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Heisenberg’s Quantum Leap

This article was written for and published by Globalia Magazine. It appeared in issue No.10 of July 2011.
Werner Heisenberg giving the lecture on Natural Law and the Structure of Matter delivered on the hill of pynx, on the 3rd of june 1964

Werner Heisenberg giving the lecture on Natural Law and the Structure of Matter delivered on the hill of pynx, on the 3rd of june 1964
Heisenberg’s most penetrating insight is still largely unknown

When we turn to Werner Heisenberg (December 1901 – 1 February 1976) we quickly realise that we have to consider, as it were, three different men: the mathematical physicist, the essayist and the man. The first who springs to mind is the brilliant theoretical physicist and mathematician who was at the forefront of the extraordinary revolution in human thinking known as quantum mechanics, and who, with great intellectual honesty, along with Nils Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli and a considerable number of others, held fast during the intellectual turmoil unleashed until they were able to formulate new insights with clarity. That alone will be enough for him to be remembered by history as one of the major thinkers of all time. Contrary to biographies of Einstein, which concentrate on his personal genius and scientific achievements, the key to understanding Heisenberg is the great brotherhood of science that transcended borders and ideologies before the Second World War, and which was arguably shattered beyond repair by those events.

It is hard for the modern student of science to understand this disastrous turn of events. Scientists and thinkers across the globe had been working excitedly and hopefully together towards a new understanding, but this remarkably pure and disinterested passion was transmuted by the war into a fragmented nationalistic jigsaw puzzle whose pieces, after the war, were largely beholden to commerce, finance, industry and the military-industrial complex. Where once scientists had struggled together to understand their discoveries, we have a generation whose eye is on the patent, so much so that geneticist Richard Lewontin said: “No prominent molecular biologist of my acquaintance is without a financial stake in the biotechnology business.”1

As with many figures in the heavily mathematical sciences, his greatest work was done at a time of comparative youth in his 20’s. Heisenberg was born in 1901, just one year after Max Planck went for a walk with his son in a park in Berlin and admitted that he suspected that he had made the most important discovery since Newton, adding that he was not pleased at the thought. This was of course his discovery of the quantum of energy which would turn classical physics upside-down, leaving physicists in disarray for more than two decades until the various formulations of quantum mechanics from Bohr and Heisenberg et al dealt fully with this uncomfortable and seemingly paradoxical new world. Any modern equivalent of Planck would have been over the moon with excitement at the thought of such a discovery and the benefits he might reap from it.

Werner Heisenberg

Werner Heisenberg

It is hard for us to imagine today the upset caused by these matters, particularly as we have been heavily influenced by the ‘so-what?’ attitude of logical positivism that accepts whatever is regarded as a fact without demure or surprise, whereas, in the words of Nils Bohr, “… those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.”2 Indeed, we have still not understood quantum theory even though it is now over a century since its birth. That said, regarding quantum theory as a ‘fact’, scientists have gone on to spin ever more elaborate and exotic theories of everything, ignoring Heisenberg’s considered opinion that sub-atomic physics had reached its goal and thus, in a sense, was at an end, adding optimistically: “The fact that in science the goal can be reached after a finite number of steps, arouses hope that from hence a new and more ample kind of thinking might originate, though in our time it can be more readily anticipated than described.”3 Subsequent scientific thought has elements that could be seen as striving towards the ‘new and more ample kind of thinking’ that Heisenberg anticipated, although much of it is a dogged effort not to engage in that challenge but to perpetuate the determinism and positivism of which Bohr, Heisenberg, Pauli and Schrödinger were so sceptical.

