Our Existence Always Contains Some Uncertainty. This Physics Principle Explains Why (2023)

Our Existence Always Contains Some Uncertainty. This Physics Principle Explains Why (1)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

Werner Heisenberg is driving down the road when he gets pulled over by a traffic cop.

“Excuse me, sir,” the cop says. “Do you know how fast you were going?”“No,” Heisenberg replies. “But, I know exactly where I am.”

Our Existence Always Contains Some Uncertainty. This Physics Principle Explains Why (2)

Whether you’re laughing right now—or staring at your screen in confusion—hinges on how much you know about one of the foundational ideas in quantum physics: Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.

In its most basic and commonly known form, the uncertainty principle says that the more precisely you know the position of a particle in a quantum system, the less well you know its momentum (and vice-versa). The principle also applies to other pairs of characteristics in quantum systems, like energy and time. But every physics graduate first starts to unpack this concept through the lens of position and momentum, so we will, too.

If this was all Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle said, it probably wouldn’t have been profound enough to weave its way into pop culture in the form of mugs, T-shirts, and cartoons—let alone place its pioneer as an alias for an infamous meth-cooking chemistry teacher.

German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg first introduced his uncertainty principle in a 1925 paper. It’s special because it remains intact no matter how good our experimental methods get; this isn’t a lack of precision in measurement. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, or how sophisticated your equipment, is you can’t think your way past it. It’s a fact of nature.

Legendary physicist and master bongo player Richard Feynman put it like this: “The uncertainty principle ‘protects’ quantum mechanics. Heisenberg recognized that if it were possible to measure both the momentum and the position simultaneously with greater accuracy, quantum mechanics would collapse. So he proposed that must be impossible.”

Reality is telling us that we can have our quantum cake, but we can’t eat it, too.

What Is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle?

Chad Orzel is an associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Union College in Schenectady, New York, who is also the author of several books that explain often complicated and esoteric ideas to a layman audience. In his book, How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog, he covers Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.

The origin of the uncertainty principle is found in the duality of particles in quantum physics; depending on what they’re doing, they can be described as either a particle or a wave, Orzel tells Popular Mechanics.

At the turn of the 20th century, physicists were engaged in a heated debate regarding the nature of light, and whether it exists as a particle or a wave. Thanks to a pioneering test known as Young’s Double-Slit experiment, physicists discovered the answer was “Door No. 3” as Orzel puts it. That is, light isn’t a particle or a wave—it has properties of both. And, shockingly, particles of matter like electrons also demonstrate this particle-wave duality.

Our Existence Always Contains Some Uncertainty. This Physics Principle Explains Why (4)

Werner Karl Heisenberg, a Nobel Laureate who later became a key figure in Hitler’s atomic project.

“So every particle in the universe—or every kind of object that we know of in the universe— has this combination of properties we associate with waves, and properties we associate with particles; they’re a third kind of object that isn’t really one or the other,” Orzel says. “And it’s because of that you can’t get rid of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle with a better experimental technique, because it’s really fundamental to that dual nature.”

He continues by explaining the fact that you need to have both wave-like properties and particle-like properties, meaning you can’t measure either of them perfectly.

“Being able to have both requires that each be imperfect, in a way, and there’s just no way around that,” Orzel explains. “We know from experiments that things that we think of as particles, like an electron, would have a well-defined position, but they also have a wavelength associated with them, and that wavelength is related to the momentum.”

When the particle is moving, it’s doing “wavy stuff” that has a characteristic wavelength associated with it—and that length, it turns out, is inversely proportional to the momentum. This means the faster the particle is going, the shorter the wavelength, and the slower the particle is going, the longer the wavelength.

“You need to have both of these things if you want to have the position well defined and momentum well defined,” Orzel says. “It has to have both a position in space that you can point to and say ‘it is right here.’ And it has to have a wavelength with some characteristic length associated with it. And those things are incompatible.”

Think of the momentum of a traveling particle as a wave; the peaks of the wave represent the probability of the particle’s position. One infinitely long wavelength represents a very precise momentum. Problem is, with that single infinite wavelength, there is an infinity of peaks, thus the momentum is precisely known, but the position is completely unknown. The particle could be anywhere. That means in that situation, you’ve got an exact momentum, but no clue about location.

To get a read on the particle, what we could start doing is stacking different wavelengths, each representing different momentums for the particle. Where a peak meets a trough, you get “destructive interference,” and the wavelength is flattened. Where the peaks meet, you get an increased peak, and thus an increased probability of finding the particle.

