For fans and lovers of Breaking Bad, the fifth season brings that crucial dialogue in which Walter White demands “Say my name”, hears back “You’re Heisenberg” and replies “You’re God damn right” is just epic. But who is Heisenberg? Who is the person that Walter decided to honour since the very beginning of the show? (YouTube video here)
Heisenberg was a German theoretical physicist born in 1901 and one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century. He attended the University of Munich, where he got his doctorate at age of 22. With a series of ground breaking papers on the developing of matrix mechanics, published in 1925, by himself and with two colleagues (Max Born and Pascual Jordan), he became known as one the founders of quantum mechanics. Because of this work, he was later announced, in 1933, as a Nobel Laureate for winning the 1932 Nobel Prize in physics.
Before the Nobel Prize, still in 1927, he also published a work that made him even more famous. It was the paper in which the Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle was articulated. According to Heisenberg: “The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum [mass times velocity] is known in this instant, and vice versa”. That means that it is impossible to know, with high certainty, both position and velocity of subatomic particles, as electrons, at the same instant. His principle changed the way of understanding the world in small scales, what led later on to important progress in areas like quantum optics and superconductors.
At that same year, 1927 (26 years old), he was appointed professor of theoretical physics at the University of Leipzig. Because of his popularity he attracted many first rate students and visitors from all over the world and could accomplish, together with his collaborators, major developments in quantum theories.
Despite of his fame as physicist and as a patriotic citizen, after 1933 he began to be attacked by the “German Physics”, when the Nazis were brought to power. The “German Physics” was a nationalist movement within the German physics community opposed to the some modern theoretical physicists, as Heisenberg and Albert Einstein. The movement called their work on quantum mechanics as “Jewish Physics”. In 1937, Heisenberg was accused of being a traitor by the German paramilitary organization SS, but had been cleared of any accusation one year later.
During the Word War II, Heisenberg had a leading role within the German nuclear fission project. His participation in this project is still subject to controversy. Some say that he was advocating in favour of the Reich, while others claim that his presence in the project was to sabotage the construction of an atomic bomb by the German Government. Anyway, at the end of the war, he and other German physicists were taken prisoner by American troops, being held in an English manor for six months.
In 1949, he was appointed as the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics, which soon became the admired Max Planck Institute for Physics.
As well as Walter, Heisenberg had cancer. He lost his battle against the disease in 1976, at 74.