Why Simon Stephens Titled His Play Heisenberg

By Elspeth Sweatman

In February 1927, German physicist Werner Heisenberg felt he was on the verge of discovering something revolutionary. He didn’t have the math yet to back it up, but deep down, he knew he was right. Heisenberg could see a new theory emerging, one that would shake the foundations of Western physics.

Physicist Werner Heisenberg. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
In simple terms, Heisenberg’s theory—the uncertainty principle—states that if you know the momentum of an object (such as an electron circling a nucleus), you will not be able to accurately measure its location. The same is true in reverse: you can know the position of the electron, but not its momentum. This is because an electron acts as both a particle (a defined entity) and a wave (something that is harder to pin down accurately because, like the ripples in a pond, it has no set position), and because the very act of measuring the momentum and position affects the results.

Heisenberg’s discovery was a bombshell. For centuries, the world had been governed by Newtonian physics, a school of thought that believed that everything in our universe could be observed, measured, and predicted. Every event in nature, from large to small, had a cause and an effect. Now, physicists were confronted with a world that was inherently uncertain and unpredictable.

Almost immediately after it was published, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle became the go-to metaphor for journalists, politicians, anthropologists, philosophers, psychologists, actors, and cartoonists. Since 1927, it’s been used to explain everything from the existence of God to the Wall Street Crash of 1929 to the zone blitz in the NFL.

Non-scientists latched on to Heisenberg’s discovery as a means of explaining two specific aspects of our lives: the unpredictability and randomness of our world, and the observer effect—the idea that the act of measuring something changes its behavior and the outcome. We witness the observer effect when we watch reality television; the presence of cameras causes people to change their behavior. We behave differently when we think we are being watched.

Sarah Grace Wilson (as Georgie) and James Carpenter (as Alex) in rehearsal
for A.C.T.'s 2018 production of Heisenberg. Photo by Beryl Baker.

It is this aspect of the uncertainty principle that inspired playwright Simon Stephens. “If you’re carefully watching where somebody is going or what someone is doing, the likelihood is—you never properly see them,” says Stephens. In Heisenberg, neither Alex nor Georgie can accurately get the measure of the other person; both can watch the other intently, but then still be surprised by what he or she does next. “That paradox was extraordinary as a means of interrogating what it was to be a human being,” said Stephens.
Heisenberg runs through April 8 at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about the science behind the play? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series.

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