Never undertake a venture for which your heart does not dare to ask God’s blessing.
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742 – 1799) Aphorisms
On occasion it may come to pass, accidentally or decreed by Destiny, that one man alone must decide upon a course of action whose consequences are so vast that they divert the River of Life.
Werner Karl Heisenberg was a man burdened with such a fate.
But before I embark on the treacherous journey to fathom his heart and thus unravel, however cursorily, one of history’s most horrendous enigmas, allow me to take you for a moment to Würzburg, a small city that nestles in the lovely scenery of southern Germany.
Dating back to Celtic times, it was reputedly the stronghold of a chieftain named Virtius who flourished about 1000 BC. The Roman invaders called it Segodunum, and in the fourth century AD the Alemanni made it a principal dwelling place. From 650 AD onwards it was a dukedom of the Franconian kings, and around that time a flock of Irish monks began to destabilize the region’s heathen weltanschauung with Christ’s incomparable message. In 1127 the city hosted Germany’s first knightly tournament, and during the Imperial Diet of 1168 Emperor Frederic I, Barbarossa invested Würzburg’s bishop with the rank of a duke, henceforth to be addressed as prince bishop. A successor, Johann von Egloffstein, established in 1402 one of Europe’s first and finest universities, the High School of Würzburg. Two hundred years later another successor perverted his priestly office by staging a witch hunt among the local nuns, subjecting many of them to torture and burning at the stake. About 1720 the Prince Bishopric Residence, a magnificent baroque palace reminiscent of the one in Versailles, was planned and initiated by a rather imperious churchly ruler who preferred artistic splendour over pious modesty, but in doing so fed an army of superb craftsmen and their families for years on end. Which might have been a redeeming factor when he met his Maker before everything was finished. And which certainly was, and still is, a better means to waste the taxpayer’s money than conducting illegal wars or simply doling it out to Goldman Sachs. At the building’s splendid conclusion some forty years later the new prince bishop, Carl Philipp von Greiffenclau, commissioned Giambattista Tiepolo (1696 – 1770), already then of great fame, to create Apollo and the Continents as an adornment for the central staircase. Breathtaking in every grandiose detail, it is also the world’s largest fresco.
The Residenz barely survived World War II and Churchill’s incendiary bombs, an apocalyptic firestorm that reduced the city’s mediaeval centre with its pretty half-timbered houses and their occupants to ashes. As for Tiepolo’s fresco, it was saved by John Davis Skilton, a US army officer and savant from Connecticut who, deeply shocked by the devastation, ordered the shattered building to be covered with a makeshift roof. The grateful Würzburgers held a memorial service in his honour on February 28th, the day when he was born a hundred years ago.
The boy’s parents were both university professors, with the father a much revered Byzantinist. They ensured, small wonder, an intellectually fertile milieu, deeply anchored in Christian mores and the classical disciplines, and finely tempered by regular sessions of the family musical quartet in which Werner played the cello or piano. Thus it doesn’t come as a great surprise when, after entering school, his teachers attest that he has a bright mental aptitude.
These are the last golden years of the Empire, a peaceful and prosperous era with an affluent bourgeoisie, thriving Fine Arts and steady improvement of the poorer classes. But also an epoch of permissiveness and laissez-faire that allows a trove of alien invaders to undermine the moral and aesthetic foundations prevalent for centuries. Styling themselves the liberal vanguard or worse, they are bent on the subversion of a complacent upper middle class, its sexual inhibitions, religious certainties and adherence to authoritarian rule. The means to implement these intrinsically destructive aspirations are the usual Trojan horses like theatre, literature and journals. Particularly the latter, often brilliantly realized, exert a subterranean influence whose extent is not fully understood by the monarchy’s watchdogs and therefore only half-heartedly countered. If one observes, within this particular context, illustrations from those times, it becomes obvious how fat the worms were already then that gnaw to this day at the roots of our great Christian-European inheritance.
Well, we know what kind of flowers the artist might have had in mind. Or what his intentions were when he distorted a Greek goddess, rendered throughout the ages by our own great masters as an implacable deity of supreme beauty, into a dulcet Art noveau ogre. Thomas Theodor Heine (né David and thus neither Thomas nor Theodor) worked many years as chief illustrator for the Simplicissimus, a Munich based satirical weekly that tried actively to ridicule, discredit and undermine the monarchy. Thus frequently in trouble with the authorities, its publisher was even banished to France for a while, but somehow managed to return after paying a hefty fine. The whole decadent spoof, needless to say, came to an abrupt end in 1933 when the new regime forced the artist, together with many of his fellow believers, into exile.
