Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The moment of uncertainty

As part of a feature section in the October issue of La Recherche on uncertainty, I interviewed Robert Crease, historian and philosopher of science at Stony Brook University, New York, on the cultural impact of Heisenberg’s principle. It turned out that Robert had just written a book looking at this very issue – in fact, at the cultural reception of quantum theory in general. It’s called The Quantum Moment, is coauthored by Alfred Scharff Goldhaber, and is a great read – I have written a mini-review for the next (November) issue of Prospect. Here’s the interview, which otherwise appears only in French in La Recherche. Since Robert has such a great way with words, it was one of the easiest I’ve ever done.


What led Heisenberg to formulate the uncertainty principle? Was it something that fell out of the formalism in mathematical terms?

That’s a rather dramatic story. The uncertainty principle emerged in exchange of letters between Heisenberg and Pauli, and fell out of the work that Heisenberg had done on quantum theory the previous year, called matrix mechanics. In autumn 1926, he and Pauli were corresponding about how to understand its implications. Heisenberg insisted that the only way to understand it involved junking classical concepts such as position and momentum in the quantum world. In February 1927 he visited Niels Bohr in Copenhagen. Bohr usually helped Heisenberg to think, but this time the visit didn’t have the usual effect. They grew frustrated, and Bohr abandoned Heisenberg to go skiing. One night, walking by himself in the park behind Bohr’s institute, Heisenberg had an insight. He wrote to Pauli: “One will always find that all thought experiments have this property: when a quantity p is pinned down to within an accuracy characterized by the average error p, then... q can only be given at the same time to within an accuracy characterized by the average error q1 ≈ h/p1.” That’s the uncertainty principle. But like many equations, including E = mc2 and Maxwell’s equations, its first appearance is not in its now-famous form. Anyway, Heisenberg sent off a paper on his idea that was published in May.

How did Heisenberg interpret it in physical terms?

He didn’t, really; at the time he kept claiming that the uncertainty principle couldn’t be interpreted in physical terms, and simply reflected the fact that the subatomic world could not be visualized. Newtonian mechanics is visualizable: each thing in it occupies a particular place at a particular time. Heisenberg thought the attempt to construct a visualizable solution for quantum mechanics might lead to trouble, and so he advised paying attention only to the mathematics. Michael Frayn captures this side of Heisenberg well in his play Copenhagen. When the Bohr character charges that Heisenberg doesn't pay attention to the sense of what he’s doing so long as the mathematics works out, the Heisenberg character indignantly responds, "Mathematics is sense. That's what sense is".

Was Heisenberg disturbed by the implications of what he was doing?

No. Both he and Bohr were excited about what they had discovered. From the very beginning they realized that it had profound philosophical implications, and were thrilled to be able to explore them. Almost immediately both began thinking and writing about the epistemological implications of the uncertainty principle.

Was anyone besides Heisenberg and Bohr troubled?

The reaction was mixed. Arthur Eddington, an astronomer and science communicator, was thrilled, saying that the epistemological implications of the uncertainty principle heralded a new unification of science, religion, and the arts. The Harvard physicist Percy Bridgman was deeply disturbed, writing that “the bottom has dropped clean out” of the world. He was terrified about its impact on the public. Once the implications sink in, he wrote, it would “let loose a veritable intellectual spree of licentious and debauched thinking.”

Did physicists all share the same view of the epistemological implications of quantum mechanics?

No, they came up with several different ways to interpret it. As the science historian Don Howard has shown, the notion that the physics community of the day shared a common view, one they called the “Copenhagen interpretation,” is a myth promoted in the 1950s by Heisenberg for his own selfish reasons.

How much did the public pay attention to quantum theory before the uncertainty principle?

Not much. Newspapers and magazines treated it as something of interest because it excited physicists, but as far too complicated to explain to the public. Even philosophers didn’t see quantum physics as posing particularly interesting or significant philosophical problems. The uncertainty principle’s appearance in 1927 changed that. Suddenly, quantum mechanics was not just another scientific theory – it showed that the quantum world works very differently from the everyday world.

How did the uncertainty principle get communicated to a broader public?

It took about a year. In August 1927, Heisenberg, who was not yet a celebrity, gave a talk at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, but it sailed way over the heads of journalists. The New York Times’s science reporter said trying to explain it to the public was like “trying to tell an Eskimo what the French language is like without talking French.” Then came a piece of luck. Eddington devoted a section to the uncertainty principle in his book The Nature of the Physical World, published in 1928. He was a terrific explainer, and his imagery and language were very influential.

How did the public react?

Immediately and enthusiastically. A few days after October 29, 1929, the New York Times, tongue-in-cheek, invoked the uncertainty principle as the explanation for the stock market crash.

And today?

Heisenberg and his principle still feature in popular culture. In fact, thanks to the uncertainty principle, I think I’d argue that Heisenberg has made an even greater impact on popular culture than Einstein. In the American television drama series Breaking Bad, 'Heisenberg' is the pseudonym of the protagonist, a high school chemistry teacher who manufactures and sells the illegal drug crystal methamphetamine. The religious poet Christian Wiman, in his recent book about facing cancer, writes that "to feel enduring love like a stroke of pure luck" amid "the havoc of chance" makes God "the ultimate Uncertainty Principle." In The Ascent of Man, the Polish-British scientist Jacob Bronowski calls the uncertainty principle the Principle of Tolerance. There’s even an entire genre of uncertainty principle jokes. A police officer pulls Heisenberg over and says, "Did you know that you were going 90 miles an hour?" Heisenberg says, "Thanks. Now I'm lost."

Has the uncertainty principle been used for serious philosophical purposes?

Yes. Already in 1929, John Dewey wrote about it to promote his ideas about pragmatism, and in particular his thoughts about the untenability of what he called the “spectator theory of knowledge.” The literary critic George Steiner has used the uncertainty principle to describe the process of literary criticism – how it involves transforming the “object” – that is, text – interpreted, and delivers it differently to the generation that follows. More recently, the Slovene philosopher Slavoj Žižek has devoted attention to the philosophical implications of the uncertainty principle.

Some popular culture uses of the uncertainty principle are off the wall. How do you tell meaningful uses from the bogus ones?

It’s not easy. Popular culture often uses scientific terms in ways that are pretentious, erroneous, wacky, or unverifiable. It’s nonsense to apply the uncertainty principle to medicines or self-help issues, for instance. But how is that different from Steiner using it to describe the process of literary criticism?

Outside of physics, has our knowledge that uncertainty is a feature of the subatomic world, and the uses that it has been put by writers and philosophers, helped to change our worldview in any way?

I think so. The contemporary world does not always feel smooth, continuous, and law-governed, like the Newtonian World. Our world instead often feels jittery, discontinuous, and irrational. That has sometimes prompted writers to appeal to quantum imagery and language to describe it. John Updike’s characters, for instance, sometimes appeal to the uncertainty principle, while Updike himself did so in speaking of the contemporary world as full of “gaps, inconsistencies, warps, and bubbles in the surface of circumstance.” Updike and other writers and poets have found this imagery metaphorically apt.

The historians Betty Dobbs and Margaret Jacob have remarked that the Newtonian Moment provided “the material and mental universe – industrial and scientific – in which most Westerners and some non-Westerners now live, one aptly described as modernity.” But that universe is changing. Quantum theory showed that at a more fundamental level the world is not Newtonian at all, but governed by notions such as chance, probability, and uncertainty.

Robert Crease’s book (with Alfred S. Goldhaber) The Quantum Moment: How Planck, Bohr, Einstein, and Heisenberg Taught Us to Love Uncertainty will be published by Norton in October 2014.

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