Memories of my Father

Speech given in Leipzig 1991 by Wolfgang Heisenberg (1938-1994)


1 Introduction

Ladies and gentlemen, let me start out by saying how pleased and how privileged I feel to be talking to you about my father at the University of Leipzig, the very university where my father had his first appointment as professor in the late 1920s, at a very young age. But I want to also mention that I had at first been hesitant to take on this talk. It is always a somewhat delicate task to talk about one's father in public, particularly about a famous father. Added to that are the facts that since I am not a physicist myself, I can appreciate the professional accomplishments of my father only in their popularized version and that I never knew him as a younger man. Thus, I ask myself whether this talk is an undertaking not unlike that of a journalist trying to satisfy the curiosity of the public through pictures from the private life of a person, a form of journalism that always has been especially distasteful to my father bent on keeping a private realm for himself.

I am, however, of the opinion that this interest on the public's part is not only understandable but justified especially where not only the scientific body of work but also its political consequences are discussed. In this context I am particularly mindful of the recently revived debate - for whatever political motives - over the role of German atomic scientists during the Second World War.

In my description I will primarily rely on my own subjective memory, rather than try to "pay homage" to my father's person in any comprehensive way, much less sketch a kind of biography. This seems to be fitting because much less than other people I have known, my father tended not to play different roles in different contexts. I am practically certain that he did not act essentially differently in his professional and private life.

2 A View of my father from the 1950's.

When I am trying today to recall the image of my father, then the early 50's come to mind first - the middle-aged Heisenberg. At that time one couldn't spot the scientist at first glance. He appeared athletic, rigorous, his step was quick and extremely energetic, and he was dressed in line with the fashion of the time more conservatively than elegantly and perhaps casually on weekends. His tie always was properly tied, never without the tie-pin in form of the Planck "h". His face had a slight peasant-like aspect - or was it "Socratic"- which matched the somewhat unruly tufts of hair around his head, as well as the Basque hat he would wear in cool weather instead of a hat - not at all in Basque fashion - tilted and loosely bunched but tightly pulled over his head. Inside the family he was not very talkative, yet when addressed directly, he never evaded a conversation; then he would talk with animation, straight on target, without filigree, deliberately addressing problems in a factual manner. His glance seemed to allow one no vagueness in such conversation.

In my view my father was a man who, contrary to the stereotype of the theoretical physicist, always relied primarily on his feelings or rather on his instinct. That in and of itself may not be a special trait of Werner Heisenberg. What distinguished him was the very early experience that he could rely on his instinct and his imagination, and that he would be successful to the degree that he was willing to follow his ideas and feelings. Thus his trust in his own, instinctive decision making was nearly unshakable.

Naturally, that was possible only because of the unique way in which he combined emotional motivation and rational control. In spite of his willingness to follow his feelings, he was certainly not a man who followed superficial moods or fashionable trends. On the contrary, I know few people who could remain as independent from emotional swings, as well as from superficial political, aesthetic or intellectual trends. What distinguished him was his willingness and his ability to differentiate between "deep seated" feelings and "mere moods" which he kept under tight wraps with an ironclad self- discipline. Like many people of his generation he regarded it a weakness when one chose to yield to moods or to talk about emotional problems. His skepticism vis-a-vis Psychology was commensurately insurmountable.

Therefore, I think it would be wrong to call him a romantic, as some biographical texts have implied. He valued the classical period in music much more than the romantic period, giving preference to the simplicity of a Haydn string quartet over the complexity in form of the late Beethoven quartets e.g.. He was as perturbed by hints of "bohemian" sentimentality as he was by the emotional excesses of the late romantic period.

It may be this need to be independent from "superficial" and fleeting motivations that may have caused him to avoid all too close human encounters. As far as I remember, he was rather shy in his personal dealings, distanced, and a man of low key. He loved quiet, solitude, was averse to conflict, often reacting helplessly in the face of emotional outbursts. I can not remember a single overt fight between my parents, at most my mother's occasional complaints when my father removed himself too much from family problems.

This view of my father from the early 50's only scratches the surface of my memories. In reality these memories are much more complex, of course, given that they pertain to a rather long time span and because different family constellations imprinted themselves on various periods.

