Uncertainty : Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science
The remarkable story of a startling scientific idea that ignited a battle among the greatest minds of the twentieth century and profoundly influenced intellectual inquiry in fields ranging from physics to literary criticism, anthropology and journalism
In 1927, the young German physicist Werner Heisenberg challenged centuries of scientific understanding when he introduced what came to be known as "the uncertainty principle." Building on his own radical innovations in quantum theory, Heisenberg proved that in many physical measurements, you can obtain one bit of information only at the price of losing another. Heisenberg's principle implied that scientific quantities/concepts do not have absolute, independent meaning, but acquire meaning only in terms of the experiments used to measure them. This proposition, undermining the cherished belief that science could reveal the physical world with limitless detail and precision, placed Heisenberg in direct opposition to the revered Albert Einstein. The eminent scientist Niels Bohr, Heisenberg's mentor and Einstein's long-time friend, found himself caught between the two.
Uncertainty chronicles the birth and evolution of one of the most significant findings in the history of science, and portrays the clash of ideas and personalities it provoked. Einstein was emotionally as well as intellectually determined to prove the uncertainty principle false. Heisenberg represented a new generation of physicists who believed that quantum theory overthrew the old certainties; confident of his reasoning, Heisenberg dismissed Einstein's objections. Bohr understood that Heisenberg was correct, but he also recognized the vital necessity of gaining Einstein's support as the world faced the shocking implications of Heisenberg's principle.
The uncertainty in this delightful book refers to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, an idea first postulated in 1927 by physicist Werner Heisenberg in his attempt to make sense out of the developing field of quantum mechanics. As Lindley so well explains it, the concept of uncertainty shook the philosophical underpinnings of science. It was Heisenberg's work that, to a great extent, kept Einstein from accepting quantum mechanics as a full explanation for physical reality. Similarly, it was the Uncertainty Principle that demonstrated the limits of scientific investigation: if Heisenberg is correct there are some aspects of the physical universe that are to remain beyond the reach of scientists. As he has done expertly in books like Boltzmann's Atom, Lindley brings to life a critical period in the history of science, explaining complex issues to the general reader, presenting the major players in an engaging fashion, delving into the process of scientific discovery and discussing the interaction between science and society. Thus, Lindley presents a very good chapter dissecting historian of science Paul Forman's iconic, if terribly flawed, analysis of the same time period. (Feb. 20)
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February 11, 2008
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Excerpt from Uncertainty by David Lindley
Robert Brown, son of a Scottish clergyman, was the archetypal self-made scholar, sober, diligent, and careful to the point of fanaticism. Born in 1773, he trained in medicine at Edinburgh, then served for some years as a surgeon's assistant in a Fifeshire regiment. There he put his spare time to worthy use. Rising early, he taught himself German (nouns and their declensions before breakfast, his diary records, conjugation of auxiliary verbs afterward) so that he could master the considerable German literature on botany, his chosen subject. On a visit to London in 1798, the young Scotsman met and so impressed the great botanist Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, that on Banks's recommendation he sailed three years later on a long voyage to Australia, returning in 1805 with close to four thousand exotic plant specimens neatly stowed on his ship. These he spent the next several years assiduously describing, classifying, and cataloging, serving meanwhile as Banks's librarian and personal assistant. Brown's remarkable Australian trove, along with Banks's own equally notable collection, became the heart of the botanical department of the British Museum, of which Brown became the first professional curator. He was, said a visitor to Banks's London house, "a walking catalogue of every book in the world."
Charles Darwin, before he was married, passed many a Sunday with the learned Robert Brown. In his autobiography Darwin describes a contradictory man, vastly knowledgeable but powerfully inclined to pedantry, generous in some ways, crabbed and suspicious in others. "He seemed to me to be chiefly remarkable for the minuteness of his observations and their perfect accuracy. He never propounded to me any large scientific views in biology," Darwin writes. "He poured out his knowledge to me in the most unreserved manner, yet was strangely jealous on some points." Brown was notorious, Darwin adds, for refusing to lend out specimens from his vast collection, even specimens that no one else possessed and which he knew he would never make any use of himself.
It is ironic, then, that this dry, cautious man should be commemorated now mainly as the observer of a curious phenomenon, Brownian motion, that represented the capricious intrusion of randomness and unpredictability into the elegant mansion of Victorian science. It was indeed the very scrupulousness of Brown's observations that made the implications of Brownian motion so grave.
In June 1827, Brown began a study of pollen grains from Clarkia pulchella, a wildflower, popular today with gardeners, that had been discovered in Idaho in 1806 by Meriwether Lewis but named by him for his co-explorer William Clark. Characteristically, he intended to scrutinize minutely the shape and size of pollen particles, hoping that this would shed light on their function and on the way they interacted with other parts of the plant to fulfill their reproductive role.
Brown had acquired a microscope of recent and improved design. Its compound lenses largely banished the rainbow-hued fringes of color that afflicted the borders of objects seen in more primitive instruments. Under Brown's eye the ghostly shapes of the pollen grains sprang clearly into view, their edges neatly delineated. Even so, the images were not perfect. The pollen grains wouldn't stay still. They moved about, jiggled endlessly this way and that; they shimmered and stuttered; they drifted with strange erratic grace across the microscope's field of view.
This incessant motion complicated Brown's planned investigations, but it was not so very surprising. More than a century and a half earlier Antony van Leeuwenhoek, a draper from Delft, Holland, had astonished and delighted the scientific world when he described tiny "animalcules" of strange and myriad form that his crude microscope revealed in droplets of pond water, in scrapings from the unbrushed teeth of old men, and even in a suspension of ordinary household pepper crushed into plain water. "The motion of most of these animalcules in the water was so swift, and so various, upwards, downwards, and round about, that 'twas wonderful to see," the entranced Leeuwenhoek wrote. His discovery not only spurred further scientific investigation but also led well-to-do citizens to purchase microscopes for their parlors and drawing rooms, where they could amaze their guests with this new wonder of nature.
Some animalcules had tiny hairs or finny extensions that enabled them to swim about. Others wriggled like little eels. It was easy to imagine that their meanderings were purposeful in some rudimentary way.