Who is Heisenberg?
It’s a fair bet that any scientists who were watching Breaking Bad for the first time would have let out a collective cheer when they first learnt of Walter White’s criminal pseudonym, Heisenberg. Not only does this pseudonym denote Walt’s felonious alter ego but it’s also an allusion to the Nobel Prize winning physicist Werner Heisenberg.
You may be wondering why Walt would nominate “Heisenberg” as his pseudonym. However, in order to get a handle on the character of Heisenberg, it is first necessary to say a few words about atoms.
My previous post discussed chemical elements as the basic types of stuff that make up the world and the universe. Whereas a compound like water (H2O) can be broken down into its constituent elements (hydrogen and oxygen), it is not possible to obtain anything simpler (chemically speaking) than a chemical element. In short, elements are the simplest kinds of chemicals.
Having established the fundamental kinds of chemicals in the universe, the next question is to ponder what might be the least amount of an element that it is possible to have. For instance, imagine that you are in possession of a nugget of pure gold (such as the one below).
Imagine that you wish to distribute this gold to as many of your friends as possible. You might begin by breaking up the nugget into small pieces (presumably with some substantial measure of effort and persistence). Having obtained small pieces, you might use an appropriate tool to chip those pieces in half. In turn, you then chip the chips into smaller chips, and then those chips into smaller chips again. By this point you might have to get out a microscope and deploy some suitably tiny implements to continue breaking your gold into smaller and smaller pieces. Eventually the slivers of gold are too small to see, even with a microscope. But alas, there is still more work to be done. After toiling for an unimaginable amount of time, you eventually reach the point where it is impossible to obtain a smaller piece of gold. Breaking it up any further would mean that it is no longer gold. This tiny, singular and indivisible amount of gold is an atom of gold. In other words, an atom is the smallest amount of a chemical element that it is possible to obtain.
As would be expected for something claiming to be the smallest possible amount of an element, an atom is an exceedingly miniscule piece of stuff. For instance, the atomic radius of a gold atom is 144 picometres. In other words, a gold atom has a radius of 0.000000000144 metres. To put this in perspective, roughly 630, 000 gold atoms could fit across a course piece of human hair. And let’s not forget that as far as atoms go, gold is actually pretty sizable. A gold atom is about twice the size of a carbon atom, which in turn, is about twice the size of a hydrogen atom (the smallest of all atoms).
The atomic theory of matter (what we are talking about here) is an immensely important and useful thing. In Six Easy Pieces, the American physicist Richard Feynman even goes so far as to remark:
“If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made up of atoms ….”
To put it simply, Feynman is suggesting that atomic theory might just be the single most meaningful and useful scientific statement about the universe: it is a platform from which the rest of science can be explored and/or inferred. Not surprisingly, the first video on the amazing Veritasium Youtube channel also concerns itself with atomic theory.
While everything is made up of atoms, pure elements are actually fairly rare. Overwhelmingly, atoms of different elements are joined together by chemical bonds to form compounds. Examples of compounds are literally endless and include everything from water to carbon dioxide to methamphetamine and heroin.
However, if we want to find out who Heisenberg is, we must be prepared to dig deeper into the atom. Despite being ridiculously small, atoms are not the most fundamental particles in the universe. Despite the word “atom” being Greek for “uncuttable,” atoms can indeed be dissected into smaller pieces. In fact, atoms are made up of three subatomic particles: protons, neutrons and electrons. It is worth noting here that protons and neutrons are themselves made up of even more fundamental particles, but let’s leave that to the particle physicists for now.
In principle, atoms are fairly simple things. An atom consists of a heavy and positively charged nucleus that is surrounded by a cloud of lightweight and negatively charged electrons. In fact, electrons have such little mass that they are typically ignored in the calculations carried out by most chemists. The nucleus itself is made up of both protons and neutrons, but it is the protons that carry the positive charge (neutrons have no charge). Interestingly, it is the number of protons in the nucleus that determines the identity of an atom. Whatever guise an atom might adopt, it will always be identifiable by the number of protons in its nucleus. For example, hydrogen has just one proton in its nucleus. Carbon has six protons in its nucleus. Uranium has ninety two. The number of protons in the nucleus is referred to as the atomic number. As it turns out, the chemical elements are arranged in ascending order of atomic number on the periodic table.
In any case, the electrons tend to flit about in the region of space around the nucleus. For any given atom, the number of electrons is equal to the number of protons (this is why an atom is neutral but becomes charged as soon as it loses or gains electrons). Chemical reactions involve elements and compounds going to war against one another in an intricate and often violent dance of sharing, exchanging and/or rearranging electrons. In fact, chemistry and chemical reactions have an awful lot to do with electrons and almost diddly-squat to do with the nucleus.
