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Werner Heisenberg

Werner Heisenberg Photo

Werner Heisenberg was a German physicist and philosopher credited with contributions to and shaping up quantum mechanics. Heisenberg was born on December 5, 1901 in Wurzburg, Germany to Dr. Kaspar Ernst August Heisenberg, a professor of the Middle and Modern Greek languages at the University of Munich. Heisenberg acquired his primary education in Wurzburg and with his father’s appointment as professor at the University of Munich, in 1909 the family moved to Munich. In Munich, Heisenberg enrolled in Elisabethenschule – a school in Hofheim – for a year before entering the Maximilians Gymnasium in Munich – another progressive school of the time.

While at the Maximilian Gymnasium, Heisenberg took to independent studies in subjects such as mathematics, physics, and religion and displayed great potential in mathematics and calculus. He actively volunteered with various school-based communities and worked on dairy farms.  Between 1920 and 1923, Heisenberg studied physics and mathematics at Munich and Göttingen and attended several talks and lectures from prolific teachers such as Arnold Sommerfeld, Wilhelm Wien at Munich and Max Born, James Franck and David Hilbert at Göttingen.

Heisenberg received his doctorate in 1923 and because of Sommerfeld’s keen interest in Heisenberg’s studies and encouragement to study atomic physics; he introduced Heisenberg to Niels Bohr and his work on quantum physics. In June 1922, Heisenberg accompanied Sommerfeld to attend lectures by Niels Bohr in Göttingen. Thus far, Heisenberg’s interest in atomic physics kept alluring him and he further pursued a doctoral thesis in turbulence and hydrodynamics, again on Sommerfeld’s insistence.

After various stints as an assistant and studying under various lecturers in mathematics and physics, Heisenberg served as lecturer at University of Göttingen from 1924 to 1927 and then on between 1924 and 1925, with the aid of an International Education Board Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, Heisenberg went to do research with Niels Bohr, director of the Institute of Theoretical Physics at the University of Copenhagen. Upon culmination of his fellowship, Heisenberg returned to Göttingen and with the help of Max Born and Pascual Jordan developed a “matrix mechanics” which was a formulation of quantum mechanics. This development served as the first comprehensive definition of quantum mechanics and as an extension of the Bohr model of atoms.

In 1926, Heisenberg began his appointment as a university lecturer and assistant to Bohr in Copenhagen. It was during this time, within a year – in 1927 to be precise, that Heisenberg developed his famous uncertainty principle while expanding on the mathematical foundations of quantum mechanics. The uncertainty principle states that the values of certain pairs of variables cannot both be known with complete precision, not so much due to the limitations of the researcher’s ability to measure them, but rather due to the very nature of the system itself. Heisenberg first described his findings in a letter addressed to Wolfgang Ernst Pauli – an American theoretical physicist who was also a fellow student from Heisenberg’s study time under Sommerfeld.

As Heisenberg’s career gained momentum, his findings became increasingly profound and his standing in the world of theoretical physics all the more credible. In 1927, Heisenberg confirmed appointment as professor of theoretical physics and head of the department of physics at University of Leipzig. During his tenure at the University of Leipzig, Heisenberg mentored and taught several doctoral students and research associates who reflected greatly on his teachings and attained many distinguished careers in the field of theoretical physics. In 1929, both Heisenberg and Pauli came together to submit the first of their two papers aimed at cementing the foundation of relativistic quantum field theory. That same year, Heisenberg went on a tour to deliver a lecture series on quantum mechanics around China, Japan, India, and the United States. In the year 1932, Werner Heisenberg was honored with the Nobel Prize in physics.

Apart from his accomplishments in quantum mechanics, Heisenberg also served a key role as one of the principal scientists to lead research and development of the nuclear energy project in Germany. After the discovery of nuclear fission in 1939, Heisenberg became one of the leading figures of the German-based group “Uranium Club”, and traveled to Copenhagen in 1941 to lecture and discuss nuclear research and theoretical physics with Niels Bohr.


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