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The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

Uncertainty is one of the best known implications of the quantum revolution. In 1927 Heisenberg argued that key physical quantities (e.g. position and momentum) are paired up in quantum theory. As a result, they cannot be measured simultaneously to any desired degree of accuracy. Attempts to increase the precision of one measurement result in less precise measures of the other member of the pair.

Take an electron, for example. We might try to determine its position by using electromagnetic radiation. Because electrons are so small, radiation of very short wavelength would be necessary to locate it accurately. However, shorter wavelengths correspond to higher energies. The higher the energy of radiation use, the more the momentum of the electron is altered. Thus any attempt to determine the location accurately will change the velocity of the electron. Conversely, techniques for accurately measuring the velocity of the electron will leave us in ignorance about its precise location.

Further discussion of the Uncertainty Principle can be found in John Polkinghorne’s largely non-technical book The Quantum World.

The Significance of Uncertainty:

The conservative interpretation was that uncertainty was a limitation imposed by our measuring techniques.

However, Heisenberg himself took a more radical view - that this limitation is a property of nature rather than an artifact of experimentation. This radical interpretation of uncertainty implies that quantum mechanics is inherently statistical - it deals with probabilities rather than well-defined classical trajectories. Such a view is clearly inimical to classical determinism. See Shaking the Foundations: the implications of quantum theory.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

Quantum Physics and Theology

Index - God, Humanity and the Cosmos, 1999 T&T Clark

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

Related Book Topics:

The Ultraviolet Catastrophe
The Photoelectric Effect
Collapsing Atoms
Wave-Particle Duality
The Quantum Revolution
The Schrödinger Wave Equation
The EPR Paradox
Shaking the Foundations: The Implications of Quantum Theory
Schrödinger’s Cat and the Meaning of Quantum Theory
Does God Collapse the Wave Function?
The Hidden-Variable Theory of David Bohm
The Many-Worlds Interpretation
The Rediscovery of the Observer


Dr. Lawrence Osborn and Dr. Christopher Southgate in God, Humanity and the Cosmos. Published by T&T Clark.

See also:

Albert Einstein
Niels Bohr
Werner Heisenberg
Physics and Cosmology
The Relation of Science & Religion
A Dialogue of Scientists and Theolgians
At Home in the Quantum Universe
Books on Physics and Theology