Now, let us just hold up right here for a moment. I will be needing you to police your imagination for the next few minutes. Please barricade from entry into your mind any mental images of Saturn, orbiting planets, hoola hoops, train tracks, dart boards, billiard balls or any other conceivable form of imagery based on concentric circles. Despite what you may have heard or seen in high school or in any number of pictures like the one below, electrons do not under any circumstances whatsoever behave anything remotely like planets orbiting the sun. The idea of electrons orbiting the nucleus like planets around the sun has been a source of unending angst and frustration for many scientists.
The truth of the matter is that electrons (like almost anything in particle physics) are much too tricksy and counterintuitive to behave like railroad cars shuttling along well defined rails. Instead, it is more accurate to imagine the nucleus being surrounded by a cloud of electrons (in this analogy the electrons are a bit like water droplets). The electron cloud is not static however. The droplets (electrons) are constantly and randomly whizzing around.
Alternatively, an atom can also be conceptualised as an aggravated beehive wherein the hive is the nucleus and the bees are the electrons. Unlike real bees however, electrons can’t just go anywhere they please. Instead, electrons are confined to more or less defined regions of space in which they buzz about randomly, silently and unconsciously. To be pedantic, typically the number of electrons in an atom is also quite a bit less than the number of bees in a hive (or droplets in a cloud for that matter).
However, even clouds and beehives have their limitations when describing the atom, not least because it is technically inaccurate to think of electrons as being tiny moving dots (whether that be a droplet, bee or otherwise). Without going into the details, electrons exhibit the properties of both waves and particles, a phenomenon referred to as the wave-particle duality (check out the Minute Physics video on this topic here). To put this in terms that Robert Louis Stevenson would understand, electrons are both Jekyll and Hyde and yet they are someone different altogether. Strange, you say? Yes, very strange.
If you are uncertain about where all of this is heading, you are experiencing a quite natural response. In fact, electrons are inherently uncertain things. One of the strikingly unusual characteristics of electrons and other tiny particles is that the more you know about the position of a particle like an electron the less you know about the direction it’s moving and how fast it’s going (and vice versa). In either case, there is a minimum amount of uncertainty involved and this has nothing to do with the act of observing the particles in question (though it is true that “observer effects” can also be important). Drum roll please. This is what is known as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, an idea proposed by Werner Heisenberg in the first half of the twentieth century.
When Werner Heisenberg won his Nobel Prize for physics in 1932, the Nobel Foundation credited him with the “creation of quantum mechanics.” Quantum mechanics (otherwise known as quantum physics) is really just a fancy name for the study of really very very small things. It turns out that really tiny things like electrons bear next to no resemblance to the large things that we interact with on a daily basis. This is why the uncertainty principle applies to electrons but does not apply to things like basketballs. We apply quantum physics to the study of electrons whereas studying the movements of basketballs comes under the domain of classical physics. Unlike an electron, we can apply calculations to satisfactorily determine both where a basketball is, how fast it’s moving and where it’s heading. By contrast, there is an inherent uncertainty associated with the position and momentum of tiny things like electrons (for a related Minute Physics video click here).
Since we can’t know at once exactly where electrons are and how fast and where they are going, the best we can do is describe a region of space where there is a pretty good chance of finding one at any given time. The region of space in which we are likely to find an electron is known as an orbital. Despite sounding similar to the word “orbit,” orbitals have nothing to do with circular or planetary orbits. In fact, orbitals take all kinds of interesting shapes and sizes, some of which are represented below.
As such, when Walt adopts “Heisenberg” as his criminal pseudonym, he invokes the name of a physicist who helped revolutionise how we think of the atom and even the field of physics. As ScriptPhD has astutely pointed out, Breaking Bad’s allusion to Werner Heisenberg and the uncertainty principle reflects the extent to which Walt’s life is also steeped in uncertainty, including perhaps most of all, moral uncertainty. ScriptPhD also rightly observes that Werner Heisenberg is himself a controversial historical figure whose position on nuclear weapons development in WWII has been much debated (check out this BBC documentary on Werner Heisenberg).
Moreover, Breaking Bad’s allusion to Heisenberg and quantum physics also connects with the concept of duality. Just as an electron is both a wave and a particle (and neither of these), Walt is both a chemistry teacher and a meth cook. He is both a family man and a drug dealer, a victim and a murderer, a terminal patient and a man who is “awake” and reborn. The drama in Breaking Bad arguably stems from how Walt navigates this duality and yet remains a single human being. As far as television drama and character development goes, Breaking Bad is an indivisible piece of gold.