But these damaging influences were still a far cry from what they are today, and it is a fair guess that their impact on pastoral Würzburg was minimal. Here life continued to evolve calm and predictable, founded on the certainties of a righteous Christian belief.
This inner confidence changed in no way when Werner’s parents moved to Munich and enrolled him in the Maximilian Gymnasium, the finest college on hand. Where the boy almost immediately impressed teachers and classmates alike with his brilliant intellect, his instant grasp of complicated formulae in mathematics and similar subjects. Physics became his particular interest, already at a time when it had yet to become part of the general curriculum. In his free time he mastered, more or less en passant, the differential and integral calculus.
As was the generally accepted convention in those years, he had joined a youth movement and submerged himself in its idealistic, deeply romantic and highly patriotic creed. The Blue Flower was its external symbol, and it meant anything from wandering on weekends through God’s beautiful world to dreaming of a perfect Utopia.
This complacent state of affairs was abruptly and horribly shattered by the outbreak of World War I, a Christian fratricide so colossal that it had no equivalent in human history. The simpler settings which lead to its eruption, like a host of binding treaties among the different European powers, can be easily discerned. But the underlying facts, or real reasons, are more difficult to pinpoint. It seems a safe bet that Germany, whose Emperor William II tried to avoid war at all costs and to the very last moment, had grown somewhat too mighty for Imperial Great Britain’s taste.
As for young Werner Heisenberg, his world had turned upside down. At the age of sixteen, during the last year of the war, he received orders to help out on one of the local farms, a daily task that lasted usually from four in the morning to ten in the evening. It was an experience that made a profound impact on his further life and thinking, because here he understood for the first time fully how hard menial toil can be, and how privileged he had been until now.
The war ended with the murderous Versailles treaties, and the next years brought political upheavals that very nearly provoked a civil war. Bavaria’s self-proclaimed Prime Minister Eisler, a Jewish rabble-rouser whose assorted socialist and communist mob had overthrown the Wittelsbach monarchy, was assassinated in 1919, and thereafter a varying band of successors tried to get matters under control. The much reduced army had regrouped, and Werner, due to his Boy Scout experience, served for a while as expert orderly in one of the so-called Free Corps that besieged Munich with the intention to force a change of government.
This rather brief adventure throws nevertheless a light on the mental frame of most young men of that period. Who all saw every day more clearly how the once well-ordered, affluent and highly cultured German society was succumbing to a general deterioration of traditional morals, the permission of frivolous and even criminal activities, internal strife, increasing misery, and downright starvation in the poorer quarters. It was therefore small wonder if the boys’ collective dreams envisaged a Germania redux under a wise and powerful king, and themselves as his faithful standard bearers.
As for young Werner, this yearning translated with time into a deep love for his country and was the reason, though not the only one, why he refused to leave it when the world prepared for an onslaught more terrible than any witnessed until then.
Meanwhile he had enrolled himself in the Maximilianeum, Munich’s most prestigious university, where his genius soon became apparent. Germany had established itself in those days as an international Camelot of the natural sciences, particularly where physics was concerned. Great advances came to pass in the decipherment of the infinitesimally small forces that held the universe together, and everyday new and exciting discoveries were made. Yet it was a small band of bright minds that were capable of performing these extraordinary mental somersaults, and it took only a short while before young Werner Heisenberg became known to a larger scientific audience.
When considering the mind-boggling antics these men are able to perform, I can’t help but feel like a cerebral midget with the horizon of a cockroach. Or, alternately, someone who has strayed into a mental asylum where the inmates communicate calmly by means of utterly convoluted mathematical formulae that have no meaning at all.
Take this one, for example.
If q is the position coordinate of an electron (in some specified state), and p its momentum, assuming that q, and independently, p have been measured for many electrons (all in the particular state), then Δq is the standard deviation of measurements of q, Δp is the standard deviation of measurements of p, and h is Planck’s constant (6.626176 x 10 –27 erg-second).
Q indeed! And, so help me God, p as well! You may cry and shake your head. And quote Shakespeare’s even though it’s madness, it has method. To which I would happily agree, were it not that madness and method are indeed intrinsically inherent in the above formula, and that it, with a few extensions, came to unleash a destructive force so immensely powerful that it defies human imagination.