3 The Early Years in Göttingen, and Echoes of the Youth Movement.

Beginning with the time in Göttingen in the fall of 1946 the memories of my father start coming into relief. We saw him during the week generally only at the joint mealtimes, or, more rarely when he checked on homework. Even though I have the impression that the protectiveness of family life was important to him, he almost always remained distant there. Apparently, the interest my father had in the rather chaotic -given how many of us there were- lunchtime accounts of our day at school, was limited, as was his willingness to take a position on family differences or problems. Thus it was almost always my mother who listened to us, settled disputes and tried to keep up a minimum of order. We kids decided that as far as my father was concerned he was using his impressive powers of concentration to keep this part of family life from his awareness, since it was merely accidental and therefore incidental. We were told then that he was thinking about scientific problems- and those did not rank very high on our child scale of importance.

Even the check up on homework which manifests itself in so many families as a father's need for prestige or performance excellence was only marginally important in ours. Despite his own standard of excellence, my father did not expect any special successes in schoolwork from us. In his opinion it sufficed when our school performance was slightly above the average and even when this would occasionally not be attained, it did not seem to worry him too much. He may have betrayed a certain skepticism about school in this. Even in critical situations there was barely an immediate performance pressure. Reprimands were usually restricted to the metaphor of the cigarette- vending machine that acquired certain notoriety within the family due to its frequent use. We were lectured that our activities would yield only as much as we were willing to invest in terms of effort and energy, just as with the aforementioned vending machine. Basically, it was up to us to decide how much success we wanted to attain with our activities, and it was not until much later that I realized the degree to which this implied the assumption of self-value through achievement-based success.

We saw a very different father on weekends. Especially in those early years in Göttingen, the "Sunday field trip" was a family ritual, be it to the "Hainberg", the "Kerstlingröder Field", to one of the numerous castle ruins in the surrounding area, or to the "Equals" -two hills in the vicinity of Göttingen, of which my father would jokingly say they were named the "Equals" only because they were exactly equal distance from each other. Sometimes we joined forces with the family of Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker. Almost always the aim and highpoint of the endeavor was a large-scale open terrain game such as " Hide and Seek" "Holland in Danger" or "Robbers and Princess", with the very active and enthusiastic participation of the adults. These occasions not only taught us to move through rough terrain, but also to start an outdoor fire and make cocoa in an old aluminum pot which invariably tasted much more delicious than the one we had later in the afternoon at home.

It was obvious that my father's enthusiasm for what we termed "Field, Woods, and Meadow Activities" was rooted in the youth movement. Even though obviously I know about this period in his life only from his stories, I want to address them in a little more detail: I am convinced - without knowing it for certain - that the period of the youth movement, that is the time of scout meetings, of hiking and of the immediate experience of nature, had a profound influence on my father's emotional world. At least this was among the few periods in his life of which he would repeatedly and with great inner animation talk to us. He remained closely connected throughout his life to his friends from the youth movement. Although after the war the movement had no particular relevance, our joining a scout troop, along with playing music, was among the few things my father urged us to do.

Since my own experiences with the scout troops I had joined were rather disappointing, I have often asked myself what it was that made my father such an enthusiastic scout. In my answer I can only rely on the accounts of my father, according to which mainly three points were instrumental.

A primary factor was a sense of departure, a feeling of breaking free from the encrusted and dusty bourgeois world of the parents into a world which was supposed to be simpler, closer to nature and less confined by conventions. As far as my father was concerned, even the pretend non-bourgeois world of the late romantic period was part of the parental world. It is difficult to deny the influence of Jean Jacques Rousseau, at least as far as these predominantly emotional orientations are concerned.

Secondly, the need for closeness with nature was wedded for my father to a keen appreciation of nature's beauty. The beauty of a mountain landscape, a sunrise or a flower would leave a deep impression on him and in this he would not be deterred by the skepticism toward such impressions so common among scientists and artists of the time. In his home he liked to surround himself with mountain landscapes and his study was never without the reproduction of one of Lovis Corinth's "Walchensee" landscapes which showed the view from our house in Urfeld. Throughout his life he felt connected to the native (Upper Bavarian) landscape, almost equally as strongly as to the native culture. One might see a certain "nationalism" in this preference, which was, however, lacking certain political elements.

