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The Beauty of Uncertainty: How Heisenberg Invented Quantum Mechanics, Told in Jazz

Quantum mechanics and the combinatorial nature of creativity, set to song.

Seven decades after Henry David Thoreau explored the limits of knowledge and the value of “useful ignorance,” a very different intellectual titan, in a very different era, applied this philosophy to a very different field: In 1927, the German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg (December 5, 1901–February 1, 1976) formulated the tenet for which his name is best known today — Heinsenberg’s uncertainty principle, which points out the limits of our knowledge by stating that the more precisely we know the position of a given particle, the less precise our measurement of its momentum, and vice versa.

This principle was the natural progression of a groundbreaking paper Heisenberg had published two years earlier, which paved the way for the field that would eventually titillate the popular imagination more strongly than any other branch of science: quantum mechanics. Indeed, Heisenberg received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1932 “for the creation of quantum mechanics” and his work went on to influence generations of scientists.

Heisenberg’s legacy comes to life in a most unusual and wonderful celebration by Portland-based jazz pianist, songwriter, and children’s music maverick Lori Henriques in her song “Heisenberg’s Aha!” — a kind of musical counterpart to the most intelligent and imaginative children’s books celebrating great artists and scientists. It is found on her altogether infectious record How Great Can This Day Be (iTunes).

Beyond Heinsenberg contribution to quantum mechanics and the field’s general mesmerism, Henriques — who has previously celebrated Jane Goodall — explores broader themes bridging science and philosophy, from the importance of embracing the unknown to the combinatorial nature of creativity and the notion that all discovery builds on what came before, complete with a a delicious allusion to Richard Feynman’s famous insistence on the value of uncertainty.

Electrons are highly mysterious,
this topic indeed is quite serious
It’s starting to feel so imperious,
I think I’m becoming delirious.
I wanted to finally grasp
The quantum mechanics at last.
I stayed up for half the night reading
and by morning I felt like retreating.

I hardly could see how this thing could be
a concept I could comprehend.
It’s as if I’d come to the point I was numb,
all the way to my mind’s bitter end.
After all those hours of thinking,
just as I felt I was sinking,
I was saying things like “Aye yigh yigh yeynman”
when I heard the voice of Dr. Feynman.

He gave some advice that sounded quite nice —
he talked about imagination:
We must “stretch it out to the utmost,”
a companion to our concentration.
When we open our minds and calmly let go
of needing things to be familiar,
we can then head on face them and gladly embrace them
and celebrate how they’re peculiar.

An electron looks like a particle,
and it also acts like a wave,
and once I began to accept this
that electron began to behave.

This is called complementarity
when a concept that seems a disparity
is the very best way we can show
how a set of phenomena go.

He went on to say how he learned this one day
while studying dear Werner Heisenberg,
who walked after dark to his neighborhood park
just to keep his blood pressure from risin'(berg)

As he walked on in his torment,
questioning waves versus particles,
he encountered his own aha moment,
which is now found in hundreds of articles.

More than eighty years ago,
Werner Heisenberg managed to show
probability and uncertainty
both exist, we must agree.
The future’s unpredictable
no matter how well we see.
Dear Heisenberg embraced this,
the beauty of uncertainty.

You can either know where the electron is,
or where the electron is going —
but you can’t know both at the very same time
’cause the measuring affects what you’re knowing.

Again, it’s called complementarity
when a concept that seems a disparity
is the very best way we can show
how a set of phenomena go.
The very act of observing
changes an electron’s location.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t say this
was a bit of a collaboration.
The ideas that all came together
for Heisenberg to have his zinger
were inspired by studies before
that came from Niels Bohr and Schrödinger.

And, indeed, Schrödinger and Bohr
were inspired by who came before
like Pascal and Coulomb and Newton
and Maxwell and Einstein and more.
There’s a path from all of this knowledge
and it’s leading directly to you
to pick-up where others left off
and discover a concept that’s new.

And remember your imagination
is a voice inside that can help you
to understand quantum mechanics
and so many more things about you.

These particle waves are so active,
in each atom they’re racing around;
they’re all taking up so much room
and they really and truly astound.
The vast spaces where electrons roam
mean we’re not as solid as we thought —
so, actually, when you sit down to tea
you’re levitating on the spot!

The wilder the concept the more fun it is
I feel scientifically brave
And thanks to dear Heisenberg’s aha we know
an electron is both a particle and a wave!

How Great Can This Day Be comes on the heels of Henriques’s previous record, The World Is a Curious Place to Live — seventeen marvelous jazz odes to various branches of science, from mathematics to linguistics, including a particularly delightful astronomy mashup of “Saint James Infirmary.” Complement her celebration of Heisenberg with Alice in Quantumland, a marvelous allegory for quantum mechanics inspired by the Lewis Carroll classic.

Published June 8, 2015




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