HEISENBERG'S CERTAINTY PRINCIPLE
In the fall of 1941, Werner Heisenberg, head of the German nuclear energy project, visited his mentor and friend, Niels Bohr, in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen. Although countless historians have theorized as to the subject matter of this meeting, no record of the conversation between these two great men exists. Afterward, they never spoke again.
Heisenberg walked into Bohr’s study. Things were not as he remembered them from his time as a student. Yes, the pictures of young Hans, Erik, Ernest, Aage, and their mother still decorated the sea-green walls. The small desk sat in the corner, and the immaculate brown rug with its white border lay on the floor, but the wooden table was bare. In the days of Heisenberg’s fond memories, Bohr, ever the gracious host, would have had Margrethe set it with coffee. But in the Copenhagen of today, fresh milk was a rarity, coffee an impossibility. Pantries throughout Denmark were as empty as the streets Heisenberg had navigated to arrive at Bohr’s home, the shortage of gasoline making driving impossible for those not traveling under the Nazis’ auspices.
Weizsäcker walked in beside him. Weizsäcker, who would someday discover all Heisenberg did to delay the project. Weizsäcker, who blithely ignored the horrific implications of German success.
“I should speak to him alone first, Weizsäcker. A familiar face will be more agreeable.”
“Is that wise, Heisenberg? He must join the program.”
“It is more than wise. It is necessary. An hour, no more.”
“Very well. I will leave. Improve his humor.”
Moments after Weizsäcker left, the study’s inner door opened.
“Bohr. I trust you are well.”
“Well enough, though your masters leave little for the people of Denmark to enjoy.”
“Scarcity is everywhere, my friend, but I have some small privileges. Tell me your needs, and I will see them met.” Heisenberg glanced at the empty table again.
“You will not win me to your ends with butter and sliced bread, Heisenberg.”
“I never meant—”
“No, of course. And neither are you the head of the Third Reich’s atomic weapons research program, nor are you here with the worm who launched that program.”
Heisenberg’s eyes widened.
“Oh, yes. I saw Weizsäcker through my bedroom window,” Bohr said.
“Germany’s victory is inevitable. Their atomic program has no equal, and the first country with a nuclear device will win. But you—”
“So we must roll over like the dogs we are and show Hitler our bellies?”
“Have no doubt. I know what Hitler is, but if there is to be peace—” Heisenberg said.
“There will be no peace for the Jews, unless you mean the peace of death. Have you forgotten my mother? Her family?”
“Forgotten? How could I forget? But you can be safe. Your family can be safe. Margrethe, your beautiful boys—” Heisenberg threw his hand toward the wall of pictures, his lip trembling at the thought of what might happen to those boys should he fail to persuade Bohr.
“For how long? And at what cost?”
“Please, I beg you. Save yourself. There is no other means.” Heisenberg fell, weeping, into one of the room’s two cushioned chairs and searched his pockets for a handkerchief. Soft linen touched his face. Heisenberg looked up and took the cloth from Bohr’s hand.
Bohr sank down by Heisenberg’s chair, his voice dropping with his body.
“I agree, Heisenberg. As things are now, Germany will win. But if there were a means? Would you save my wife, my children, and countless others, though it put you at risk?”
Heisenberg stared at Bohr.
“In an instant, my friend, in an instant. But what is this means? The nuclear device? You solved the extraction problem? You have isolated enough uranium-235?” Heisenberg said.
“No, not the bomb. Something more dangerous.”
“More dangerous? What could be more dangerous? Have you taken leave of your senses?”
“With all candor, Heisenberg, at times I wonder, but I will show you. Only then will you understand.”
Bohr left, returning with a device, which he set upon the table. The two-foot-square machine consisted of a large number of metal cylinders and rectangles affixed to a board. A silver electrode dangled from the machine by a three-foot-long wire. They sat at the table, the machine between them. Bohr secured the electrode to Heisenberg’s head with rubber strapping.
“Electroencephalography?” Heisenberg said.
“Yes. It is, in part, Hans Berger’s technology. Albeit I have made many modifications. I need the energy of your mind. SS-Officer Berger has no shred of human decency, but his apparatus is useful.”
Bohr twisted the ends of the machine’s only two loose wires together and placed a coin upon the table. One face of the coin bore a crown, the other the inscription “DANMARK 2 KRONER.”
“We are ready. When I flip this coin, tell me which side will land up,” Bohr said.
