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This Month in Bavarian History - December 

On December 5, 1901, theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg was born in Würzburg, Bavaria. After studying at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, he received the Nobel Prize for physics in 1932 and later headed the Nazi atom bomb project. Because of this, today he is often fondly remembered as “the German Albert Einstein.” (Okay, that last part isn’t true on several levels.)

He did, however, create quantum mechanics, an idea so complex that even three online sources, including Wikipedia, can’t dumb it down enough for me to understand it. The Wikipedia website does helpfully point out that “Heisenberg’s paper establishing quantum mechanics has puzzled physicists and historians.” Luckily (and blissfully) for me, I have a history degree, ergo can’t be expected to understand it.

Nobel laureate Prof. Werner Heisenberg during his celebratory speech on the occasion of the commemoration of the centenary recurrence of Max Planck’s birthday on the 25th of April in 1958 in Berlin.
In the background the projected, much discussed formula of his proposal for the matter equation. photo: dpa

Those of you who are neither physicists nor historians but are still übernerds should really check it out, though. It is even more confusing than Schrödinger’s cat. Both are prime examples of why I decided to study history and not physics.

Heisenberg also created the “uncertainty principle” which states that it is impossible to measure both position and momentum concurrently. In fact, the more precisely we know an object’s momentum, the less precisely we know its position and vice versa, which makes driving really difficult.

Never ones to tolerate imprecision, the Nazis hated these ideas and decided to blame the Jews. This last part is no joke, the Nazis labeled the whole field as “Jewish physics” and Heisenberg as a possible “white Jew.” Despite this, they realized his value and Heisenberg eventually led the Nazi effort to create an atomic bomb which, luckily, failed.

After the war, Heisenberg was instrumental in creating the Max Planck Institute, one of Germany’s top scientific research institutes.

He died in 1976.

“The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.” -Werner Heisenberg

by Jason Eilers


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