Alma Mater

“Neils Bohr, Hans Kramers and John Slater revealed one essential feature of the correct interpretation of quantum theory. This concept of the probability wave was something entirely new in theoretical physics since Newton. Probability in mathematics or in statistical mechanics means a statement about our degree of knowledge of the actual situation. In throwing dice we do not know the fine details of the motion of our hands which determine the fall of the dice and therefore we say that the probability for throwing a special number is just one in six. The probability wave of Bohr, Kramers, Slater, however, meant more than that; it meant a tendency for something. It was a quantitative version of the old concept of `potentia’ in Aristotelian philosophy. It introduced something standing in the middle between the idea of an event and the actual event, a strange kind of physical reality just in the middle between possibility and reality.

In the philosophy of Aristotle, matter was thought of in the relation between form and matter. All that we perceive in the world of phenomena around us is formed matter. Matter is in itself not a reality but only a possibility, a `potentia’;  the matter of Aristotle is certainly not a specific matter like water or air, nor is it simply empty space; it is a kind of indefinite corporeal substratum, embodying the possibility of passing over into actuality by means of the form. The typical examples of this relation between matter and form in the philosophy of Aristotle are the biological processes in which matter is formed to become the living organism, and the building and forming activity of man. The statue is potentially in the marble before it is cut out by the sculptor.

From this basis one could try to extend the analysis of the structure of matter in two opposite directions. One could either study the interaction of atoms, their relation to larger units like molecules or crystals or biological objects; or one could try through the investigation of the atomic nucleus and its components to penetrate to the final unity of matter. So far we have followed the analysis of the structure of matter in one direction: from the atom to the more complicated structures consisting of many atoms; from atomic physics to the physics of solid bodies, to chemistry and to biology. Now we have to turn to the opposite direction and follow the line of research from the outer parts of the atom to the inner parts and from the nucleus to the elementary particles.

It is this line which will possibly lead to an understanding of the unity of matter. Here we need not be afraid of destroying characteristic structures by our experiments. When the task is set to test the final unity of matter we may expose matter to the strongest possible forces, to the most extreme conditions, in order to see whether any matter can ultimately be transmuted into any other matter. Are these fundamental building stones — proton, neutron and electron — final indestructible units of matter, atoms in the sense of Democritus, without any relation except for the forces that act between them or are they just different forms of the same kind of matter? Can they again be transmuted into each other and possibly into other forms of matter as well?

This other line of research [lead to] the construction of big accelerating machines, the prototype of which was the so-called cyclotron constructed by Lawrence in California in the early thirties….The experiments carried out by means of cosmic radiation or of the big accelerators have revealed new interesting features of matter. Besides the three fundamental building stones of matter – electron, proton and neutron – new elementary particles have been found which can be created in these processes of highest energies and disappear again after a short time. The new particles have similar properties as the old ones except for their instability.

These results seem at first sight to lead away from the idea of the unity of matter, since the number of fundamental units of matter seems to have again increased to values comparable to the number of different chemical elements. But this would not be a proper interpretation. The experiments have at the same time shown that the particles can be created from other particles or simply from the kinetic energy of such particles, and they can again disintegrate into other particles. Actually the experiments have shown the complete mutability of matter. All the elementary particles can, at sufficiently high energies, be transmuted into other particles, or they can simply be created from kinetic energy and can be annihilated into energy, for instance into  radiation. Therefore, we have here actually the final proof for the unity of matter. All the elementary particles are made of the same substance, which we may call energy or universal matter; they are just different forms in which matter can appear.

After this comparison of the modern views in atomic physics with Greek philosophy we have to add a warning, that this comparison should not be misunderstood. It may seem at first sight that the Greek philosophers have by some kind of ingenious intuition come to the same or very similar conclusions as we have in modern times only after several centuries of hard labor with experiments and mathematics.

This interpretation of our comparison would, however, be a complete misunderstanding. There is an enormous difference between modern science and Greek philosophy, and that is just the empiristic attitude of modern science. All the same, some statements of ancient philosophy are rather near to those of modern science. This simply shows how far one can get by combining the ordinary experience of nature that we have without doing experiments with the untiring effort to get some logical order into this experience to understand it from general principles.”

*Note* Perhaps the enormous difference between modern science and Greek philosophy hinges not upon the want of empiricism in the latter, but of the direction to which the experimental inquiry is directed. That is to say, the ‘ingenious intuition’ may have itself been the result of a systematic analysis of the processes of formal perception in the human organism, a la Max Planck; ‘we ourselves are part of the mystery we are trying to solve’. Heisenberg, without knowing it, inadvertently suggests this in the preceding excerpt, namely in the “one could try to extend the analysis of the structure of matter in two opposite directions” section; only now, the opposite direction is an “inward” (immediate is a more accurate term) instead of outward examination of empirical phenomena. The interesting question is whether these two approaches are somehow complementary, and what the affirmative of this notion – if it could be tested – would entail.



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