Anyone who knows Heisenberg knows he’d gotten himself into some deep dung on account of the work he did. What nearly everyone doesn’t know is how his mom saved his life in the midst of a grand high-stakes drama. I’m not talking about that Heisenberg; but the other one.
Ask most people who Heisenberg is and you will be told the story of best television series ever created: Breaking Bad. As the story of Walter White grows increasingly dark and dicey, he adopted the crisp and curious pseudonym: Heisenberg. Hardcore Breaking Bad fans learned White didn’t just pull the name out of thin air. As a scientist, he took the name one of the most consequential scientists of the 20th Century who craftily operated in the midst of great evil. This is the Heisenberg (and his mom) of our story here.
The Breaking Bad Heisenberg is an Albuquerquean chemist. The real Heisenberg – Werner Heisenberg – was a German physicist, who among many accomplishments, is noted for developing the uncertainty principle, a foundational truth of quantum physics. It holds that at the elementary level, nature likes to play tricks on us, leading us to believe we can measure atomic particles with certainty, but in actuality we cannot because they are mischievous little tricksters. They are inherently uncertain, thus the principle. It was this discovery that brought Einstein to disapprovingly remark, “God does not play dice with the universe.” Werner was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1932 at the age of 30 for the creation of quantum mechanics. He published more than 600 academic articles by the time he died of cancer at age 74.
He was German by birth – a luke-warm Nationalist – but given his academic work he was thick as thieves with the leading Jewish physicists – Bohr, Einstein, Oppenheimer, Max Born, Wolfgang Pauli among many – and his lectures were filled by Jewish students. This earned him the title and suspicion of being a “White Jew”, a Jew by mentality rather than birth. Heisenberg was deeply tarred as such in an infamous 1937 editorial in a major SS newspaper entitled ‘White Jews’ in Science describing him as “this puppet of the Einsteinian ‘spirit’ in the new Germany” and as such “…the puppets of Jewry in German intellectual life…must disappear just as the Jews themselves.” Serious stuff.
But he was politically sophisticated. While he had great love and admiration for his Jewish professional friends and owed the older ones – particularly Neils Bohr – a great debt for his education under them, he also aligned himself as best he could the German Nation without actually having to participate in the Nazi machine. As a German Nobel Laureate, he was pressured to sign a statement of allegiance to the Fuhrer but refused, protesting that even though he could “personally vote ‘yes’’ to such an allegiance, he refused because, in his words, “political declarations by scientists seem to me improper because this was never a normal practice” before the rise of Hitler. Shrewd.
Now, to his mother.
The public call for his death in a concentration camp as a “White Jew” was of course a great concern to his family. His mother Annie knew the power and influence of the motherly heart, so she paid a visit to Heinrich Himmler’s mom for tea with whom she was long acquainted. Annie’s and Himmler’s fathers were friendly as members of the same Bavarian hiking club so she exploited that bridge, such as it was. With the power of one mother’s heart speaking to another, Annie saved the life of her son when Himmler wrote to Heisenberg nearly a year to the day of the “mothers’ summit” explaining,
…I have had your case examined with particular care and scrutiny, since you were recommended to me by my family. I am happy to be able to inform you today that I do not approve of the offensive [editorial that condemned you] and that I have put a stop to any further attack on you…
– With friendly greetings and Heil Hilter!
Yours H. Himmler.”
This favor was influential in his being drafted as a leader of the Third Reich’s effort to build an atomic bomb, as he was the German Robert Oppenheimer. He put himself wholeheartedly into the project, but with a curious spin; the well-being of the rest of world forefront in his mind.
Thomas Powers explains in his masterfully written and deeply researched book, Heisenberg’s War: The Secret History of the German Bomb, that Heisenberg communicated interest in and zeal for the project, but practiced a tactic of deliberate stalling. Germany had a notable head start on the United States in the race for the atomic bomb, but Heisenburg and his team craftily created numerous highly technical “problems” to hobble the pace of the project. Their explanations could hardly be contested – much less understood – by their military whip-crackers. The result was, as Powers explains, that despite the apparent industry around the project “…no serious effort to build a German bomb ever began” because “Heisenberg did not simply withhold himself [or] stand aside… He killed it.” And the Reich had failed to realized it had never really started. And the history of the Western world and its citizen’s was all for the better.
All because one mother thought to appeal to the motherly heart of another over tea one handsome summer morning.