What is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle?

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Quantum Mechanics

German physicist Werner Heisenberg formulated the uncertainty principle through experimentation in the 1920s. In a 1927 paper, Heisenberg described it this way: “The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant and vice versa.” What this means is that the act of measuring a subatomic particle, for example, shining a light on it, necessarily affects the particle; for example, by altering its position or speed. According to Heisenberg, this lack of precision seems to be imbedded in the laws of nature and cannot be fixed with better measuring equipment. In the decades since Heisenberg presented the uncertainty principle, technology has indeed made measurements more precise, but a significant amount of imprecision or uncertainty remains.

Uncertainty for Sure

Quantum mechanics is a theory in physics that attempts to explain the interactions of matter at the atomic level, at the level of electrons and protons. Classical mechanics, also known as Newtonian physics, on the other hand, is mostly concerned with macro-phenomenon such as gravitational forces on the earth and planetary orbits around a star. One of the surprising results of quantum mechanics is the uncertainty principle. When it was first introduced to the scientific community, some tried to discount it or minimize its impact on their understanding of quantum theory. However, it soon became clear that the uncertainty principle “is arguably the most important fundamental concept behind all of quantum mechanics.” Classical mechanics is an attempt to describe the universe as ordered and logical and the uncertainty principle modified this view by revealing some amount of “indeterminancy.”

Philosophy and Science

Scientists and other thinkers realized the uncertainty principle had implications beyond the confines of physics. The philosophical issues were not lost on Heisenberg, who wrote “I believe that the existence of the classical ‘path’ can be pregnantly formulated as follows: the ‘path’ comes into existence only when we observe it.” His explanation might remind some of the proverbial “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” This is an important point because it speaks to a fundamental issue in science and philosophy: What is the nature of reality and existence? Philosopher and author Ayn Rand rejected the implication that reality depends on whether or not we are observing it. On the contrary, she argued for objectivism, the idea that there is a concrete reality independent of an observer. In everyday life people experience reality largely as it is described by classical mechanics.  We can go about our lives without having to wrestle with the uncertainty principle unless we delve into the world of subatomic physics.

Reaction in the Scientific Community

When Heisenberg published his work, it was not greeted with universal enthusiasm among his fellow physicists. Albert Einstein’s response, for example, was decidedly mixed. Although he acknowledged the uncertainty principle was a logical consequence of quantum mechanics, he concluded that quantum mechanics was incomplete and further understanding might modify Heisenberg’s work. Einstein did not want to accept an inherent unpredictability in quantum mechanics. However, a certain amount of unpredictability would prove to be an accurate feature of the laws governing the universe. Years of further research and experimentation have confirmed the uncertainty principle and its fundamental role in quantum physics.

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