Finally, and third, life in the scouting world, apparently, gave him the experience of being part of a greater community united through the intense, if vague, sense of something new. Even fifty years later he would talk with fascination about the phenomenon that news of a planned scout meeting and the sense that something new and grand was in the offing, would often travel seemingly unaided from one scout to the next. It appears his expectations were never disappointed in that respect, either.

Here, a certain parallel to the way in which he was able to work as a physicist before the second world war, is evident: there too he felt he belonged to a (small) group of highly motivated scientists, who were united in their sense of a new creation. One might suggest that he was deriving his secure sense of the direction in which the "new" physics was headed, in similar fashion "as if unaided" from the intense communication within the group. He himself has often pointed out this parallel, by the way.

We may have to view the strong emotional need to be part of a group of men, united through common ideas or feelings - scouts, as well as atomic scientists were practically all-male groups- in the context of a certain predisposition to do "solitary battle" outside of these groups. At least his inclination for social contacts was rather limited. If possible, he avoided large social gatherings, stayed away from associations or clubs, and his immediate social invitations were restricted mostly to regular chamber music evenings, get-togethers with some scouting friends, and (in a general sense) professional contacts. Suffice this as far as the youth-movement is concerned,

Gradually, the games in open terrain were replaced by other playful combat, especially table tennis and chess. He liked table tennis, played it in a decidedly defensive style, with a lot of spins and an unusual penholder grip and he consistently went all out. His strength in chess was mostly in the end game and its preparation. The regular chess games on Sundays after lunch became progressively more like a battle that would take up large portions of the afternoon and were fought with the greatest exasperation, since we both hated losing. My father's visible ambition in these competitions was probably partly due to his enjoyment of his own prowess; however, the potential playfulness inherent in such competitions was largely lost.

Not too often did we have an opportunity at that time for a more relaxed, less competitive time together. Yet those opportunities would bring out a very different side of my father's. Once, at Christmas, he surprised me with the present of a real toolbox, and a booklet describing the construction of some simple physical appliances, such as electric motors, spark inductors, and Tesla transformers, etc. He then spent an amazing amount of time building some of these appliances with me. Apparently, he enjoyed the activity himself. Contrary to the games emphasizing competition, one hardly noticed the aforementioned Heisenberg ambition for performance excellence. He was not at all concerned about perfect craftsmanship. On the contrary, he developed an ability to improvise with imperfect means and partly through incredibly shoddy construction, but through very little effort to reach the goal, that is achieve a workable appliance. From a piece of strip metal found somewhere in the household, we bent the magnetic center for the first electric motor, using a hammer and pliers. From a piece of wood, rounded with a pocketknife, and a little sawed off metal tube we crafted a collector, and wires were artfully twisted together for lack of a soldering iron. As soon as the appliance was running, his interest waned, so that he was indifferent when it would cease functioning within a few minutes.

This ability to improvise also did not desert him in more demanding activities. When he was asked at chamber music evenings how he managed to play very difficult pieces with a relatively minor effort at practicing, he would attribute it not just out of modesty to his ability to "cut corners". Indeed, he had the great talent - as have, by the way, a number of experienced amateur players - to simplify, if necessary, any technically difficult passages so that a musically less astute listener would hardly notice.

I suspect that this talent came in handy in his profession too. When I began, in the course of my school years, to develop an interest in mathematics and physics, he advised me not to read the demanding standard texts, but pointed me instead in the direction of the much simpler booklets of the series called "Mathematics for Engineers". As far as I know, he himself gained his initial basic knowledge in mathematics and the natural sciences this way.

4 The Later Years in Göttingen.

During the later years in Göttingen there came a decisive shift in the relationship to our parents. Other interests replaced the halfhearted participation in scouting we had taken on from our father. This was the time for lessons in ballroom dancing, for giving parties at home, for having girlfriends, but also the time in which we ourselves developed our specific intellectual interests.

