Apparently there are no famous regional authors connected with Würzburg but Werner Heisenberg, Nobel prize winner in physics, was born in this town in 1901. Since I had contributed to the evening entertainment on past bicycle tours too - although with mixed success - Wulf asked me whether I would be willing to read something written by Heisenberg. To this end I took his autobiography from the shelf and noticed it had been published in 1969 making it more than 40 years that I first read the book.
What is comprehension in physics? Are we satisfied with the understanding of a phenomenon when it is possible to describe it by a mathematical formalism? Although such an understanding will allow us to do calculations and hence make predictions the situation remains quite unsatisfactory. It turns out that terms and definitions of our daily experience will break down when we try to describe phenomena in the atomic world.
|A cartoon by N. Harding showing Erwin Schrödinger clueless. His equation named after him allows to calculate discrete quantum states by using wave mechanics. |
One famous example is the physical description of light. Whilst Christiaan Huygens in the 17th Century forwarding the wave theory of light had beaten Isaac Newton's corpuscular theory modern physics eventually englobed both ideas and talks about a particle-wave duality. This is not a fight between scientists but an attempt to explain the physics of light with pictures taken from our everyday experience where we need both complementary descriptions. The problem of comprehension and that our language is incapable of describing the phenomena in atomic physics in an inherently consistent way is one of Heisenberg's leitmotifs. Following my 40 year experience in the subatomic world it is just fascinating to read his book again.