< Return to Religion of History's 100 Most Influential People
< Return to Famous Lutherans
The Religious Affiliation of Physicist
Influential physicist Werner Heisenberg was a Lutheran. He was a member of Germany's largest Protestant religious body, the Evangelische Kirche.
From: Raymond J. Seeger, "Heisenberg: Thoughtful Christian" in The Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation, 37 (December 1985): 231-232 (http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1985/JASA12-85Seeger.html; viewed 26 September 2005):
Throughout his life Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976), whose uncertainty principle (1927) of quantum mechanics inaugurated the "golden age" (rive years) of atomic physics, basked in the Greek philosophy of his classical education. (His father was Professor of Greek at the University of Munich.) In his last two years at Maximilian Gymnasium, puzzled by a hook-and-eye atomic model in the physics textbook, he found greater satisfaction in Plato's explanation of the perfect solids in terms of simple triangles-a unifying principle behind the universal mutability. His resolve to study mathematics was rebuffed by the disinterest of the mathematics professor in contrast with his warm reception by the theoretical physicist Arnold Sommerfeld (18681961), who became his mentor for the doctorate.
At twenty-one he spent some time at the University of Gottingen, where he became an assistant to Max Born (1882-1970). Three years later he was a Rockefeller scholar at the Neils Bohr (1885-1962) Institute for Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen. At twenty-five he was made Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Leipzig, where he started his own institute four years later. In 1933 he received the 1932 Nobel Prize in Physics for his Uncertainty Principle (1927).
Despite his personal dissatisfaction with Naziism, he decided to remain in Germany. In 1939 he was called up by Army Ordnance to work on atomic energy; he recognized the potentiality of an atomic bomb, but overestimated the technical efforts requisite. In 1941 he became Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics at Dahlem. In May 1945 the British took him captive to Godmanchester, where he was released eight months later. He became Director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physics in Gdttingen: renamed the Max Planck Institute in 1947 and transferred to Munich in 1958. Heisenberg died at seventy-five; he had made numerous lecture tours in the U.S.
Heisenberg admitted in his early acquaintance with Wolfgang Pauli (1900-1958), "I did not know what was meant by understanding in Physics," His friend replied, "Understanding nature surely means taking a close look at its connections, being certain of its inner workings." He believed "our scientific work in physics consists in asking questions about nature in the language we possess and trying to get an answer from experiments by the means that are at our disposal." Although his quantum mechanics was initially positivistically oriented (a reliance upon observed frequencies and intensities), he himself was not favorable to positivism inasmuch as it does not encourage any theory in its early stages of conception, (e.g., quantum theory). He began his "Physics and Beyond" (197 1) with the statement, "Science is made by man." He was attracted by the simplicity and beauty of the mathematics of idealized nature. (In the Physics Auditorium at the University of G6ttingen is the motto: "Simplex sigillum veri" [the simple is the seal of the true].) A scientific theory has to be true not only to observations, but also to the idea of truth and beauty. "The beauty of nature is reflected in the beauty of science." For him, "In the beginning was symmetry." Hence he was quite pleased with the new physics in which the conservation of matter is lacking and in which there is a limit to the divisibility of the same thirty elementary particles-all being of the same "substance," say, energy, and transformable into one another with similar properties. He looked upon elementary particles as Aristotle's "potential," different kinds being associated with particular fields of force.
He felt that science in the past had often been overly optimistic-probably because it had been over-simplified. Nowadays science limits its understanding more modestly within the framework of experience. Quantum theory, indeed, which has revolutionized all physics, was not initially concerned with a central part of physics.
Heisenberg thought continually about the philosophical implications of science. "It is in quantum theory," he claimed, "that the most fundamental changes with respect to the concept of reality have taken place, and in quantum theory in its final form the new ideas of atomic physics are concentrated and crystallized." "Atomic science has turned science away from the materialistic trend it had during the nineteenth century." He was quite in agreement with the abandonment of the causality principle in order to relate the solution of Schr6dinger's equation to observations. He emphasized the idea of "closed" systems, (definitions, axioms, mathematics), e.g., Newtonian mechanics, heat including statistical mechanics, electrodynamics including restricted relativity, and quantum theory-thus not attempting a single, comprehensive system.
When he was fifty-five, Heisenberg gave the Gifford lectures at St. Andrews on "Physics and Philosophy." He himself was religious, a member of the Evangelische Kirche (Lutheran and Calvinistic mixture), which his family had traditionally attended. As he once wrote me, he obviously did not subscribe to all the tenets of his grandparents. Nevertheless, he and his wife educated their children "definitely along the lines of the Christian religion." He was once asked by Pauli if he believed in a personal God. This was his reply: "Can you, or anyone else, reach the central order of things, or events, whose existence seems beyond doubt, as directly as you can reach the soul of another human being? I am using the term 'soul' quite deliberately so as not to be misunderstood. If you would put the question like that, the answer is yes."
For him "the spiritual pattern of the community [connection between good, beautiful, and true] we call the religion of the community"-it includes culture with or without a god. Religion, he believed, is the foundation of ethics, ethics the prescription of life; it concerns ideals, not norms. It is also the foundation of trust. Faith requires trust; we must believe in-not just about. "If I have found faith, it means I have decided to do something and am willing to stake my life on it." Heisenberg believed one cannot live by distinguishing sharply between knowledge and faith, i.e., science and religion; he felt that modern physics has thrown fresh light on basic ethical and political problems, "Human, philosophical, or political problems will crop up time and again and theauthor [Heisenberg] hopes to show that science is quite inseparable from these more general questions." He admitted you cannot be a good politician and a good scientist at the same time. He noted with regret Descartes' emphasis upon mind and matter in a world somewhat isolated from God, who became thus more transcendental and less immanent.
