WERNER KARL HEISENBERG
Heisenberg was born on 5th December, 1901, at Würzburg. He was the
son of Dr. August Heisenberg and his wife Annie Wecklein. His father later
became Professor of the Middle and Modern Greek languages in the University
of Munich. It was probably due to his influence that Heisenberg
remarked, when the Japanese physicist Yukawa discovered the particle now
known as the meson and the term "mesotron" was proposed for it,
that the Greek word "mesos" has no "tr" in it, with
the result that the name "mesotron" was changed to
Heisenberg went to the Maximilian school at Munich until 1920, when he
went to the University of Munich to study physics under Sommerfeld, Wien,
Pringsheim, and Rosenthal. During the winter of 1922-1923 he went to Göttingen
to study physics under Max
and Hilbert. In 1923 he took his Ph.D. at the University of Munich and
then became Assistant to Max Born at the University
of Göttingen, and in 1924 he gained the venia legendi at that
From 1924 until 1925 he worked, with a Rockefeller Grant, with Niels
Bohr, at the University of Copenhagen,
returning for the summer of 1925 to Göttingen.
In 1926 he was appointed Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University
of Copenhagen under Niels
Bohr and in 1927, when he was only 26, he was appointed Professor of
Theoretical Physics at the University
In 1929 he went on a lecture tour to the United States, Japan, and India.
In 1941 he was appointed Professor of Physics at the University of Berlin
and Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics there.
At the end of the Second World War he, and other German physicists, were
taken prisoner by American troops and sent to England, but in 1946 he
returned to Germany and reorganized, with his colleagues, the Institute
for Physics at Göttingen. This Institute was, in 1948, renamed the Max
Planck Institute for Physics.
In 1948 Heisenberg stayed for some months in Cambridge, England, to give
lectures, and in 1950 and 1954 he was invited to lecture in the United
States. In the winter of 1955-1956 he gave the Gifford Lectures at the University
of St. Andrews, Scotland, these lectures being subsequently published
as a book.
During 1955 Heisenberg was occupied with preparations for the removal of
the Max Planck Institute for Physics to Munich. Still Director of this
Institute, he went with it to Munich and in 1958 he was appointed
Professor of Physics in the University of Munich. His Institute was then
being renamed the Max Planck Institute for Physics and Astrophysics.
Heisenberg's name will always be associated with his theory of quantum
mechanics, published in 1925, when he was only 23 years old. For this
theory and the applications of it which resulted especially in the
discovery of allotropic forms of hydrogen, Heisenberg was awarded the
Nobel Prize for Physics for 1932.
His new theory was based only on what can be observed, that is to say, on
the radiation emitted by the atom. We cannot, he said, always assign to an
electron a position in space at a given time, nor follow it in its orbit,
so that we cannot assume that the planetary orbits postulated by Niels
Bohr actually exist. Mechanical quantities, such as position, velocity,
etc. should be represented, not by ordinary numbers, but by abstract
mathematical structures called "matrices" and he formulated his
new theory in terms of matrix equations.
Later Heisenberg stated his famous principle of uncertainty, which
lays it down that the determination of the position and momentum of a
mobile particle necessarily contains errors the product of which cannot be
less than the quantum constant h and that, although these errors
are negligible on the human scale, they cannot be ignored in studies of
From 1957 onwards Heisenberg was interested in work on problems of plasma
physics and thermonuclear processes, and also much work in close
collaboration with the International Institute of Atomic Physics at
Geneva. He was for several years Chairman of the Scientific Policy
Committee of this Institute and subsequently remained a member of this
When he became, in 1953, President of the Alexander von Humboldt
Foundation, he did much to further the policy of this Foundation, which
was to invite scientists from other countries to Germany and to help them
to work there.
Since 1953 his own theoretical work was concentrated on the unified field
theory of elementary particles which seems to him to be the key to an
understanding of the physics of elementary particles.
Apart from many medals and prizes, Heisenberg received an honorary
doctorate of the University of Bruxelles,
of the Technological University
Karlsruhe, and recently (1964) of the University
of Budapest; he is also recipient of the Order of Merit of Bavaria,
and the Grand Cross for Federal Services with Star (Germany). He is a
Fellow of the Royal Society of London and a Knight of the Order of Merit
(Peace Class). He is a member of the Academies of Sciences of Göttingen,
Bavaria, Saxony, Prussia, Sweden, Rumania,
Norway, Spain, The Netherlands, Rome (Pontificial), the German Akademie
der Naturforscher Leopoldina (Halle), the Accademia
dei Lincei (Rome), and the American
Academy of Sciences. During 1949-1951 he was President of the Deutsche
Forschungsrat (German Research Council) and in 1953 he became President of
the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.
One of his hobbies is classical music: he is a distinguished pianist. In
1937 Heisenberg married Elisabeth Schumacher. They have seven children,
and live in Munich.
Heisenberg died in 1976