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The Observable

Heisenberg’s Philosophy of Quantum Mechanics


Patrick Aidan Heelan

Edited By Babette Babich

Patrick Aidan Heelan’s The Observable offers the reader a completely articulated development of his 1965 philosophy of quantum physics, Quantum Mechanics and Objectivity. In this previously unpublished study dating back more than a half a century, Heelan brings his background as both a physicist and a philosopher to his reflections on Werner Heisenberg’s physical philosophy. Including considerably broader connections to the contributions of Niels Bohr, Wolfgang Pauli, and Albert Einstein, this study also reflects Heelan’s experience in Eugene Wigner’s laboratory at Princeton along with his reflections on working with Erwin Schrödinger dating from Heelan’s years at the Institute for Advanced Cosmology in Dublin.
A contribution to continental philosophy of science, the phenomenological and hermeneutic resources applied in this book to the physical and ontological paradoxes of quantum physics, especially in connection with laboratory science and measurement, theory and model making, will enrich students of the history of science as well as those interested in different approaches to the historiography of science. University courses in the philosophy of physics will find this book indispensable as a resource and invaluable for courses in the history of science.
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Chapter Two: Relativity: Model of a Scientific Revolution


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Relativity: Model of a Scientific Revolution

There was a special quality to the crisis which affected atomic physics in the years preceding 1925. The photoelectric effect, the anomalous Zeeman effect, the exclusion principle, the failure of the old quantum theory to account for the spectra of helium and the hydrogen molecule, all suggested to many physicists that physics was on the verge of a comprehensive change. Some predicted, not just an overhaul of the old physics, but a revolution in physics, a new general physics in which classical physics would be no more than a special piece or application. Heisenberg was one of those convinced that a scientific revolution had to take place, and that Einstein’s theory of relativity1 was already the beginning of the revolution and a model for what had to follow. What was the revolution accomplished by Einstein? And what did Heisenberg learn from it?

At the turn of the century classical physics was composed of four main departments or “closed theories”2—Newtonian mechanics, Maxwell’s electromagnetism, ← 15 | 16 → thermodynamics, and gravitational theory.3 Each described a certain kind of system governed by dynamic laws of development in space and time.

Mechanics was given its definitive form in 1687 by Newton in his Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica. Newtonian mechanics describes mass particles and continuous elastic media, and its laws are covariant4 relative to a Galilean manifold of spatio-temporal frames (generated by the Galilean...

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