Werner Heisenberg: He wrote: "Wenn wir an die naechste Zeit denken, so droht uns die staerkste Gefahr wohl von der Verwechslung der boesen und der guten Maechte. Gerade in einer Epoche, in der sich die Bindung zur alten Religion loest, ist die Gefahr, dass Daemonen die Herrschaft der Goetter uebernehmen, groesser als je; und die Daemonen verbuenden sich stets mit jenem glaenzenden Phantom, das die Menschen zu allen Zeiten irregefuehrt hat, mit der politischen Macht" (Ordnung der Wirklichkeit 1942) [Source: http://www.ping.be/jvwit/WHeiseshortbioquote.html].
From: "Werner Heisenberg" article in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Werner_Heisenberg; viewed 12 July 2005):
Heisenberg was the head of Nazi Germany's nuclear energy program, though the nature of this project, and his work in this capacity has been heavily debated...
During the early days of the Nazi regime in Germany, Heisenberg was harassed as a "White Jew" for teaching the theories of Albert Einstein in contrast with the Nazi-sanctioned Deutsche Physik movement. After a character investigation that Heisenberg himself instigated and passed, SS chief Heinrich Himmler banned any further political attacks on the physicist...
Heisenberg revealed the atomic bomb program's existence to Bohr at a conference in Copenhagen in September 1941. After the meeting, the lifelong friendship between Bohr and Heisenberg ended abruptly. Bohr later joined the Manhattan Project. It is known that Reich's munitions minister Albert Speer was Heisenberg's strongest ally in the Nazi leadership and that Speer attempted to divert research funds away from nuclear weaponry. Speer came into conflict with other Nazi leaders for this stance. For this reason the SS ensured that funding was also given to rival nuclear projects without Speer's knowledge.
It has been speculated that Heisenberg had moral qualms and tried to slow down the project. Heisenberg himself attempted to paint this picture after the war, and Thomas Power's book Heisenberg's War and Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen adopted this interpretation. Part of this interpretation is based on the fact that Heisenberg did not champion the project to Albert Speer in a way which got it any attention or very much funding (which Samuel Goudsmit of the ALSOS project interpreted as being partially because Heisenberg himself was not fully aware of the feasibility of an atomic bomb). At best (for Heisenberg), he may have tried to hinder the German project; at worst, he may have just been ignorant of how to create an atomic bomb (it has been wryly commented that one can know either Heisenberg's morality in this respect, or his competence, but not both).
A passage from a 1943 letter from Heisenberg to Dutch scientist Hendrik B. G. Casimir indicates that at the very least Heisenberg was a strong German nationalist:
History legitimizes Germany to rule Europe and later the world. Only a nation that rules ruthlessly can maintain itself. Democracy cannot develop sufficient energy to rule Europe. There are, therefore, only two possibilities: Germany and Russia, and perhaps a Europe under German leadership is the lesser evil. (Blood and Water, Dan Kurzman, 1997, p. 35, ISBN 0-8050-3206-1)
In February 2002, following the attention generated by Copenhagen a letter written by Bohr to Heisenberg in 1957 (but never sent) was released by the Niels Bohr Archive. In it, an angry Bohr relates that Heisenberg, in their 1941 conversation, did not express any moral problems with the bomb making project, that Heisenberg had spent the past two years working almost exclusively on it, and that he was convinced that the atomic bomb would eventually decide the war. Bohr was responding to the recent publication of journalist Robert Jungk's Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, which painted Heisenberg as having single-handedly and purposely derailed the German project for moral reasons. To justify the claim, Jungk had printed an excerpt from a personal letter from Heisenberg which gestured towards such a moral role. The excerpt, however, was taken heavily out of context, and in the full letter Heisenberg was far more demure about whether he had taken a strong moral stance. After reading the out-of-context excerpt, Bohr was understandably flustered that Heisenberg was (apparently) claiming to have purposely derailed the Nazi bomb project, as it did not match his own perception of Heisenberg's war work at all.
Some historians of science have taken this letter as evidence that the previous interpretation of Heisenberg's resistance was wrong, but others have argued that Bohr profoundly misunderstood Heisenberg's intentions at the 1941 meeting, or that his reaction to Jungk's work was overly passionate. As a piece of evidence, the letter has had little effect on overall historical conclusions. The Bohr letters had been sought after by historians for many years, but remained off limits on the wishes of the family; part of the reason they were released was to satisfy curiosity about whether they contained any drastically new historical information (they did not).
It is also thought that Italian scientist Gian Carlo Wick approached Heisenberg in January 1944 as an emissary for the OSS as part of Operation Sunrise, to negotiate the capitulation of Nazi scientists to the ALSOS mission. Allied intelligence through Stockholm continued to sound alarm about Nazi uranium research right up to war's end, but this was part of Diebner's project and not Heisenberg's.
Webpage created 26 September 2005. Last modified 26 September 2005.
We are always striving to increase the accuracy and usefulness of our website. We are happy to hear from you. Please submit questions, suggestions, comments, corrections, etc. to: firstname.lastname@example.org.