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.|
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.