Werner Heisenberg

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Heisenberg, Werner

Heisenberg, Werner (vĕrˈnər hīˈzənbĕrk), 1901–76, German physicist. One of the founders of the quantum theory, he is best known for his uncertainty principle, or indeterminacy principle, which states that it is impossible to determine with arbitrarily high accuracy both the position and momentum (essentially velocity) of a subatomic particle like the electron. The effect of this principle is to convert the laws of physics into statements about relative probabilities instead of absolute certainties. In 1926, Heisenberg developed a form of the quantum theory known as matrix mechanics, which was quickly shown to be fully equivalent to Erwin Schrödinger's wave mechanics. His 1932 Nobel Prize in Physics cited not only his work on quantum theory but also work in nuclear physics in which he predicted the subsequently verified existence of two allotropic forms of molecular hydrogen, differing in their values of nuclear spin.

Heisenberg was a student of Arnold Sommerfeld, an assistant to Max Born, and later a close associate of Niels Bohr. He taught at the universities of Leipzig (1927–41) and Berlin (1942–45). During World War II he headed German efforts in nuclear fission research, which failed to develop a nuclear reactor or atomic bomb. Although he claimed after the war to have had qualms about building nuclear weapons, it seems likely that the reasons Germany failed to do so were technical and logistical.

In 1958 he became director of the Max Planck Institute for Physics and Astrophysics, now located in Munich. His later work concerned the so-called S-matrix approach to nuclear forces and the possibility that space and time are quantized, or granular, in structure. His Physics and Philosophy (1962) and Physics and Beyond (1971) remain popular accounts of the revolutions in modern physics.


See D. C. Cassidy, Uncertainty: The Life and Science of Werner Heisenberg (1993); R. P. Brennan, Heisenberg Probably Slept Here: The Lives, Times and Ideas of the Great Physicists of the 20th Century (1996).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Heisenberg, Werner


Born Dec. 5, 1901, in Würzburg. German physicist; one of the creators of quantum mechanics.

In 1923, Heisenberg graduated from the University of Munich, where he attended the lectures of A. Sommerfeld. From 1923 to 1927 he was an assistant to M. Born, and from 1927 to 1941 he was a professor at the universities of Berlin and Leipzig. Since 1941 he has been a professor at and director of the Max Planck Institute for Physics first in Berlin, then in Göttingen, and since 1955 in Munich.

In 1925, together with M. Born, Heisenberg developed the so-called matrix mechanics, the first variant of quantum mechanics, making it possible to calculate the intensities of the spectral lines emitted by the simplest quantum system, the linear oscillator. He performed the quantum-mechanical calculation of the helium atom, showing the possibility of its existence in two different states. In 1927 he formulated the uncertainty relation, which expresses the connection between the momentum and coordinates of a microparticle caused by its corpuscular-wave nature. Heisenberg received a Nobel Prize in 1933 for his work in quantum mechanics. He worked out (independently of and simultaneously with Ia. I. Frenkel’) the theory of the spontaneous magnetization of ferromagnets and the exchange interaction that orients the elementary magnets during the magnetization of a substance. He is the author of works on the structure of the atomic nucleus, in which he revealed the exchange character of the interaction of nucleons in the nucleus as well as of works on relativistic quantum mechanics and the unified field theory, a nonlinear theory that poses the problem of creating a unified theory of all existing physical fields.


“Über quantentheoretische Umdeutung kinematischer und mechanischer Beziehungen.” Zeitschrift für Physik, 1925, vol. 33, issue 12.
“Mehrkörperproblem und Resonanz in der Quantenmechanik.” Zeitschrift für Physik, 1926, vol. 38, issues 6-7 and vol. 41, issues 4-5.
“Über den anschaulichen Inhalt der quantentheoritschen Kinematik und Mechanik.” Zeitschrift für Physik, 1927, vol. 43, issues 3-4.
“Zur Theorie des Ferromagnetismus.” Zeitschrift für Physik, 1927, vol. 49, issues 9-10.
In Russian translation:
Fizicheskie printsipy kvantovoi teorii. Moscow-Leningrad, 1932.
Fizika atomnogo iadra. Moscow-Leningrad, 1947.
Teoriia atomnogo iadra. Moscow, 1953.
Filosofskie problemy sovremennoi atomnoi fiziki. Moscow, 1953.
Vvedenie v edinuiu polevuiu teoriiu elementarnykh chastits. Moscow, 1968.


Hörz, H. Werner Heisenberg und die Philosophie. Berlin, 1966.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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