The Solvay Conference 1927

The Solvay Conference 1927. Those present include: Auguste Piccard, Émile Henriot, Paul Ehrenfest, Édouard Herzen, Théophile de Donder, Erwin Schrödinger, Jules-Émile Verschaffelt, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, Ralph Howard Fowler, Léon Brillouin, Peter Debye, Martin Knudsen, William Lawrence Bragg, Hendrik Anthony Kramers, Paul Dirac, Arthur Compton, Louis de Broglie, Max Born, Niels Bohr, Irving Langmuir, Max Planck, Marie Curie, Hendrik Lorentz, Albert Einstein, Paul Langevin, Charles Eugène Guye, Charles Thomson Rees Wilson, Owen Willans Richardson

The second aspect of Heisenberg that is worth our study is as an extremely perceptive essayist on the history of science and its philosophy. He brings to these writings the same integrity and intellectual tenacity which he brought to the quantum discoveries and their interpretation, but here he is working to discover their meanings, and usually in the language of the educated layman rather than in the abstruse language, mathematics and jargon of modern science. Moreover he ranges very widely, from his careful study of Goethe and his science which he does not lightly dismiss, to his reflections on Democritus and the early origins of atomism among the Greeks, his descriptions of encounters and discussions with Einstein – along with his clear respect for his achievement and his standing, he along with Nils Bohr came to regard Einstein as the last of the classical determinists rather than the first of the new physicists – his articulation of the meanings of the new sub-atomic science, and his meditation on the relations between the seemingly ever more abstract science of his time and the art that was contemporary with it.

The third aspect, which may outweigh the other two, considerable though they are, is Heisenberg the man. In his biography, Heisenberg is a figure of huge controversy still capable of igniting passionate love and hate. In this he shares much with other Germans of his generation who, like him, chose to live out the war in Germany although having little love for the Nazis, who for their part returned their antipathy amply. Nevertheless, as with Heidegger, Jünger, Furtwängler and von Karajan, there is a heated division between lovers and detractors when the subject of Heisenberg’s biography arises.

An excellent biographical work, Thomas Power’s Heisenberg’s War, apart from its clear history of the quantum discoveries, tells the story of Heisenberg’s heading up the German atomic bomb project, a project which he arguably sank. There is some comedy in the account of Albert Speer and the Wehrmacht generals’ seminar with Heisenberg, from which they hoped to learn whether an atom bomb was even possible, and his lecturing them on the abstruse elements of quantum physics until impatiently interrupted by Speer who simply wanted to know what budget Heisenberg wanted to investigate the matter as a top priority research project in the war effort. It was Heisenberg’s request for the derisory sum of a few tens of thousands of Deutschmarks, at a time when unknown to the Germans the Manhattan Project was spending previously unheard of billions of dollars, that effectively sank the project.

His biography has moments of serious drama which have led to a play, Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, about his wartime journey to Denmark to meet with Nils Bohr for reasons that are hotly disputed to this day and which the play explores. Heisenberg’s version, that he had gone in order to get the message to the Allies that the Germans were not working on a nuclear weapon, and thus they did not need to, is of course contested. If he was truthful about this episode it was an act of extraordinary courage undertaken under the watchful and suspicious eyes of the Gestapo. Whatever the intent, Bohr understood exactly the opposite, that Heisenberg knew perfectly well how to make an atom bomb and was close to doing so, and he quickly got a message to the Allies to that effect thus spurring on the work on the bomb. At another point an assassin was even sent to murder Heisenberg in Switzerland if, during a lecture, he even hinted that the Germans had the knowledge wherewith to build an atomic bomb.

Immediately after the German defeat, Heisenberg and a host of other scientists were rounded up and kept in Farm Hall, a secure MI6 house in England, until the atom bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an event they registered with some considerable surprise and not a little moral condemnation. The entire house was wired to monitor their conversations. Much of the discussion naturally enough centres around their attempt to grapple with the reasons for the Americans’ success and their own failure, among which, along with technical, scientific and logistical reasons, was some reluctance on the German scientists’ part to produce such a weapon. Karl Wirtz was overheard to say, “I think it characteristic that the Germans made the discovery and didn’t use it, whereas the Americans have used it. I must say I didn’t think the Americans would dare to use it.”

