Meet the Real Heisenberg

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Say his name: Werner Heisenberg.

He’s the real Heisenberg, the inspiration behind Walter White’s alter ego on Breaking Bad. Out of all of the famous scientists out there, why did Walt choose this German physicist? More importantly, why did series creator Vince Gilligan choose this specific name? He hasn't said, but there are definitely a couple of parallels between the two men.

First of all, like Mr. White, Werner Heisenberg was a teacher. In fact, in 1927, he was appointed ordentlicher Professor (ordinarius professor) of theoretical physics and the head of the department of physics at the Leipzig University.  In 1932, Heisenberg picked up the Nobel Prize for Physics for his theory of quantum mechanics—but what he's most famous for (arguably) is his Uncertainty Principle. I don’t claim to fully understand this by any means, but here’s what I gather: it’s impossible to exactly measure both the position and the speed of a particle, because to measure the position, you’d have change the particle's speed, and to measure the speed, you’d have to affect its position. The Principle is also sometimes loosely interpreted as “we cannot know the present with enough precision in order to predict the future with certainty.” I mean, right? Better call Saul.

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle may also be an interesting metaphor for Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. You can’t affect one of them without affecting the other. As the series has progressed, every time our master cook and his sous-chef try to part ways, they’re brought back together, both willingly and unwillingly. Kind of like magnets, bitch!

Speaking of which, Heisenberg is also the man who solved the mystery of ferromagnetism, or why certain materials become magnets.

During the years leading up to WWII, the Nazis considered Heisenberg suspicious, even publicly considering sending the man they labeled a “white Jew” to a concentration camp. He was spared, but certainly not for his genius. It turned out that Heisenberg’s mother’s family was friendly with Heinrich Himmler’s family, so the physicist wrote a personal letter to the SS chief to request that the Nazis lay off. They did, and ended up being quite interested when Heisenberg became one of Germany’s top nuclear research leaders a few years later. Some believe that Heisenberg deliberately sabotaged his findings so the Nazis wouldn’t be able to harness nuclear power; others think his research was simply unsuccessful. Either way, it’s interesting that the evil entity that originally wanted him dead eventually came to view him as an asset. Sounds like another Heisenberg we know.

One more notable similarity, and a striking difference: Like Walter White, Heisenberg had the big C. On February 1, 1976, the scientist succumbed to cancer of the kidneys and gall bladder. Deeply saddened by the loss of this brilliant man, Heisenberg’s colleagues and loved ones apparently honored him by walking from the Institute of Physics in Munich to his home, each leaving a candle by his front door. Something tells me Walter White’s friends and family won’t do the same.

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September 27, 2013 - 1:00pm
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