Blog post

Werner Heisenberg, quantum mechanics pioneer

Meet an icon of 20th-century science history

Matti Stöhr (TIB - German National Library of Science and Technology)
Britta Beutnagel (TIB)

Whether you associate his name with a very famous American TV series about the basics of chemistry (among other things) or not, German scientist Werner Heisenberg is a famous figure on a global scale. But who was this man exactly? The simple answer would be: a pioneer in the field of quantum mechanics who was honoured with the highest scientific award – the Nobel Prize.

In this blog post, we’ll take you on a journey through Heisenberg’s outstanding achievements.

The road to the Nobel Prize

Werner Heisenberg (5 December 1901 – 1 February 1976) was a German theoretical physicist, who established quantum mechanics and made important contributions to nuclear science. Heisenberg studied physics at the University of Munich and received his doctorate in 1923 under Arnold Johannes Wilhelm Sommerfeld. In 1924, he started to work for German physicist Max Born and became his assistant in Göttingen. Later on, Heisenberg worked at the institute of Niels Bohr in Copenhagen (Denmark) – a crucially formative time for him.

In 1925, the scientific field of ‘theoretical quantum mechanics’ was founded by Heisenberg, Born and Pascual Jordan. During this time, Heisenberg formulated his “uncertainty principle”, which is one of the fundamental statements of quantum mechanics. Two years later, in 1927, he was appointed professor at the University of Leipzig as well as head of the Theoretical Physics Institute in Leipzig.

This made him a key figure of theoretical physics, namely nuclear physics. In 1932 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics "For the creation of quantum mechanics, the application of which has, inter alia, led to the discovery of the allotropic forms of hydrogen", which he received a year later. In 1933, he was in very good company: Paul Dirac and Erwin Schrödinger received their Nobel Prizes the same year.

After Nobel: a lasting influence

When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany, Heisenberg openly defended the research results of Albert Einstein and Lise Meitner. For this reason, he was met with opposition from the National Socialists, who aimed to keep critics of the regime out of physics research. Nevertheless, he was able to continue his scientific career: in 1942 he became the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics and was appointed professor at the University of Berlin.

He acted as the director of the German uranium project up until 1945, which, among other things, was intended to make atomic energy usable for military purposes. This means that Heisenberg was actively involved in a project that aimed at building an atomic bomb. It was this time in his life that led him to deal intensively with the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics and contributed to his conviction that atomic energy should only be used for peaceful purposes.

Werner Heisenberg about “Cosmological Problems in Modern Atomic Physics” at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting of 1968
TIB - German National Library of Science and Technology. CC BY-NC-ND

Heisenberg became President of the German Research Council and the Academy of Sciences in Göttingen after WWII, one of the many prestigious titles to his name.

Heisenberg was also an appointed lecturer in several countries, such as England, Scotland and the USA. Later in life he applied himself to research into the “world formula”: the unified theory of matter that would encompass all the basic laws of nature.

Heisenberg is well known for his active commitment to a peaceful use of nuclear energy. In 1957 he signed the Göttingen “Declaration of the 18 Atomic Scientists“, which illustrated the dangers of atomic weapons and spoke out against equipping the Bundeswehr with them. Due to his engagement, he was awarded the “Great Federal Cross of Merit with Star and Shoulder Ribbon”.

Heisenberg repeatedly took part in the Lindau Nobel Meeting: an annual scientific conference that has been held in the town of Lindau (Lake Constance, Germany) since 1951. Until today its aim is to bring Nobel laureates and young scientists together to promote scientific exchange across generations, cultures and disciplines. Selected Lindau lectures by Heisenberg, such as this one from the 1971 meeting, can be found in Europeana.

Heisenberg’s presentation on “Physical and political considerations in the construction of large particle accelerators” at the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting, 1971
TIB - German National Library of Science and Technology. CC BY-NC-ND

The scientific legacy of Werner Heisenberg is owned and curated by the Archive of the Max Planck Society in Berlin-Dahlem. It is currently indexed and digitized by the University Library of Leipzig and the Institute of Physics of the University of Leipzig.

This blog is part of the Europeana XX. A Century of Change project which focuses on the 20th century and its social, political and economic changes.

Discover sources from and about Werner Heisenberg in Europeana or take a look at the chapter “Fission & Friction” of the exhibition “A century of technology”, where you can learn more about the development of nuclear power and its controversies. For more inspiring stories about Nobel Prize winners: try the Century of Change podcast series!