Thursday, December 22, 2011

Advent calendar #22: Space, Time and Birds

Today's anecdote about Werner Heisenberg has been preserved by Felix Bloch in his article "Heisenberg and the early days of quantum mechanics" Physics Today, December 1976:
We [Werner Heisenberg and Felix Bloch] were on a walk and somehow began to talk about space. I had just read Weyl's book Space, Time and Matter, and under its influence was proud to declare that space was simply the field of linear operations.

"Nonsense," said Heisenberg, "space is blue and birds fly through it."

This may sound naive, but I knew him well enough by that time to fully understand the rebuke. What he meant was that it was dangerous for a physicist to describe Nature in terms of idealized abstractions too far removed from the evidence of actual observation. In fact, it was just by avoiding this danger in the previous description of atomic phenomena that he was able to arrive at his great creation of quantum mechanics. In celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of this achievement, we are vastly indebted to the men who brought it about: not only for having provided us with a most powerful tool but also, and even more significant, for a deeper insight into our conception of reality.


  1. Hi Bee & Stefan,

    Perhaps Heisenberg should have retorted space(s) are the places which accommodate experience and serve as residents for our thoughts.

    “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.”

    -William Shakespeare, “Hamlet”, Act ii, Scene 2



  2. [q]space was simply the field of linear operations[/q]A pretty nonlinear field, I'd say... Of course, I don't believe in Universe composed just from abstract terms, but the probabilistic notion of dense aether model is quite apparent too. At the most general perspective of Universe understanding the extreme positivist and nonformal approaches apparently converge mutually in similar way like the transverse and longitudinal waves at the water surface.

    Max Tegmark, a MIT teacher: The Mathematical Universe


    Alan P. Lightman, a MIT teacher: We are living in a universe uncalculable by science.

  3. Woke up screaming in the middle of the night, thought I saw a devil or an angel in the night, I hope I'm wrong but I know I'm right, thought I saw a devil or an angel in the night, spread its wings and it took flight, thought I saw a devil or an angel in the night.

  4. Greenish turquoise, not blue,

  5. IMHO, real space cannot "be" any mathematical entity, all such are inadequate representations that we cobble together for our purposes.

    Merry Christmas!


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