With a population of just over 1,300 people, this small island off Germany’s North Sea coast claims a unique history and climate.
By Crispin Andrews
It was the world’s most significant hay fever attack. In May 1925 Werner Heisenberg, the Würzburg-born scientist who would go on to revolutionize quantum physics and win the Nobel science prize, and in doing so provoke Einstein into saying “God doesn’t play with dice.” was still an unknown, a twenty-four year old research physicist, working with the famous Danish scientist, Nils Bohr.
Bohr, who’d already won the Nobel Prize for investigating the structure of atoms and radiation, had challenged Heisenberg to describe mathematically, how subatomic particles worked. Heisenberg was studying this in his Göttingen laboratory when he was struck by a nasty bout of hay fever. There were no antihistamine tablets, nasal sprays, and eye drops back then, so with constant sneezing and streaming eyes disrupting his work, Heisenberg decided to go to Helgoland for a few weeks.
This tiny German island, forty-six kilometers from the North Sea coast, offers iodine and oxygen-rich air, and is virtually pollen and dust free with few trees and sea breezes on every side. Heisenberg’s time on the island didn’t cure his allergies, but it did give him enough respite to come up with a major breakthrough: his picture of quantum mechanics.
Put simply, Heisenberg argued that the new theory of quantum mechanics should be based only upon relations between experimentally observable quantities. According to classical scientific theory, if you knew exactly what a certain group of atoms was doing at any given instant, you could predict exactly what those atoms would be doing a million years in the future. But Heisenberg proved that even if you know where a particle is, you can’t predict where it’s going; and if you know where it’s going, you no longer know where it is. From here, Heisenberg, later developed his uncertainty principle, won the Nobel Prize in 1932, and earned that raised eyebrow from Einstein. And all thanks to a bought of hay fever and an island no bigger than your local neighborhood.
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