Heisenberg, the meth-cooking alias of Bryan Cranston's Walter White character on Breaking Bad has become a meme unto itself. While the series marches towards what is sure to be a seismic grand finale, the German moniker has come to summarize the danger and mystery that so characterizes Vince Gilligan's implacable vision.
As most first-year science students know, the name Heisenberg is a reference to the German physicist Werner Heisenberg, one of if not the father of quantum mechanics. His "Uncertainty Principle" represents a watershed moment in a field of human knowledge that exploded in the first half of the 20th Century. Put most succinctly, the uncertainty principle states that it is difficult to measure accurately both the position of an atomic particle and its momentum. The measurement of one, impacts the accuracy of measuring the other.
This principle of uncertainty could be seen as a metaphor for the man himself as Werner Heisenberg rose to prominence at a time of great upheaval in the 1920's and 1930's, namely the rise of Nazi Germany. DEA Agent Hank Schrader might have written him off as "one of Hitler's guys," but the truth is a little more nuanced. Heisenberg found himself in hot water as the antisemitism of the Nazis seeped into the bureaucracy of government, civil services and the education system.
Science is something of a collaborative effort and many of the most fundamental theories in nuclear physics came from the minds of men like Einstein (who had nominated Heisenberg for a Nobel Prize in 1928). But for he and other theorists of Jewish background, the Nazi way of thinking engendered a separate branch of politicized science. All of sudden, any theory or work that had previously been integral became suspect as "Jewish Physics."
"Oh, you gonna throw out all that stuff about the atoms and
try to build an atomic bomb? Yeah let me know how that goes for ya."
While Heisenberg consistently professed an apolitical stance, the SS were soon calling for his head as some Jewish sympathizer. This ultimately cost him a chairmanship at the University of Munich, but thanks to a family connection to Heinrich Himmler, Heisenberg would make it through the 1930's without much difficulty. It's his career after this moment that shrouds a mysterious fog around the man for as his Jewish colleagues fled Germany, Heisenberg remained. Not only remained, but flourished in Nazi Germany, spearheading the German nuclear research program and in 1942 explicitly investigating the possibility of building a nuclear bomb for Hitler.
For the rest of the war, he freely moved about through German occupied nations, lecturing and scaring the shit out of his colleagues who desperately feared a nuclear Nazi Germany. Heisenberg was always dismissive, even obtuse about these fears, presenting himself as a man who cared nothing for the sides at war, only for his work.
"You're really starting to Bohr me, Niels..."
With the surrender of Germany, Heisenberg was swept up by the allies along with other German scientists like Wernher von Braun and locked up in a house in the English countryside. There, he and his colleagues would hear news of what they had been unable to accomplish, an atomic bomb dropped to end the war. As in years before, Heisenberg would shrug off any accusations of wrong-doing or complacency with the Nazis and continue with his research, shaping and refining the field of quantum mechanics.
When pressed, the real Heisenberg wasn't interested in matters of good and evil, only science. He remains the kind of figure who generates discussions on the moral obligations and limits of scientific discovery. As Robert Oppenheimer, Heisenberg's counterpart in the allied atomic bomb effort, remarked upon the detonation of the bomb, "now even physics knows sin." Heisenberg would disagree, for he never would have considered himself in the war business...nor the empire business...