1927 – Germany

‘It is impossible to determine exactly both the position and momentum of a particle (such as an electron) simultaneously’

The principle excludes the existence of a particle that is stationary.

To measure both the position and momentum ( momentum = mass × velocity ) of a particle simultaneously requires two measurements: the act of performing the first measurement will disturb a particle and so create uncertainty in the second measurement. Thus the more accurately a position is known; the less accurately can the momentum be determined. The disturbance is so small it can be ignored in the macroscopic world, but is quite dramatic for particles in the microscopic world. MAX BORN’S ‘probabilistic’ interpretation, expressed at about the same time, concerning the likelihood of finding a particle at any point through probability defined by the amplitude of its associated wave, led to similar conclusions.

The uncertainty principle also applies to energy and time. A particle’s kinetic energy cannot be measured with complete precision either.

Heisenberg suggested the model of the proton and neutron being held together in the nucleus of the atom after the work of JAMES CHADWICK who discovered the neutron in 1932.

Heisenberg decided to try to develop a new model of the atom, more fundamentally based on quantum theory that worked for all atoms. He believed the approach of trying to visualise a physical model of the atom was destined to fail because of the paradoxical wave-particle nature of electrons.

Every particle has an associated wave. The position of a particle can be precisely located where the wave’s undulations are most intense. But where the wave’s undulations are most intense, the wavelength is also at its most ill-defined, and the velocity of the associated particle is impossible to determine. Similarly, a particle with a well-defined wavelength has a precise velocity but a very ill-defined position.

Since the orbits of electrons could not be observed, he decided to ignore them and focus instead on what could be observed and measured, namely, the energy they emitted and absorbed as shown in the spectral lines. He tried to devise a mathematical way of representing the orbits of electrons, and to use this as a way of predicting the atomic features shown up in the spectral lines. He showed that matrix mechanics could account for many of the properties of atoms, including those with more than one electron.

Together with PAUL DIRAC, Pascual Jordan created a new set of equations based on the rival theories of Schrödinger and Heisenberg, which they called ‘transformation theory’. Whilst studying these equations, Heisenberg noticed the paradox that measurements of position and velocity (speed and direction) of particles taken at the same time gave imprecise results. He believed that this uncertainty was a part of the nature of the sub-atomic world.

The act of measuring the velocity of a subatomic particle will change it, making the simultaneous measurement of its position invalid.

An unobserved object is both a particle and a wave. If an experimenter chooses to measure the object’s velocity, the object will transform itself into a wave. If an experimenter chooses to measure its position, it will become a particle. By choosing to observe either one thing or the other, the observer is actually affecting the form the object takes.

The practical implication of this is that one can never predict where an electron will be at a precise moment, one can only predict the probability of its being there.