Werner Heisenberg

Werner Heisenberg

Werner Heisenberg was born in Wurzburg, Germany, in 1901. He studied in Munich and in 1923 began working with Max Born in Gottingen. The following year he joined Niels Bohr at the Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen.

Heisenberg was involved in trying to developing a mathematical system that explained the atom. With the help of Max Born and Niels Bohr Heisenberg was able to present in 1925 a system called matrix mechanics. This is now regarded as the beginning of quantum mechanics.

In 1927 Heisenberg became professor of physics at Leipzig. In the 1930s scientists working in this field such as Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch left the country after Adolf Hitler came to power.

In his book, Nationalsocialismus und Wissenschaft(1934) Johannes Stark argued that the scientist's first duty was to the nation. He denounced theoretical physics and stressed the need for research to be carried out that would help industry and arms production. Stark also argued that leading scientific positions in Nazi Germany should only he held by ethnic Germans.

Johannes Stark was particularly critical of Jewish scientists such as Albert Einstein. When Heisenberg defended Einstein and his theory of relativity Stark wrote an article in the Nazi journal Das Schwarze Korps, where he described Heisenberg as a "White Jew".

Despite these attacks Heisenberg remained in Nazi Germany and in 1940 was appointed head the German team trying to develop nuclear weapons. However, they were many months behind the team working on the Manhattan Project in the United States.

In April, 1945, Allied forces arrested German scientists such as Heisenberg, Otto Hahn, Carl von Weizsacker, Max von Laue, Karl Wirtz, and Walter Gerlach. These men were now taken to England where they were questioned to see if they had discovered how to make atomic weapons.

When he was released Heisenberg returned to Germany where he became director of the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science. Werner Heisenberg, the author of Physics and Philosophy(1962) and Physics and Beyond (1971) died in West Germany in 1976.

Primary Sources

(1) Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Beyond (1971)

The immediate prewar years, or rather what part of them I spent in Germany, struck me as a period of unspeakable loneliness. The Nazi regime had become so firmly entrenched that there was no longer the slightest hope of a change from within. At the same time, Germany became increasingly isolated, and it was obvious that resistance abroad was gathering momentum. A gigantic arms race had started, and it seemed only a question of time before the two camps clashed in open battle, a battle which international law, Geneva conventions and moral inhibitions would all go completely by the board.

In Germany itself this situation was aggravated further by the isolation of the individual. Communication became increasingly difficult - only the most intimate friends dared to speak their minds to one another; otherwise you resorted to the kind of language that hid far more than it revealed. I found life in this stifling atmosphere of distrust quite unbearable, and the certainty that it was bound to lead to the total destruction of Germany.

(2) In the summer of 1939 Werner Heisenberg met Enrico Fermi in Gottingen.

"Whatever makes you stay on in Germany?" he asked. "You can't possibly prevent the war, and you will have to do, and take the responsibility for, things which you will hate to do or to be responsible for. If so much anguish might produce the least bit of good, then your remaining there might be understandable. But the chances of this happening are extremely remote. Here you could make a completely fresh start. You see, this whole country has been built up by Europeans, by people who fled their homes because they could not stand the petty restrictions, continuous quarrels and recriminations among small nations, the repression, liberation and revolution and all the misery that goes with it. Here, in a larger and freer country, they could live without being weighed down by the heavy ballast of their historical past. In Italy I was a great man; here I am once again a young physicist, and that is incomparably more exciting. Why don't you cast off all that ballast, too, and start anew? In America you can play your part in the great advance of science. Why renounce so much happiness?"

"I don't think I have much choice in the matter" I replied. "I firmly believe that one must be consistent. Every one of us is born into a certain environment very early in life, he will feel most at home and do his best work in that environment. Now history teaches us that, sooner or later, every country is shaken by revolutions and wars; and whole populations obviously cannot migrate every time there is a threat of such upheavals. People must learn to prevent catastrophes, not to run away from them. Perhaps we ought even to insist that everyone brave what storms there are in his own country, because in that way we might encourage people to stop the rot before it can spread."

(3) Werner Heisenberg had a long discussion with Carl von Weizsacker in 1939 about the morality of scientific research.

If Einstein had not discovered relativity theory, it would have been discovered sooner or later by someone else, perhaps by Poincare or Lorentz. If Hahn had not discovered uranium fission, perhaps Fermi or Joliot would have hit upon it in a few years later. I don't think we detract from the great achievement of the individual if we express these views. For that very reason, the individual who makes a crucial discovery cannot be said to bear greater responsibility for its consequences than all other individuals who might have made it. The pioneer has simply been placed in the right spot by history, and has done no more than perform the task he has been set.

(4) While in England the captured German scientists were secretly taped to discover how much they knew about atomic weapons. This included Otto Hahn, Werner Heisenberg, Carl von Weizsacker, Max von Laue and Karl Wirtz.

Otto Hahn: If the Americans have a uranium bomb then you're all second-raters.

Werner Heisenberg: Did they use the word uranium in connection with this atomic bomb?

Otto Hahn: No.

Werner Heisenberg: Then it's got nothing to do with atoms, but the equivalent of 20,000 tons of high explosive is terrific. All I can suggest, is that some dilettante in America knows it has the equivalent of 20,000 tons of high explosive and in reality, it doesn't work at all.

Otto Hahn: At any rate Heisenberg, you're just second-raters, and you may as well pack up.

Werner Heisenberg: I quite agree. I am willing to believe that it is a high pressure bomb and I don't believe that it has anything to do with uranium but that it is a chemical thing where they have enormously increased the whole explosion.

Karl Witz: I'm glad we didn't have it.

Carl von Weizsacker: I think it's dreadful of the Americans to have done it. I think it is madness on their part.

Werner Heisenberg: One can't say that. One could equally well say, "That's the quickest way of ending the war."

Otto Hahn: That's what consoles me.

Werner Heisenberg: I believe the reason we didn't do it was because all the physicists didn't want to do it, on principle. If we had all wanted Germany to win the war we could have succeeded.

Otto Hahn: I don't believe that, but I am thankful we didn't succeed.

(5) Werner Heisenberg, 'Research in Germany on the Technical Applications of Atomic Energy', Nature Magazine (August, 1947)

It (producing nuclear weapons) could not have succeeded on technical grounds alone: for even in America, with its much greater resources in scientific men, technicians and industrial potential, and with an economy undisturbed by enemy action, the bomb was not ready until after the conclusion of the war with Germany. In particular, a German atomic bomb project could not have succeeded because of the military situation. The immediate production of armaments could be robbed neither of personnel nor or raw materials, nor could the enormous plants required have been effectively protected against air attack.

The (Nazi government) expected an early decision of the war, even in 1942, and any major project which did not promise quick returns was specially forbidden. To obtain the necessary support, the experts would have been obliged to promise early results, knowing these promises could not be kept. Faced with this situation, the experts did not attempt to advocate with the supreme command a great industrial effort for the production of atomic bombs.

Last updated: 3rd May, 2001