“Bohr! Games? You’re playing games with me?”
“Time is short. Will you help or leave me to my fate?”
Heisenberg stared at him open-mouthed. He touched the electrode at his temple and sighed.
“The crown,” Heisenberg said.
Bohr flipped the coin. It fell, crown up.
Again, the crown landed upright.
“A parlor trick. What is its purpose?” Heisenberg said.
“Will the coin to land on its edge and toss it yourself.” Bohr handed him the coin.
Glaring at Bohr, Heisenberg hurled the coin away. It spun through the air, landing on its edge at the table’s center.
“My God.” Heisenberg stood. The coin fell over. He picked it up.
“It is a perfectly ordinary two-kroner coin,” Bohr said.
“So I observe.”
“Yes, observe,” Bohr said.
Heisenberg collapsed into his chair. “The Observer Effect? Yes, of course. But in the Effect, the observer only changes the outcome of an event by observing it; he never controls it. I controlled the outcome. You have found a way to control the Observer Effect. It was I. I made the coin land on its edge.”
“Yes, and together, we can make Hitler land in the hell he came from,” Bohr said.
Heisenberg’s brow furrowed. “But why do you need me? With this machine in your hands, why does the Reich still stand?”
“Because I cannot influence anything greater than a coin,” Bohr said, rubbing his forehead with his hand.
“And you think I can tell you why?”
Pulling off the binding and electrode, Heisenberg walked to the window. In the street, a couple walked arm in arm. He watched the pair cross the street then turned back to Bohr.
“Pairs. Observable facts come in complementary pairs: position and momentum, time and energy, time and frequency—the identity of the pair depends on the system,” Heisenberg said.
“Yes, and under your Uncertainty Principle, knowing one member of the pair makes it impossible to measure the precise value of the other member.”
“Correct. But to succeed in your aim, you must control both halves of the appropriate pair. That is, you must know the value of both members of the pair to a certainty. Here, the pair is the past and future,” Heisenberg said.
“But the past and the future are time. As you just said, time is only half of a pair.
“Not in this system. The pair depends upon the type of work a system is doing. You seek to alter the course of the events we see unfolding before us. Your system is a stream of time, and its work is to flow from one event to another. That time stream’s only property is the direction of its flow—to the past or to the future. You must control two points in a line—one point in the past and one in the future relative to your own position in the time stream,” Heisenberg said.
“But the coin—” Bohr said.
“You can control the coin toss because it happens in the instantaneous present and has no importance to the past or future. It is a node in the time stream, a point where everything stands still for an instant. Thus, it requires no control of a pair,” Heisenberg said.
“But to control the course of history, I must concentrate, unwavering, forever? Then all is lost.” Bohr closed his eyes. Hunched over the table, he bowed his head.
“No. The principle I suggest, let us call it a Certainty Principle, requires the observer to invent and hold certain in his mind two new facts that change the time stream’s course—one regarding the past, one regarding the future—but the difficulty is not in holding the certainty of those facts in the observer’s mind forever. The difficulty is that one man’s mind cannot hold two such certainties at once because to know one of the two facts limits the ability to accept the exact nature of the other,” Heisenberg said.
Bohr sat up. “But two men? Two men could each be certain of one fact in a chain to change history’s course.”
“I agree. Two men connected to the machine, one choosing a past fact and one a future, could affect the course of a time stream. But, each man would need to choose a fact beyond the other’s belief. Each man could only be certain of his fact.”
“I need something silver to use in place of a second electrode.” Bohr ran out, returning with a silver spoon and a hammer. Careless of the damage to his desk, he flattened the spoon and strung it to the machine with a long wire.
“I am certain that last month Einstein signed a letter urging Roosevelt to establish an atomic weapons program,” Bohr said, smiling.
Heisenberg laughed. “Einstein, the pacifist? Impossible. I am certain the Americans will have the bomb first.”
“Roosevelt’s program outdistances Germany’s? Preposterous.” Bohr reached for the ruined spoon.
“One thing.” Heisenberg grasped Bohr’s hand.
“While we need not concentrate forever, if our concentration ever wavers in each other’s presence, even after we disconnect from the machine, we might undo all we accomplish here.”
“Then we must never again be in each other’s presence?”
Heisenberg nodded. Bohr rushed forward and embraced him. Once they separated, Heisenberg lifted the electrode, Bohr the spoon.
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Thanks to Blondinrikard Fröberg for the use of his wonderful coin photo as my story image.