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Werner Heisenberg

Contributor(s): Amy Kucharik

Werner Heisenberg (1901 - 1976), one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century, is best known for his contributions to quantum mechanics , specifically for the uncertainty principle in quantum theory .

Heisenberg was born in the German state of Bavaria in 1901. A precocious student, Heisenberg studied infinitesimal calculus and Einstein's theory of relativity after he mastered the normal course of study at the Maximilians-Gymnasium in Munich. He graduated at the top of his class in September 1920 and entered the University of Munich later that year.

During his graduate education, Heisenberg studied in Munich, Göttingen, and Copenhagen with Max Born , Niels Bohr and Arnold Sommerfeld , three of of the world's leading theoretical atomic physicists. Heisenberg went on to receive his PhD in three years (a record) and, after being appointed to teach theoretical physics in Leipzig, became Germany's youngest full professor at the age of 26.

In 1925, Werner Heisenberg began, in concert with other theoretical physicists, to look for an alternative to quantum theory as proposed by Bohr, Sommerfeld and colleagues. In 1927, Heisenberg proposed that precise, simultaneous measurement of two complementary values - such as the position and momentum of a subatomic particle - is impossible. Contrary to the principles of classical physics, their simultaneous measurement is inescapably flawed; the more precisely one value is measured, the more flawed the measurement of the other value will be. This theory became known as the uncertainty principle, which prompted Albert Einstein's famous comment, "God does not play dice."

During the 1930s, Heisenberg and his graduate students at the University of Leipzig made significant contributions to quantum theory, the theoretical basis of modern physics that explains the nature and behavior of matter and energy on the atomic and subatomic level. These include:

  • the structure of molecule s
  • the first proton - neutron model of the nucleus
  • the scattering of radiation by nuclei
  • accounts of ferromagnetism and the so-called "Hall effect"
  • solid-state crystals.

In 1933, Heisenberg was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Heisenberg's legacy is complicated by his role as leader of Nazi Germany's nuclear fission research during World War II. After the war, he became the director of the Max Plank Institute for Physics and Astrophysics, where he spent the remainder of his career working towards a unified quantum theory of elementary particles.

This was last updated in August 2006

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