BREAKING BAD: Who Is The Real Heisenberg?

What quantum physics tells us about Walter White's alter ego.

As we enter the final weeks of Walter White's downward criminal spiral, there has been lots of discussion about the science of Breaking Bad. Is pure meth really blue? How much acid does it take to dissolve a body? How many hand warmers do you need to crack open to blow up a nursing home? Even the Mythbusters have gotten involved, tackling the chemical truths behind Walt's dark journey.

Yet from almost the very beginning, one question has nagged at me more than any other. Why Heisenberg? When Walter first ventures beyond his comfortable middle class suburban life and into the den of low level drug lord Tuco, he adopts the alias Heisenberg. It's an unusual choice for a man so steeped in chemistry, since Werner Heisenberg, while a Nobel Prize winning scientist, was famous for his theoretical physics that went beyond the periodic table to open one of the first doors into the quantum realm.

The obvious consideration is that Heisenberg is best known for his Uncertainty Principle, one of the key foundations of quantum physics. In layman's terms, it says that once you delve inside the atom and into the weird realm populated by gluons, quarks and bosons, the universe is basically a gigantic trollface, grinning back at you through the electron microscope and asking “U Mad?”

In 1924, the popular model of physics was one based on the assumption that the behaviour of atoms was both constant and predictable across time and space. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle blew that out of the water. According to his findings, the more you knew about one property of a particle, the fuzzier everything else about it became. The more you narrow down the location of a particle, the less you can know about its movement, and vice versa. In other words, at a quantum level, sub-atomic particles actively resist being studied and everything that is supposed to make sense gets turned upside-down. Even something as apparently simple as light becomes a riddle, capable of behaving as both a wave and a particle at the same time.

The subtextual parallels with Walter White's double life are pretty self-evident. On a purely linguistic level, uncertainty is the foundation of Breaking Bad, and the idea that terrifying chaos lurks under a complacent ordinary surface is all pervasive. Just look at the way Walt's life of crime impacts those who discover it – the more Skyler knows about Walt's “Heisenberg” persona, the less she seems to know the man she married. That's the Uncertainty Principle reenacted on a macro scale.

Duality echoes throughout quantum theory, most notably in Erwin Schrödinger's famous 1935 “cat in a box” thought experiment. In short, without opening the box, there's no way of knowing if a cat inside is alive or dead, so therefore – in terms of probability – it must be both alive and dead at the same time, until the lid is opened. At that point, only one reality can be possible. That's essentially how quantum particles behave – technically existing in multiple states and even in multiple places simultaneously, until they are observed and their properties revealed.

Again, it's not hard to see how Walter White is a quantum character: dweeb and master criminal, loving father and ruthless killer, inept buffoon and calculating manipulator, particle and wave, all at the same time. Now that Hank has torn open the box, we're seeing Walt's multiple realities collapsing into one inescapable singularity.

So, yes, the choice of Heisenberg as Walt's nom de crime works on a basic thematic level, yet the real Heisenberg's life was every bit as dramatic as that of his fictional namesake.

Born in Germany in 1901, Werner was raised by a brutally authoritarian father who apparently encouraged his sons to fight one another, instilling both a fierce sense of competition and loyalty. A gifted pianist – he could read sheet music from the age of five – it was nevertheless the sciences that really fired Heisenberg's young imagination.

Thanks to his father's hardline approach to parenting, Heisenberg was far from some bookish dweeb though. As a young teen during the First World War he was part of a paramilitary organisation at his school, the auspicious Maximilians Gymnasium in Munich, and in the years following the war, when the Soviets tried their luck against the weakened German state, the 17-year-old Heisenberg took to the streets, rioting and fighting to help repel the Russians.

A political firebrand with a natural talent for maths and physics, Heisenberg quickly caught the eye of Niels Bohr, the legendary Danish physicist, and moved to Copenhagen to work as his research assistant on the cutting edge, challenging the traditionally held standard model of physics that assumed a universe governed by quantifiable predictable order. Heisenberg thought differently. He suspected that in the sub-atomic world it was chaos that ruled. In 1927, Bohr challenged Heisenberg to come up with a mathematical model that could predict the behaviour of this as-yet-unexplored quantum world. Aged just 25, Heisenberg rose to this challenge and came up with the theory that would make his name. It was controversial – prompting none other than Einstein to scoff that “God doesn't play dice with the universe” - but the mathematics were rock solid. In 1932, Heisenberg was awarded the Nobel Prize for physics for his work in creating the field of quantum mechanics.

It was a bold new dawn in scientific understanding, but it coincided with one of mankind's darkest chapters. When the Nazis came to power, they were unimpressed with the science of relativity and quantum mechanics, which they saw as being dominated by Jews. Heisenberg wasn't Jewish, but his peers – such as Bohr and Einstein – were, and he was smeared in the German press as being of “Jewish style.” The attacks became so bad that Heisenberg's mother wrote to Himmler's mother to complain – an intervention that actually made him look even more like a Jew-sympathising trouble maker. The Gestapo came calling, and suddenly Heisenberg found himself working in the Uranium Club, the rather cute title given to Germany's atomic bomb development team.

Here's where that Uncertainty Principle kicks in again. We know where Heisenberg was working during the war, but the details of what he actually did remain unclear. A staunch German patriot, was he a willing participant in Hitler's drive for atomic weapons, or a reluctant conscript? He definitely visited Bohr in occupied Copenhagen and tried to convince him that the Allies should give up developing their own bomb, a gambit that led to the end of their friendship and found Heisenberg briefly considered a threat worthy of assassination by the US and Britain. Yet it was Heisenberg's calculations that led to Hitler's atomic programme grinding to a halt. Heisenberg's figures wildly over-estimated the quantities of uranium needed, an error in judgement that may have saved the world from a terrible atrocity.

Any of this sound familiar? A scientific genius, using his gifts in service of ruthless people, torn between good and evil and struggling to emerge with both life and soul intact. A man often driven by pride and hubris, yet no doubt convinced he was ultimately doing the right thing, and could navigate morally murky waters without being consumed. Walter White would surely sympathise.

After the war, Werner Heisenberg was welcomed back into the mainstream scientific community and spent the last decades of his life further exploring the quantum world. He rejected an offer to work for the Soviets and instead lectured at prestigious venues such as Cambridge and Harvard. He never spoke publicly about what he did during the war, or why, and died in 1976, in his beloved Munich.

The cause of death? Cancer.