Quantum Weirdness 104: Heisenberg’s Uncertainty

“Doubt is unpleasant, but certainty is ridiculous.”–Voltaire

Heisenberg may be dead, but his uncertainty principal is alive and kicking.
(Image credit unknown)

It was the end of the Newtonian worldview.   Early in the 20th century relativity and quantum mechanics created a new scientific outlook on reality–counter-intuitive and downright….well…weird.  The final nail in the coffin of so-called Newtonian determinism was put forth by one Werner Heisenberg in 1927: the uncertainty principle.   Simply stated, you can’t exactly know both the momentum and location of a quantum object.  The more precisely you know one, the less precisely you know the other.   And while recent news headlines suggest to some that Heisenberg has been overturned, this is absolutely NOT the case.   It was thought that the very act of measuring a quantum particle added to the uncertainty, but that was never really part of Heisenberg’s equation–which in fact can also apply to macroscopic phenomena like sound and water waves.  So while a team from the University of Toronto was able to devise a means to measure a quanta (such as an electron or photon) with minimal increase in uncertainty, even they admitted “the quantum world is still full of uncertainty, but at least our attempts to look at it don’t have to add as much uncertainty as we used to think!”

Heisenberg’s principle plays a critical role in something that is rather significant in the foundations of modern philosophy, and as I see it, civilization itself.  That would be how we view the future.  This will be explained in the next conjecture.

Here is a simple video demonstration of the concept by Walter Lewin of MIT–a single-slit experiment.

If you’re brave enough to tackle the math, here is a link to another video from Mind Bites that explains it in terms so simple even I can understand it.  Er…maybe.


  1. It seems strange that Heisenberg can state so precisely his principle when the more important point may be, “What are we looking at? Is it a particle? Is it a wave? Is it matter? Does it matter?” If one uses Synergetics, and when you realize we are looking at spinning geometric structures in a different coordinate system, the “uncertainty” goes away.

  2. Martin Yolles says:

    Now that it has been postulated that Warp Drive (thank you Gene Roddenberry) is possible we will need a Heisenberg compensater.

    • Aha. Maybe so. But as I commented on many blogs that reported this story yesterday, what’s really still needed is “exotic matter.” I don’t think it’s even known exactly what that is, let alone whether it is possible to create it. It will certainly be fun to see how it plays out, though. As for Roddenberry, he certainly popularized the idea of warping space for faster than light travel, but he certainly didn’t invent it. My first sci-fi experience with that concept came from reading Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time in middle school, a few years BTE (Before Trek Era).

  3. Lewin is so much fun. How can you not enjoy this stuff?

  4. love how he ends it: “but that’s the way the world works”…he makes it sound so matter of fact at the end…hilarious 🙂

  5. Bill Storage says:

    Re foundations of modern philosophy: No scientist has been more misread, misunderstood and misused by philosophy than dear Heisenberg. If Heisenberg had chosen less provocative language to express his concepts, Jacques Derrida (and many less competent than he) would have no basis for their obscurantism and denial of causality. Stanley Aronowitz would have needed to dream up a slightly more original new age basis for claiming that science has no ability to describe the physical world.

  6. Super interesting post. You’ve gained a fan and I’ll be following your blog from now on.

  7. Mark,
    I appreciate and enjoy your commentary about the physical nature of the universe. I really appreciate the fact that we (humans) are given the capacities to think; to search and to discover our universe. The uncertainty lies in its certainity!

  8. Real quantum physics is so much better than the woo-woo stuff it has been reduced to by fringe medicine. All haul Messrs Bohr, Dirac etc. Only problem is I still don’t know whether Herr Schroedinger’s cat is dead or not, and I’d rather not look lest the probabilities collapse to one… 🙂

  9. I love this stuff even though I don’t understand it – it weird and wonderful

  10. Rhohit Inani says:

    This is something unique. ll be glad to see some string theory application of yours! 🙂

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