of physics at the University of Berlin, as well as attaining the position of director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics. Heisenberg was taken prisoner by American soldiers near the end of World War II and shipped to England for six months. By 1946, he had returned to Göttingen and reorganized the Institute for Physics there with his colleagues.
In 1948, Heisenberg went back to England, this time to Cambridge, to lecture there, and by 1950 was invited to do the same in the U.S. In 1955 he traveled to Scotland to lecture at the University of St. Andrews, giving the annual Gifford Lectures, which were later published. In 1955, as the Director of the Institute of Physics, he moved the Institute to Munich, where it was renamed the Max Planck Institute for Physics and Astrophysics. There, he was appointed professor of physics in 1958. During this time, he formulated his principle of uncertainty, a theory in quantum physics.
He held various administrative positions and continued to lecture around the world, representing Germany at international events. In 1970, Heisenberg retired. In the summer of 1972, he toured the U.S. once more as a lecturer. He died of gallbladder and kidney cancer on February 1, 1976, at the age of 74. He was survived by his wife and seven children.