Heisenberg in the Atomic Age: Science and the Public Sphere

Credit: Cambridge University Press

From Isaac Newton’s formulation of classical mechanics to the early 20th century, it was believed that all physical quantities of a given system could be known simultaneously to complete precision. However in 1926, a 25-year-old physicist named Werner Heisenberg proved that there were naturally imposed limits on the accuracy to which related variables such as position and velocity could be measured, and no matter how hard a diligent scientist might try, a more accurate measurement of one of these variables would increase the uncertainty of the other. Today, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle remains one of the most famous and revolutionary concepts in all of science.

Appearing at the center of Heisenberg’s revolutionary science, uncertainty was a theme that extended to many other aspects of his life. The nature and underlying motives for Heisenberg’s choice to remain in Germany during and after World War II and work in the National Socialist State remain a source of open debate among scientists and historians. Was he biding his time to take part in the reconstruction of Germany after the war? Or was he an active resister undermining the Third Reich’s nuclear fission research? There has been no shortage of speculation.

In her book Heisenberg in the Atomic Age: Science and the Public Sphere, UC Berkeley science historian Cathryn Carson sheds light on these questions by contextualizing Heisenberg within the political and cultural atmosphere of post-war West Germany. Carson explains these historical nuances by pointing out the difficulties in interpreting Heisenberg’s words and their relation to the overall guarded language within the evolving “public sphere” of West Germany following the war.  According to Carson, Heisenberg struggled to “speak directly and convincingly about National Socialism” and often instead relied on “gestures and allusions.” This included his depictions of his own work in the Third Reich, which “tended likewise toward understatement, stopping short of both self-critique and claims of resistance.”  Carson’s approach is insightful and detailed, drawing from a vast number of Heisenberg’s publications, lecture transcripts, and personal correspondences with family, friends, and colleagues. However, this abundance of information, coupled with highly detailed discussions of culture and politics in West Germany, weighed the book down for me at times and took some dedication to read.

Aside from Heisenberg’s war work, the book also centers on the instrumental role he played in re-developing science in Germany after World War II. German science had taken a major blow, with countless world-class scientists emigrating as Hitler rose to power. Heisenberg was essential to picking up the pieces, from his development and administration of the prestigious Max Planck Institute for Physics and the Alexander von Humboldt foundation, to his role in securing West Germany’s involvement with the multi-national European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). The latter was of particular importance not only for the scientific benefits it offered but also in re-establishing Germany’s relations with its European neighbors. Heisenberg’s involvement in the founding of CERN utilized his unique assets, including his esteem as a Nobel Laureate, influence in his government, and many close contacts in the physics community. Heisenberg also pushed for large-scale design of an accelerator laboratory and presented West Germany’s desire for it to be located in Geneva (the eventual site of the accelerator). Heisenberg went on to be elected to chair the inaugural Scientific Policy Committee and is credited as one of CERN’s co-founders.

The book is very light on Heisenberg’s contributions to science and is better suited for someone who enjoys reading about postwar political and social history. If Heisenberg’s physics and his role in the advent of quantum mechanics are what you’re looking for, this book won’t be satisfying. But if you’ve already read a more traditional biography of Heisenberg and would like to delve further into his political and social circumstances, this book would certainly be of interest.

Heisenberg was, as one friend put it, a master of “the art of leaving things open,” and in the end Carson’s book isn’t pushing any moral interpretation of Heisenberg. She instead lays out a thorough depiction of post-war Heisenberg, bringing the man into better focus and showing the decidedly beneficial role he played in rebuilding Germany following the war.  While Carson’s book is engaging and well written, the book is still somewhat inaccessible to the motivated novice and might be best appreciated by her fellow historians of science.

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