Werner Heisenberg

By: Chebet Buckner

"What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning."

- Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (1958)


Werner Karl Heisenberg was born December 5th, 1901 in Würzburg, Bavaria. He was the child of Dr. August Heisenberg and Annie Wecklein. in 1911, he began attending the Maximilians-Gymnasium in Munich, where his grandfather on his mom's side was the "rector of the elite". This probably had some influence on him getting into the school. He never got to finish high school because of WWI. His parents needed him back home to help them harvest crops, so he had to drop out. After the war, he was a messenger for the democratic socialists who opposed the communist government. He began helping out youth groups that wanted to return German life to its former glory through nature and poetry, among other things. In 1920, he started attending the University of Munich.

How He Became Interested in Science

When he began attending the University of Munich in 1920, his original goal was to earn a degree in mathematics. It is known from his time at the Maximilians-Gymnasium that he was very good at math, but his professor at the University of Munich wouldn't allow him to attend an advanced math seminar. This ultimately lead to him dropping his pursuit of a math degree. He transferred his major physics and took a liking to theoretical physics. His interest in this field of science allowed him to meet and work with some very influential scientists, such as Niels Bohr.

Hardships He Faced During His Scientific Career

In 1927, Heisenberg took a job as a professor in theoretical physics at the University of Leipzig, Germany. This was just around the time that Adolf Hitler was coming to power and the Nazi movement was catching fire. It's common knowledge that the Nazi's persecuted the Jewish, and that's just what lead to his reputation being slandered as a scientist. Nazi physicists declared that his field of study, theoretical physics, was "Jewish physics". In 1937, an article was published in a newspaper labeling him as a "white Jew" and suggesting that he be placed in a concentration camp. He was eventually cleared of all charges, but from that point until WWII ended, he worked to increase public acceptance of theoretical physics and to clear his name.

After having his name cleared, him and many other physicists, who were criticized with him, became representatives of Hitler's regime. It is said that during these trips, he made statements that were extremely insensitive and pro-German. His name was once again being slandered by the public for promoting the ruler that was committing hate crimes against millions.

At the end of WWII, he was captured along with other scientists that he was working with by the Allies. They were detained in England for 6 months. At the time of his capture, he was working on building Germany a nuclear bomb. This is most likely the reason why he was targeted and held hostage by the Allies.

Major Experiment/Contribution that Shaped History

Werner Heisenberg came up with a theory dealing with certain aspects of quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics is a branch of physics in which all objects "possibly" exists in a certain place. Physicists that study this field are basically measuring the probability that a certain subatomic particle will be in a certain place. Heisenberg was instrumental in "creating" the field of quantum mechanics, but that's not what he's most widely known for. It must also be noted that there were many others who came before him that contributed to quantum mechanics becoming more prominent in the world of science.

What Heisenberg is most known for is the development of the uncertainty principle. In 1926, Heisenberg and some of his colleagues determined that there was a "matrix" form of quantum mechanics, which was a totally new form of this branch of physics. They called this the "uncertainty principle". This was not widely accepted because it was very unfamiliar to scientists. The reason for this is because their whole theory was based off of new equations and concepts. After a debate with Schrödinger about their conflicting theories, the results showed that neither Heisenberg's nor Schrödinger's interpretation of the actions of subatomic particles were going to be sufficient enough to prove anything.

Heisenberg then had to prove to Schrödinger and to the rest of the scientific community that the matrix theory of quantum mechanics was the right one. With the help of Neils Bohr, they determined that Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and Schrödinger's own ideas about quantum mechanics were both related. This interpretation of quantum mechanics was called the "Copenhagen interpretation". He attended the Solvay conference in which he spoke about this theory and his newly developed interpretation of quantum mechanics. This conference was attended by influential scientists from around the world. Back then, the Copenhagen interpretation was widely debated and disputed, and it still is now. However, it is today recognized as one of the greatest contributions to quantum mechanics, physics, and the understanding of our world overall.


  • In 1932, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. The Nobel Prize is Physics is awarded to "the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention withing the field of physics".
  • In 1933, he was awarded the Max Planck Medal. The Max Plank Medal is awarded to two physicists who have exhibited "outstanding achievement in the field of theoretical physics".

Videos about Werner Heisenberg

Werner Heisenberg Biography
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Fun Facts

  • In 1937, Heisenberg married Elizabeth Schumacher. The first children she had with him were fraternal twins, and they later went on to have five more children.
  • On February 1st, 1976, he died of cancer at his home in Munich.
  • One of his son's Martin Heisenberg, became a neurobiologist.

Works Cited

Beyler, Richard. "Werner Heisenberg (German Physicist and Philosopher)." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2014.

Coolman, Robert. "What Is Quantum Mechanics?" LiveScience. TechMedia Network, 26 Sept. 2014. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.

"The Difficult Years: Fission Research, 1939 - 1945." The Difficult Years: Fission Research, 1939 - 1945. American Institute of Physics, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.

"Facts on the Nobel Prize in Physics." Facts on the Nobel Prizes in Physics. Nobel Media AB 2014, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.

"Heisenberg - Quantum Mechanics, 1925-1927: The Uncertainty Principle." Heisenberg - Quantum Mechanics, 1925-1927: The Uncertainty Principle. American Institute of Physics, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.

"Heisenberg - The Difficult Years: Professor in Leipzig, 1927-1942." Heisenberg - The Difficult Years: Professor in Leipzig, 1927-1942. American Institute of Physics, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.

Heisenberg in 1927. Digital image. Werner Heisenberg. American Institute of Physics, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2014. <http://www.aip.org/history/heisenberg/p08.htm>.

"Max Planck Medal." Universität Duisburg-Essen. Universität Duisburg-Essen, n.d. Web. 11 Dec. 2014.

Niels Bohr, who articulated the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics and mentored a generation of quantum physicists. Digital image. Werner Heisenberg. American Institute of Physics, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2014. <http://www.aip.org/history/heisenberg/p09.htm>.

"Quantum Mechanics, 1925-1927: Triumph of the Copenhagen Interpretation." Quantum Mechanics, 1925-1927: Triumph of the Copenhagen Interpretation. American Institute of Physics, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2014.

Solvay conference, 1927. Digital image. Werner Heisenberg. American Institute of Physics, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2014. <http://www.aip.org/history/heisenberg/p09.htm>.

"Werner Heisenberg - Biographical." Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014, n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.

"Werner Heisenberg." PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.

"Werner Heisenberg." World Heritage Encyclopedia. World Heritage Encyclopedia, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2014.