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Werner Heisenberg

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Important Terms and People

World War I

Werner Karl Heisenberg was born on December 5, 1901, in Würzburg, Germany. His father, August Heisenberg, was a professor of Greek philology, one of the most prestigious and competitive fields in Germany at that time. He had received his appointment at the University of Würzburg just weeks after Werner's birth, and the position meant security as well as social advancement. Werner's mother, Annie Heisenberg, was a smart homemaker who did not have opportunities for higher education in Germany. Instead, she lived through the success of her husband and children, whom she raised with skill and dedication. She managed to receive some advanced education from her father, and she even helped her husband grade homework.

August is remembered as a stiff authoritarian figure. He treated his sons as he did his students: with proper respect but little tolerance for laziness. His career progressed brilliantly, as he excelled both as a teacher and a scholar. The rigor of his workload, however, took its toll on his family life. August was known for a fiery temper, and without Annie's calm and pleasant disposition, their children may have suffered the consequences of a turbulent family environment. Instead, Werner's parents played a positive role for the most part and gave their son an atmosphere in which to flourish.

The Heisenberg family was no different from the typical bourgeois family at the time, placing an emphasis on social grace and respectability. Such respectability required the appropriate expressions of nationalism and religion. Early on, Werner questioned the pretense, recognizing that his parents themselves did not believe in much of the dogma, though they maintained Christian ethics. Werner's reluctance to accept dogma foreshadowed a similarly critical perspective that he would develop as a scientist. He saw religion and science as complementary aspects of reality, each covering only a limited jurisdiction.

Werner's childhood companion was his brother, Erwin, who was older by a year and a half. Competition between the two brothers was fierce. It began with music, which was essential for all cultured children–Werner playing the cello and later the piano, Erwin on the violin, and August singing with his operatic voice. Later, the competition turned to academics, particularly mathematics, as August would challenge his sons to compete on the problems assigned to Erwin for homework. Competition often turned into violent struggles, and it was only after a particularly bloody fight, involving the use of wooden chairs, that the two brothers decided to call a truce. At about the ages of thirteen and fourteen, Werner and Erwin finally saw the futility of violence between them, but they never really became close either. Erwin would leave for military duty soon and go on to school in Berlin. He eventually became a chemist, but little mention is made of him in Heisenberg's public recollections. The two probably saw each other only occasionally at family functions.

Werner was competitive outside the family as well. He recognized his weaknesses in the athletic arena, for example, and often trained alone to improve. Though not a naturally talented runner, he soon became one of the top long-distance runners in the area–all for the sake of personal challenge rather than any real desire for recognition or victory. On the other hand, Werner also had a large capacity for holding grudges whenever he felt himself wronged. Rather than confront the offender, he would simply retreat into his own world and cut off all relations with that person. Once at the age of five or six, for example, a teacher rapped him on the knuckles for some transgression of which Werner believed himself to be innocent. For the rest of the year, he refused to cooperate in any way with the teacher who had punished him.

As Werner matured, it became clear that science would be his path, though he apparently toyed with the idea of pursuing music. He often hibernated in his inner world, but this withdrawal contributed to the development not of a wild imagination, but of an abstract, logical, and mathematical mind. The reasons for this development are numerous. Werner's father's early challenges must have contributed to his precocity, while the stability and exactness of science may have appealed to his emotional sensitivity.

Werner's was further disrupted in 1910, when his father received an appointment to the only professorial chair in Germany for Byzantine philology. The entire family had to relocate to Munich.

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