Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science
The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa.
That God would choose to play dice with the world is something I cannot believe.
Nothing exists until it is measured.
The remarkable story of a startling scientific idea that ignited a battle among the greatest minds of the twentieth century and profoundly influenced intellectual inquiry in fields ranging from physics to literary criticism, anthropology and journalism
In 1927, the young German physicist Werner Heisenberg challenged centuries of scientific understanding when he introduced what came to be known as “the uncertainty principle.” Building on his own radical innovations in quantum theory, Heisenberg proved that in many physical measurements, you can obtain one bit of information only at the price of losing another. Heisenberg’s principle implied that scientific quantities/concepts do not have absolute, independent meaning, but acquire meaning only in terms of the experiments used to measure them. This proposition, undermining the cherished belief that science could reveal the physical world with limitless detail and precision, placed Heisenberg in direct opposition to the revered Albert Einstein. The eminent scientist Niels Bohr, Heisenberg’s mentor and Einstein’s long-time friend, found himself caught between the two.
Uncertainty chronicles the birth and evolution of one of the most significant findings in the history of science, and portrays the clash of ideas and personalities it provoked. Einstein was emotionally as well as intellectually determined to prove the uncertainty principle false. Heisenberg represented a new generation of physicists who believed that quantum theory overthrew the old certainties; confident of his reasoning, Heisenberg dismissed Einstein’s objections. Bohr understood that Heisenberg was correct, but he also recognized the vital necessity of gaining Einstein’s support as the world faced the shocking implications of Heisenberg’s principle.
About the Author(s)
david lindley holds a Ph.D. in astrophysics and has been an editor at Nature, Science, and Science News. He is the author of The End of Physics, Degrees Kelvin, Where Does the Weirdness Go?, and Boltzmann’s Atom. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.
An Excellent Summary of the Quantum Dilemma!, March 13, 2007
The Quantum and its resulting uncertainty has haunted physics since Max Planck first brought the idea up (with a certain amount of distaste) in 1900. Einstein added to the trend in 1905, although he did not like the result either. Niels Bohr at first did not appreciate the prospect, but eventually put his own interpretation on it. Werner Heisenberg followed the quantum theory to the Uncertainty Principle, which essentially tolled the death knell to classical deterministic physics.
David Lindley has produced a new rendition of this story in "Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science." While this story has been told by various authors before, it has never had a clearer or more succinct exposition than this one. Here are all the players, not only Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg and Planck, but the Curies, Pauli, Dirac, Born, Schrödinger and many others. In the end we are left with the triumph of quantum physics, but also with a much more uncertain universe where the old mechanistic model simply will not answer the ultimate questions. Quantum mechanics won’t answer them either, but in a quantum universe these questions may make no sense anyway! Perhaps (we may hope)they can’t be answered because the questions are not yet properly formulated! Only if we can unite quantum theory with relativity (the unified theory) can we hope to answer anything in a definitive way and this has not so far been accomplished!
Lindley’s book is not a comprehensive treatment of the problem, but a short history of the idea and an explanation of why quantum theory matters. A good introduction for the reader who lacks the mathematics (as I do) to deeply probe the field, "Uncertainty" should be read by anyone who would like to understand one of the major ideas of modern science. Among other things, the reader will gain some comprehension of the difficulties involved in the scientific endeavour and of the often complex personalities who practice this arcane activity.