In science, he is one of the most dazzling theoretical physicists in the 20th century. However, in politics, people are full of completely different comments on him.
As one of the most famous scientists at that time, why did Werner Heisenberg ( 1901 – 1976 ) insist on staying in Nazi Germany? Why would such a regime engage in nuclear fission or even nuclear weapons research?
These doubts filled Heisenberg with controversy before and after his death, and even made him regarded as an ” accomplice” of the Nazis.
In Werner Heisenberg’s Biography: Beyond Uncertainty, david cassidy, an American historian of science, attempts to open a door for people to know Heisenberg fairly and objectively through a comprehensive review of Heisenberg’s scientific career and life experiences, in combination with new historical materials.
” This book is different from the previous dichotomy of praise or criticism. The author tries to enter Heisenberg’s inner world and show the reader a different Heisenberg.” Fang Zaiqing, a Chinese translation of the book and a researcher at the Institute of Natural Science History of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said in an interview with China Science Daily.
Heisenberg was born in a typical German intellectual family.
On the eve of his birth, his father, who taught ancient Greek in high school, had just been hired as a professor at the University of Wurzburg. This has a great influence on Heisenberg’s growth.
In his view, German culture is in the hands of a few elites. He wants to be such an elite and contribute to German culture.
This may have given Heisenberg a strong lifelong motivation to excel in everything he does.
His high school teacher wrote in his performance report: ” The student has strong self-confidence and always hopes to get ahead.” This was also evident in his youth.
Heisenberg has no talent for skiing, but through training he can skate very well. He is not very good at running either, but he will run circles and take a stopwatch to speed up in school. The enterprising young man also challenged classical piano music and painting.
After 1920, Heisenberg began to conquer the mysteries of quantum physics. He studied under Professor arnold Sommerfeld from Munich University and entered the field of theoretical physics.
At that time, physicists were trapped in explaining the splitting of a single spectral line in the magnetic field in the anomalous Zeeman effect. One year after joining Sommerfeld’s project, Heisenberg surprised his teacher by proposing an atomic model that seemed to solve all spectral puzzles at one stroke.
Relevant papers were published in the 1921 Journal of Physics. The model shows Heisenberg’s ability to make breakthroughs when others are powerless.
After obtaining his doctor’s degree, Heisenberg was invited to Copenhagen as an assistant to physicist niels bohr. He conquered the new heights of physics again.
In March 1927, another paper Heisenberg submitted to the Journal of Physics outlined one of his most famous and influential contributions to physics: establishing the uncertainty principle or uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics.
It forms Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics with Bohr’s complementary principle and Born’s statistical interpretation of Schrodinger wave function.
A year later, Heisenberg, who just turned 26, was appointed professor of theoretical physics at Leipzig University, becoming the youngest full professor in Germany.
In November 1933, he received the news that he had won the 1932 Nobel Prize in physics. The reason for winning the prize was that ” for the creation of quantum mechanics, the application of this mechanics, among other results, also promoted the discovery of hydrogen isotope allotropes”.
” White Jews”
During the Nazi regime, physicists Samuel Goudsmit and Enrico Fermi invited Heisenberg to immigrate to the United States one after another, but he answered again and again: ” I can’t, because Germany needs me.” This became one of the reasons why many physicists criticized him for serving the Nazi regime after the war.
In fact, like most intellectuals in Germany at that time, Heisenberg considered resigning from the university when the Nazi regime’s purge of public office spread to his colleagues and friends around him.
But respected physicist Max Planck convinced him that they had a responsibility to preserve a base for German culture and science.
In the autumn of 1935, Heisenberg wrote to his mother about his new mission: ” I must be satisfied with protecting those values that will become important in the future in small fields of science. In the chaos, this is my only clear task. The outside world is really ugly, but the job is beautiful. ”
To stay in Nazi Germany, his practice was ” not to ask politics”.
For example, Heisenberg boycotted Hitler’s participation when Nobel laureates Staack and Learnard responded to the German University Teachers’ Union’s loyalty to Hitler when he came to power.
When the theories of Jewish scientists such as Einstein were criticized and had to be taught in class, Heisenberg did the same, just to avoid causing trouble for himself and did not mention Einstein’s name.
Heisenberg’s behavior put him on the ” black list” of Nazi supporters and was suppressed because he was once defined as a ” white Jew”.
” Under this background, an implicit premise of staying in Germany’ regardless of politics’ is unconditional love for the motherland.” Fang Zaiqing said.
Leaders of ” Uranium Club”
However, for the sake of his position and the future of German physics, Heisenberg had to comply with the requirements of Nazi authorities and make some compromises, which also became an important reason why he was widely criticized later.
