Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertain Reality

Werner HeisenbergThis is going to be a hard day. My allergies are going crazy. As a result, I had to take one of those pills that puts me to sleep. So we’ll see if I can make it through this article without collapsing on the keyboard. And this is gonna be hard. I have two major physicists today who deserve a lot of attention. They will probably get short shrift. But don’t worry. They’re both dead. No feelings will be hurt.

On this day in 1868, the great theoretical physicist Arnold Sommerfeld was born. He did a bunch of stuff that you wouldn’t understand anyway. Do you know what quantum spin is? Of course you don’t. Just give up now. What Sommerfeld is most important for (and you’ll like this because it’s history) is his teaching of other physicists who did work that you wouldn’t understand. One of those people also has a birthday today. (It’s a surprise!) Another is Wolfgang Pauli. What did Pauli do that was so great? Quantum spin. Which you don’t understand. When I was young and smart, I read a manuscript by him. I didn’t really understand it. But above all, Pauli is remembered for having looked a lot like Peter Lorre. Neither Pauli nor Lorre have birthdays today. Sommerfeld does. He would be 145 today, and you have to assume that he would have lost his intellectual edge.

Speaking of Peter Lorre, the great film director Fritz Lang was born in 1890. Apart from M, which oddly made Lorre a star, he is best know for Metropolis, with the inventor Rotwang. That’s important to me, because there is an economist who writes under that name, but no one will tell me who he really is. Here is a scene from M. What I love about the film is that Lang seems to be one of the few people besides me who feels sorry for pedophiles. That’s not an excuse for what they do, but I cannot think of a greater hell than to be sexually attracted to children.

Walt Disney was born in 1901. Three things about Disney. First, he was antisemitic. Look, I don’t think he was a “kill all the Jews” type. And his thinking (including other racist attitudes) was much more common in those days. But he was sympathetic to the Nazis. There’s no denying that. Second, I think it is very funny that after he died, everyone thought he was frozen, as though we just couldn’t live without him. Personally, I think his early work sucked. And only a few of the later features are truly great. But the biggest reason I hate Disney, and admittedly, it isn’t really his fault, is copyright. For the sake of fucking Mickey Mouse (a really stupid character anyway), copyright lengths just get longer and longer. Personally, I want to see Mickey Mouse in porn films. I want to see him gang raped by a marauding passel of opossums. (Admit it: you didn’t know a group of opossums is called a “passel.” Of course, neither did I until I looked it up. And I’ll probably forget by tomorrow.)

Oh my God! Can you believe that Little Richard is 81 today? Hell, what is there to say?

Humorist Calvin Trillin is 78. He still writes poems for The Nation each week. But I will always love him for the chicken story:

There’s a restaurant in Chinatown where years ago you could play tic-tac-toe with a chicken. I used to take visitors there. You could tell a lot about what kind of people they were. The set up had back-lit letters for signs that said “Your Turn” and “Chicken’s Turn” and “50¢ to Play.” If you beat the chicken at tic-tac-toe, you got a bag of fortune cookies as a prize. Probably worth a total of 40¢.

Anyway, I’d take people there and say, “Why don’t you play?” And they’d say all kinds of things, mostly it went like this.

They’d look at the set-up, then me, and says stuff like, “But the chicken gets to go first!”

“Yeah,” I’d tell them, “but you’re a human being and that ought to be an advantage.”

“So what, the chicken plays every day. I haven’t played since I was a kid.”

Other birthdays: Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev (1803); musician JJ Cale (1938); record producer Frank Wilson (1940); musician Jim Messina (66); and actor Lisa Marie (45).

The day, however, belongs to Arnold Sommerfeld’s student Werner Heisenberg who was born in 1901. He is one of the most important figures in the development of quantum mechanics. The most important person was Max Planck, who never accepted the theory, but that is the subject for another day (namely, 23 Apr 2013). There are two standard formalisms of quantum mechanics, one is Heisenberg’s and the other is Erwin Schrodinger’s. Most people know of Schrodinger’s, which probably explains why people are so confused about quantum mechanics. Schrodinger used a “wave equation.” But this is all about statistics and probability. Unfortunately, people think it has something to do with particles acting like waves. Particles do in fact act like waves, but that’s not what the wave equation is all about.

Heisenberg used infinite matrices. This puts people off. First, they don’t understand matrices and second, they don’t understand infinity. In general, theoretical physicists like Heisenberg’s formalism because it is easier to work with. I can tell you that this is only true of really smart people, because I had to learn that stuff and “easy” was not a word I would ever apply to it.

Heisenberg’s formalism did, however, have the advantage of leading to the uncertainty principle. This is the idea that you can only know the product of the velocity (actually momentum) and location of a particle to a certain accuracy. So the more accurately you know the position of a particle, the less accurately you know the velocity. This does not come out of Schrodinger’s formalism. For years I thought this was just a limit to the theory. But there does indeed seem to be a physical basis for this. The universe really is bizarre and unknowable. Of course, I’m not even certain that I exist. But that is a very long discussion for another time. Anyway.

Happy birthday Werner Heisenberg! (Insert Breaking Bad joke here.)

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