In some sense my mother's role in the family began to predominate now. One could say that preparations to parties and friendships in general did not belong in the immediate realm of expertise of my father. By no means did that imply that he was not interested in our personal affairs. If ever it came to a personal conversation or even a personal confrontation with my father, we could convince ourselves how lively his interest in our emotional and intellectual development could be. In general, though, he stayed clear of the heights and depths of family life, leaving this realm to my mother whose constant concern was to act as his buffer from day to day family problems. It was she who shaped family life, planned excursions, organized parties and exposed herself therefore to any and all arising conflict. Only when she capitulated to the difficulties, did he become active and then placed himself protectively at her side - to the best of his abilities. He would try to get a factual grip on the problems, but inevitably this would miss the point when the conflicts were of an emotional nature primarily. Though his advice may have been factually "correct", it was not always helpful.

During this period in Göttingen, the older children were leaving home gradually, in order to study or to start their own families. Yet, even after my parents' move to Munich, their house remained for years to come the center of family life. As we gained more distance from our parents, though, other aspects of my father became important. I am thinking of two foremost forms of connection: playing music together and talking about the current questions in politics, art or philosophy. I want to address both of these in more detail.

5 Music

Making music together at home has always been a very big part of our family life. My parents had met each other at a musical evening in Leipzig, and before we ourselves learned to play an instrument, the importance of music was clear to us due to the chamber music evenings of my father. At first, however, it was my mother who initiated us into music, who prepared a yearly Christmas concert with us, and who later supervised the daily practicing. Only when we were able to work our way through the simpler pieces in the chamber music literature, did my father begin to play piano trios with his two oldest sons on a regular basis, at first with a lot of patience and tolerance, but gradually with increasing personal pleasure. It took a few years, before he would accept us as equal partners. Thereafter, however, joint music making developed - next to our talks- into the activity by which I profited the most from my father.

That is easily explained: to begin with, my father was a very good pianist. More importantly, however, music and perhaps art in general had an importance to him that far surpassed a normal hobby, and he was somehow capable of transmitting this importance to us too. That way we made contact with a side of my father, which otherwise was accessible only in a very indirect way.

He believed that only the clear rules in art made it possible to express feelings. The 'evocative' aspect of art, namely a conscious manipulation of the perception and emotion of the audience, did not have much importance to him. In this he probably differed the most from professional artists. In playing music, he attempted with perhaps a touch of too much seriousness to let the music speak for itself, and not so much to sweep the audience away. This may have rendered his music making somewhat less colorful or more academic than he was envisioning it himself.

By the way, this peculiarity in my father's understanding of the arts corresponded to a peculiar characteristic, which he exhibited beyond music making in very different aspects of his life. He never made a conscious attempt in any of his public addresses, his lectures, or in private conversation to be personally brilliant, or play a role for his counterparts, to enchant or to seduce or to sweep them away. Paradoxically, this made for his unique ability to persuade others. I remember that in his lectures his direct approach to problems and the intensity with which he reflected on the questions of physics, as well as his willingness to engage in genuine dialogue, and, of course, his superior factual competence, were more convincing than the brilliant delivery of his thoughts. Even in a personal conversation he practically never tried to convince you through anything but factual arguments and his own credibility. If he is occasionally thought of as lacking a "leadership" personality, it is likely attributable to this inability to project his person in theatrical fashion which may be a necessary prerequisite for it.

6 Conversations about Politics

After my parents' move to Munich, it became a habit whenever we visited there to discuss with him the current politics and the philosophical problems touching on the natural sciences or the arts. I do not want to reconstruct here the details of our conversations but merely to describe some characteristic attitudes he had towards politics.

To begin, it seems noteworthy to me that he would dispute political topics with the same kind of spontaneity and directness as he would questions from his own scientific arena, while also sharing his generation's traditional skepticism towards politics in his generation. I remember him repeatedly stating his opinion that politics is "dirty business" and that he feared being entangled in murky and ultimately destructive activity when participating in the political life. In one of my first conversations about the atomic bomb that I had with my father - during a skiing holiday - he explained to me that any new scientific knowledge was suitable for constructive as well as destructive purposes. Politicians, however, were inclined, regrettably, to use the destructive potential first.