One of the reasons Heisenberg is still in dispute today is his role in Nazi Germany’s nuclear program.
After the outbreak of World War II, only those researches that were beneficial to the operation of Nazi war machines could be supported.
As the leader of a new generation of theoretical physics, Heisenberg is worried about himself and his industry. He saw that nuclear fission research was an opportunity for German theoretical physics to gain support.
Heisenberg first got the munitions department to support his research through this attractive prospect, and at the same time pointed out the huge difficulties in the process, thus lowering the expectation of his research results.
In his later words: ” The official slogan is’ We must use physics for war’. Our slogan is’ we must use war for physics’. ”
However, Heisenberg’s uranium program did not really proceed due to miscalculations and shortages of needed materials.
After the war, in order to explain the reason why Germany failed to build the atomic bomb and to safeguard its academic and political image, his student and colleague weizsacker put forward ” delaying theory” and ” moral consideration”, which triggered a series of debates.
Perhaps patriotism is not Heisenberg’s only incentive to engage in nuclear fission. Like the allies, scientific curiosity and a more practical motivation are also evident.
As Cassidy wrote, ” patriotism, professional practicality, scientific curiosity and support for the German war cause are combined”, leading Heisenberg to focus on nuclear fission research in the early months of the war.
A tortured friend
Another thing that brought Heisenberg into reproach and tormented him after the war was his visit to Bohr in the autumn of 1941.
At that time, Heisenberg and some German scientists went to occupied Copenhagen with the formal purpose of attending a series of lectures at the German Institute of Cultural Publicity, while the informal intention was to meet with former mentor Bohr.
At that time, the German Empire had reached its zenith.
Considering that the place of the meeting was Denmark under German occupation, Heisenberg’s purpose was to make a propaganda speech on whether nuclear fission could be controlled. Heisenberg’s visit upset his former mentor, which is not surprising at all.
After the war, Heisenberg said in his memory that he wanted to let the allies know through Bohr that Germany was still far from building a bomb in order to prevent the allies from adopting emergency plans to develop a nuclear bomb and eventually launch a nuclear strike against Germany.
However, Bohr said in an unpublished draft letter that Heisenberg was deeply impressed by his tone at that time, that is, Germany is making every effort to develop nuclear weapons under his leadership.
Heisenberg’s visit to Bohr is still shrouded in controversy and doubt.
Bohr’s wife Margaret never wavered in her view of the incident: ” Regardless of what others say, it was a hostile visit.” Since then, although Bohr and Heisenberg still had parties, they were never as close as before the war.
Physicists in a dilemma
Heisenberg also considered the war and the concrete reality of the individual – himself – in the war.
He believed: ” It is more important to treat others humanely than to fulfill any kind of professional, ethnic or political obligation.” This shows that at least he seems to know what is right, although he does not always do it.
After 1941, Heisenberg also took part in many invitations of the Nazi regime to speak abroad, some with his prior consent and some without.
He seems to feel that individuals are powerless in the face of national and international forces.
When he played an important role in a research program in Germany’s war action hierarchy, when he was a cultural representative to occupied and oppressed areas, and even when he met the demands of Nazi officials, he convinced himself that his actions would not actually change the existence of grand scale.
In order to transcend the closed world and devote himself to the vast real life, Faust, described by Goethe, the great German literary giant, did not hesitate to sell his soul to the devil, and completed the spiritual exploration full of suffering, and understood the truth that ” human happiness only exists in doing one’s best for others”.
” Much like Faust, Heisenberg has both negative and positive characteristics. He does not hesitate to deal with fanatical nationalism and brutal totalitarian rule and uses all available forces, including making necessary compromises, to achieve his own goals.” In the postscript to the book, Fang zaiqing wrote, ” only Heisenberg knows how many compromises and tricks there are, and how many tricks there are.”
After World War II, Heisenberg and other German physicists were sent to Britain by US troops to be imprisoned. After several months under house arrest, he returned to Germany in 1946.
In the post-war reconstruction of German science, Heisenberg, relying on his reputation and influence, spared no effort to promote international scientific cooperation during his presidency of the Humboldt Foundation until his death on February 1, 1976.
The exception in Heisenberg’s case is that many of his harshest American critics still sympathize with him and show more enthusiasm than politeness, even when making the harshest criticisms.
” Heisenberg is a great physicist, a profound thinker, a very educated person, and also a very courageous person.” Gutesmide said in an obituary written for the man he admired so much and blamed so much, ” he is one of the greatest physicists of our time, but he has suffered a lot under the unfounded attacks of some fanatical colleagues. In my opinion, he should be regarded as a victim of Nazi regime in some aspects. “