What is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle?

by Lydia Baxter and Becca Jennings

Some people see the word “Heisenberg” and immediately think of Walter White’s pseudonym on AMC’s critically-acclaimed drama Breaking Bad. Both the famed television character, played by Bryan Cranston and FST’s second Mainstage production get their names from German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg, whose famous principle is one of the most misinterpreted scientific concepts to date. But what does it all really mean?

Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty explains that there is a limit to the information that people can unearth about how matter’s building blocks—quantum particles—behave. There are two characteristics of a particle that scientists try to determine: its location and the speed at which it moves. Heisenberg’s theory argues that it is impossible to accurately measure a particle’s position and momentum at the same time. For example, if a driver speeds on the highway and a police officer is able to measure the car’s exact speed, according to Werner Heisenberg, it is not possible to gauge the precise location that the vehicle was at when its speed was measured.

Playwright Simon Stephens sums it up simply, “If you know where something is, you can never know where it’s gonna go. If you know where something’s going, you never really know where it is.” Stephens is not the first writer to utilize Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as a thematic structure. Scientists, artists, and even politicians have referenced the uncertainty principle as a way to describe the unpredictability of human behavior, emotions, and the direction relationships can take.

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