The moment of uncertainty

An interview of Robert Crease, historian and philosopher of science at Stony Brook University, New York, on the cultural impact of Heisenberg’s principle on homunculus: Image

What led Heisenberg to formulate the uncertainty principle? Was it something that fell out of the formalism in mathematical terms?

That’s a rather dramatic story. The uncertainty principle emerged in exchange of letters between Heisenberg and Pauli, and fell out of the work that Heisenberg had done on quantum theory the previous year, called matrix mechanics. In autumn 1926, he and Pauli were corresponding about how to understand its implications. Heisenberg insisted that the only way to understand it involved junking classical concepts such as position and momentum in the quantum world. In February 1927 he visited Niels Bohr in Copenhagen. Bohr usually helped Heisenberg to think, but this time the visit didn’t have the usual effect. They grew frustrated, and Bohr abandoned Heisenberg to go skiing. One night, walking by himself in the park behind Bohr’s institute, Heisenberg had an insight. He wrote to Pauli: “One will always find that all thought experiments have this property: when a quantity p is pinned down to within an accuracy characterized by the average error p, then… q can only be given at the same time to within an accuracy characterized by the average error q1 ≈ h/p1.” That’s the uncertainty principle. But like many equations, including E = mc2 and Maxwell’s equations, its first appearance is not in its now-famous form. Anyway, Heisenberg sent off a paper on his idea that was published in May.

How did Heisenberg interpret it in physical terms?

He didn’t, really; at the time he kept claiming that the uncertainty principle couldn’t be interpreted in physical terms, and simply reflected the fact that the subatomic world could not be visualized. Newtonian mechanics is visualizable: each thing in it occupies a particular place at a particular time. Heisenberg thought the attempt to construct a visualizable solution for quantum mechanics might lead to trouble, and so he advised paying attention only to the mathematics. Michael Frayn captures this side of Heisenberg well in his play Copenhagen. When the Bohr character charges that Heisenberg doesn’t pay attention to the sense of what he’s doing so long as the mathematics works out, the Heisenberg character indignantly responds, “Mathematics is sense. That’s what sense is”.

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