It is in the context of Heisenberg the man, that we examine what we see as one of the most significant contributions of Heisenberg although the least well known. This is in an essay written about a visit along with Wolfgang Pauli to Copenhagen for a re-union with Nils Bohr in 1953. After some discussion with Bohr on the mind-stopping nature of the quantum discoveries and the superficiality of groups such as the logical positivists who accepted quantum physics but were completely unmoved and unchallenged by it, Heisenberg and Pauli went for a walk along the Langelinie towards Copenhagen’s famous mermaid statue. Heisenberg writes:

Wolfgang asked me quite unexpectedly:

“Do you believe in a personal God? I know, of course, how difficult it is to attach a clear meaning to this question, but you can probably appreciate its general purport.”

“May I rephrase your question?” I asked. “I myself should prefer the following formulation: Can you, or anyone else, reach the central order of things or events, whose existence seems beyond doubt, as directly as you can reach the soul of another human being? I am using the term ‘soul’ quite deliberately so as not to be misunderstood. If you put your question like that, I would say yes. And because my own experiences do not matter so much, I might go on to remind you of Pascal’s famous text, the one he kept sewn in his jacket. It was headed ‘Fire’ and began with the words: ‘God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – not of the philosophers and sages.’”

“In other words, you think that you can become aware of the central order with the same intensity as of the soul of another person?”

“Perhaps.”

“Why did you use the word ‘soul’ and not simply speak of another person?”

“Precisely because the word ‘soul’ refers to the central order, to the inner core of a being whose outer manifestations may be highly diverse and pass our understanding.”4

We have seen Europe crippled for more than a millennium by the dead hand of the theological god ruling through the corrupt hierarchy of an imperial church. Then Europe was riven in a centuries-long religious civil war over differences of theology. That was followed by the inevitable consequence of disillusionment with religion and then materialism and nihilism in the form of financier and state capitalisms whose wars were even more devastating than those of the religions.

Faced with this and the devastating toll of human life and destruction in these wars and perhaps sensing the incipient totalitarianism of the age then emerging, Heisenberg does not retreat into the old forms of organised religion and its theological god. Nor does he take to philosophy, in spite of his deep erudition and grounding in Plato, Kant and the philosophers, in the way that Einstein did with his abstruse Spinozan god who in the end is no god. Nor was he so overwhelmed by the strangeness of the quantum discoveries to become the first exponent of what is now the ‘gee-whizz’ school of cosmology and its intriguing but entirely speculative world of multiverses and so on. Rather he held to the possibility of knowing God directly without the mediation of either the moribund organised religion of the church or the élite intellectuality of philosophy. There is a greatness in this simple insight, which Heisenberg takes care to record in his essay, that is easily overlooked by those seeking greatness in complexity, for the greatness of simplicity is one decisive step beyond, a quantum leap, and Heisenberg took that step thus uniting the three figures with whom we started.

Martin Heidegger

Martin Heidegger

In this he shares something with his friend, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, who in his only newspaper interview said, when reflecting on the predicament with which the human race is confronted, “Philosophy will not be able to bring about a direct change of the present state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all merely human meditations and endeavours. Only a god can still save us.”5

1 R. C. Lewontin, The Doctrine of DNA: biology as ideology, Pelican, 1991.

2 Werner Heisenberg, ‘Positivism, Metaphysics, and Religion’, Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations by Werner Heisenberg. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1971.

3 p. 135 ‘Thoughts on the Artist’s Journey into the Interior,’ from Encounters with Einstein, Princeton Science Library, Princeton University Press, 1983.

4 Werner Heisenberg, ‘Positivism, Metaphysics, and Religion’, Physics and Beyond: Encounters and Conversations by Werner Heisenberg. Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc., 1971.

5 Der Spiegel Interview with Martin Heidegger (1966). (Source: Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten, Der Spiegel, 31 May 1976, pp. 193-219. The interview with Rudolf Augstein and Georg Wolff took place on 23 September 1966.)

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