The young wild ones

Given that he was so conservative, Planck had a tough time embracing his own discovery and had faith that he would be able to restore the old physical order. He hoped in vain. The ground for the young wild ones who were ready for new ideas had been broken.
Werner Heisenberg was one of them. His birthday was December 5, 1901–almost exactly a year after Planck’s revolutionary discovery. Heisenberg began his studies of physics in the summer of 1920, although he had originally planned to study mathematics. However, his application interview with one of the professors had taken a terrible turn. The professor’s dog barked loudly and continuously, expressing a certain dislike. Hence, Heisenberg decided to sign up for physics instead.
He befriended Wolfgang Pauli in the early days of his student life. The two eventually had a profound impact on the progress of quantum mechanics–the mathematical description of quantum physics. Later, a supervisor referred to Wolfgang Pauli as a genius comparable to Albert Einstein. As individuals, Heisenberg and Pauli were as different as they come, yet they were very close friends. In an excerpt from his biography entitled Der Teil und das Ganze (The Part and the Whole), Werner Heisenberg describes Wolfgang Pauli as follows:

“My conversations with Wolfgang Pauli were among the most important parts of my student activities in Sommerfeld’s seminar although Wolfgang’s lifestyle was virtually the diametrical opposite of my own. While I loved the bright days and spent almost all of my leisure time outside of town hiking through the mountains, swimming in or grilling on the beach of a Bavarian lake, Wolfgang was an extreme night owl. He preferred being in the city, found inspiration in the evenings by patronizing amusing entertainment events at some of the local establishments and after that, would spend most of the night working with the greatest of intensity as well as success on his physics tasks. Of course that meant that to Sommerfeld’s disappointment, he rarely attended the morning lectures and frequently did not even come to the seminar until lunchtime. While our different lifestyles prompted us to poke fun at each other quite a bit, it did not overshadow our friendship in any way.”

Pauli, on the other hand, included the following description of Heisenberg in a letter addressed to Niels Bohr (quote from Manjit Kumar’s book Quanten (Quanta)):

“Whenever I contemplate his ideas, they make a terrible impression on me and on the inside, I have nothing good to say about them at all. After all, he lacks a philosophical approach and he doesn’t pay attention to a transparent emphasis on the fundamental assumptions and their links to previous theories. However, when I talk to him, I like him a lot and I can see that he has quite a few new arguments–at least in his heart. Notwithstanding that he as a person is also a very nice individual, I consider him very relevant–in fact, I think he is a genius and I believe that he will eventually bring a lot of progress to science.”

In June of 1925, Heisenberg was in rather bad shape health-wise. He was plagued by severe hay fever. Moreover, his work at the university in Göttingen (Germany) had come to a standstill. Hence, Heisenberg decided to take a two week vacation on Helgoland, an island in the North Sea. There, he spent his time rock climbing, taking walks and reading the work of Goethe. However, he did dedicate a portion of the hours on the island to his unresolved scientific problem.
The scientists engaged in atomic physics research had been compelled to make the difficult decision to give up on the image of a miniaturized planetary system. Unfortunately, the electrons that move around the atom are not comparable to planets that circle around the sun. They have a very weird and crazy characteristic: they suddenly disappear in one location and reappear in a different one without crossing through any spaces in-between. This phenomenon is called the quantum leap.

Heisenberg came up with the idea to describe the electrons’ jumps between the different tracks in some sort of table. So when he determined in the wee hours of the morning–at three o’clock to be specific–that he had apparently discovered a formula that would allow him to describe the secret of atomic processes, he was very excited and simultaneously also extremely shocked. Since he could not go back to sleep, he climbed on a rock in the south of the island to wait for the sun to rise.
However, his calculations did throw him for a loop. Heisenberg’s table was contingent on a strange multiplication rule, in which a times b was not equivalent to b times a (e.g. 3 x 4 = 4 x 3). This fact troubled him a lot. After his return from vacation, Heisenberg had submitted his explorations to his then-professor Max Born–who happened to be an uncle of actress and pop singer Olivia Newton John–in the form of a written thesis. Born was so impressed with Heisenberg’s work that he wrote this in a letter to Albert Einstein:

“Heisenberg’s new work, which will be published soon, may look quite mystic, but it is certainly correct and thorough.”

Thankfully, Born also had another insight. He remembered a mathematics lecture in which the matrix multiplication theory had been introduced. The rules we are familiar with, as far as the multiplication of figures is concerned, do not apply to this theory. Born drew Heisenberg’s attention to this fact, who subsequently began to study this field of mathematics he had not known about until then.
The discovery: matrices describe processes and cannot be compared with regular figures. The sequence does indeed play a key role in processes. I encourage you to try it first-hand. Go ahead and close this book. Now look at the book cover and perform the following steps: turn the book to the front and then to the right (always at a 90 degree angle). Make sure to remember the positioning of the book. Repeat the entire sequence from the starting position; but in the opposite direction–turn the book to the right first and then to the front. Do you notice a difference? If you are reading this e-book version of this work, you can of course perform the same hands-on exercise with your e-book reader, tablet or smartphone.
Heisenberg’s discovery revolutionized physics to such an extent that the Island of Helgoland posted a memorial plaque with the following inscription in his honor:

“In June of 1925, 23-year-old Werner Heisenberg accomplished a breakthrough in the formulation of quantum mechanics, the fundamental theory of the natural laws in the atomic field right here on Helgoland, which has had a deep impact on human thought well beyond physics.”
Heisenberg’s discovery ushered in a new era and within a short period of time, a vast portion of quantum mechanics was derived from his findings: The new physics of the atoms had been uncovered.

The Coen Brothers tend to elaborate on quantum physics and what the transfer of its principle to our world means for us humans in many of their movies. In The Man Who Wasn’t There, for instance, attorney Riedenschneider is so impressed with Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (we will talk more about this in Chapter 9) that he is confident this theory will help him prevail in an impending trial (see e.g. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N5RvDorEnMc ). In A Serious Man– another Coen Brothers’ film–a quantum physicist embarks on a search for God and Heisenberg’s theory once again plays a central role. Of course both movies are definitely worth seeing–even if you’re not keen on learning more about quantum physics.

An erotic affair

Heisenberg’s introduction of the matrix formalism was a huge success. However, it had one disadvantage–it was rather imperceptible. Many physicists yearned for an alternative to this theory. A 38-year-old Austrian physicist did in fact accommodate their wishes just a few months later.
Erwin Schrödinger’s educational profile was very broad: he spoke several languages and also had a keen interest in painting, music, sculpting and philosophy. Born described him as an extremely charming, amusing, benevolent and generous man. However, Schrödinger also had the reputation of quite a Casanova. He and his wife Anny were constantly pursuing affairs and did not necessarily have the kind of relationship one could have described as “civilized and proper.” Just before the 1925 Christmas break, they had had another falling out, so Schrödinger wanted to get away for two weeks and seek refuge. However, before he took off, he set up a rendezvous with his paramour in Arosa, Switzerland, where he . . .

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