At the same time, he was convinced that politics could benefit from a style of thought rooted in objectifying and factual problem- solving. Fundamentally, he also accepted the idea that science, natural science in particular due to the great importance of technology in the modern era had a distinct political responsibility to bear. Therefore, after the war he was advocating for a direct participation of science in politics in the form of a scientific advisory board (German Research Council).

Whenever he himself was involved in political decision making, or when he reflected on political issues, he would approach it much as he did his scientific work. He would try to reduce the problem to objective questions, to simplify, and to arrive at a decision based on principles everybody could agree to. In this he was aware that political decisions also required a certain specific expertise which he, being a natural scientist, did not always possess. He then preferred to cite the opinions of others whom he trusted. If, however, he thought he could trust his own judgment, he relied primarily on his own inner vision and his instincts. Thus he was nearly immune to shifts in political sentiment and extraordinarily skeptical vis-a-vis any oversimplifying political doctrines.

This approach also determined his position on Marxism. In his opinion the success of Marxism was only the result of many people's emotional need to have a simple answer to all questions, even if it does not fit reality or fits it poorly. He developed an instinctive dislike for everything that even faintly resembled Marxist ideology, although his knowledge of Marxism must have been only superficial. To me there has never been a question that his dislike of the primitive ideology of National Socialism must have been even more acute.

I find it extremely difficult to squeeze his political orientation into customary value schemes - nor did he have a need as a scientist to acquire a smooth political "profile". Many of his instinctive value judgments, as well as his anti-Marxist sentiments were in line with conservative patterns. At the same time he had preserved for himself a belief in the possibility of radical political innovation - probably a remnant from the youth movement. This, together with his faith in rational solutions for political problems, often brought him close to social democratic or liberal positions. While he was originally sympathetic to the student protests in the late sixties, and early seventies, - as far as criticism of the conditions in academia and of educational policy was concerned, - later his dislike of the Marxist and pseudo-Marxist concepts they employed and their use of violence predominated.

I can base very little on personal recollection when it comes to the political role my father played during the Second World War and especially with respect to the uranium project, although I am quite familiar with the events from his perspective that he shared with me in conversations. Since there has been a revival of the debate over the role German nuclear scientists were playing during the Second World War, I briefly want to address a few aspects of this debate. Most of all, I have noticed how egregiously distorted my father's personality appears in some of the contributions to this debate. This is particularly true for the TV movie titled "The End of Innocence" by Wolfgang Menges, broadcast about a year ago. This film, called a documentary, contains historical inaccuracies, which Mr. Rechenberg has pointed out factually and clearly in an essay. Personally, I was most surprised by the total lack of any physical or character resemblance of the film protagonist "Werner Heisenberg" to my father. The "Heisenberg" in the movie represented in many ways the popular stereotype of a powerful, arrogant, and somewhat sinister science tycoon. My father was different from this stereotype mainly in that the degree of self-display such a role requires was neither something he would want to possess nor something he ever did possess. He had not only a deep-seated dislike for any form of personal power play between people but even in his personal contacts he had difficulty manifesting the full weight of his personality without resorting to factual issues. It is for this reason that I also find Menges' central thesis unbelievable, and downright off the mark, namely that the "cockfights" between Heisenberg and Diebner caused the failure of the German reactor project.

In his talks and publications my father has always pointed out that, fortunately, he was spared a decision whether to participate in the building of a German atomic bomb, especially given that he thought it impossible for lack of available resources and due to the circumstances in Germany. It is entirely consistent with his way of approaching political questions that very early on, at a time when the military successes of the Germans were still predominant, he was convinced Germany would ultimately lose the war for lack of resources. He probably underestimated the time and effort it eventually did take the allies to actually win their victory. Under these circumstances it seems plausible to me that he initially pushed aside the extremely difficult moral question of a participation in the German bomb building, certain that a decision would become moot before the end of the war due to the lack of the necessary means.

Ladies and gentlemen, it would go beyond the scope of this talk to address these political questions in greater detail. Basically, I have attempted to sketch for you an image of my father that is, of course, colored subjectively in some respect; but I am hoping that even the objective side did not receive short shrift and that my reflections were of interest to you.