Add enough wavelengths and birth enough constructive and destructive interference, and you’ve got a single peak and close to a definite position for the particle. In the process of creating this peak, you’ve also destroyed the wavelength, meaning you now know zilch about the momentum—you’ve sacrificed it for certainty about the position.

“The best you can do is create a wave packet, which is flat, and then you have some waves that get bigger and bigger and they come to a peak and then they get smaller on the other side, sort of tapering off on either side,” Orzel says. “You can look at that region of space and say, here are the peaks, and I’ve got so many here. We also have a wavelength giving the momentum, but the region in which that’s happening is relatively confined and can be quite small.”

That means momentum and a position can be given for a system using this wave packet, but crucially there’s an uncertainty to both measurements. We’re all clued in on the joke now, but there’s still the question of what makes it ludicrous.

Our Existence Always Contains Some Uncertainty. This Physics Principle Explains Why (5)

Why Don’t We See the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle on Everyday Scales?

Obviously, a car—whether it’s driven by one of the founders of quantum mechanics or not—isn’t a “quantum object.” It doesn’t travel like a wave, meaning your car can’t diffract around corners, and thus it isn’t governed by the rules of the subatomic or the uncertainty principle; nor are tennis balls, or comic books, or squirrels. The reason you can’t find your keys every morning isn’t that you know their momentum precisely and thus can’t possibly know their position—so no more using that as an excuse for being late for work.

The big question is: why doesn’t the Heisenberg uncertainty principle affect “everyday” or “macroscopic” objects?

The answer lies in the equation that describes the phenomena.

The generalized form of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle says that if you measure the momentum of a particle with uncertainty Δp, then this affects the uncertainty of the position Δx, which can’t be any less than ℏ/2Δp.

The whole equation looks like this: Δx ≥ ℏ/2Δp. It’s the ℏ (pronounced “H-bar”) element we’re interested in here.

This is known as the reduced Planck’s constant, and the thing about it is . . . it’s small, very small, and it constrains the values of the uncertainties of our two properties and makes them small, too.

Our Existence Always Contains Some Uncertainty. This Physics Principle Explains Why (6)

“The uncertainties are so small for macroscopic objects that if you have an object that’s one kilogram, moving at one meter per second, its wavelength would be 10-34 meters, [that’s zero, a decimal point followed by another 33 zeroes], which is a distance that’s so small, it doesn’t really make sense to talk about,” Orzel explains. “Then the uncertainty in the position is going to be some smallish multiple of that, which is just so tiny it’s ridiculous. So, you can’t see the uncertainty principle with ordinary macroscopic objects.”

You can see that uncertainty with subatomic objects like electrons, however, when the wave properties become apparent; that’s because their wavelengths are long enough. As Orzel points out, that’s also when you can measure that uncertainty.

Exactly where the line between quantum and non-quantum behaviors lies is currently a hot research topic in physics, with scientists discovering quantum effects in particles as large (and even larger) than Carbon-60 atoms, also known as “Buckyballs,” because of their resemblance to the hexagonal egg carton-like architecture of Buckminster Fuller.

As for why the uncertainty principle is so captivating, Orzel explains:

“It’s telling us something fascinating about the universe, which is that at a very deep fundamental level, the nature of reality is such that there will always be some uncertainty and that it is impossible, even in principle, to know certain things about the world or certain combinations of things about the world.”

Oh, and it makes for great jokes, too.

Our Existence Always Contains Some Uncertainty. This Physics Principle Explains Why (7)

Robert Lea

Robert Lea is a freelance science journalist focusing on space, astronomy, and physics. Rob’s articles have been published in Newsweek, Space, Live Science, Astronomy magazine and New Scientist. He lives in the North West of England with too many cats and comic books.


What is the principle of uncertainty in physics? ›

Formulated by the German physicist and Nobel laureate Werner Heisenberg in 1927, the uncertainty principle states that we cannot know both the position and speed of a particle, such as a photon or electron, with perfect accuracy; the more we nail down the particle's position, the less we know about its speed and vice ...

What is Heisenberg uncertainty principle answers? ›

Definition: Heisenberg's uncertainty principle states that for particles exhibiting both particle and wave nature, it will not be possible to accurately determine both the position and velocity at the same time.

Why does the uncertainty principle exist? ›

The uncertainty principle arises from the wave-particle duality. Every particle has a wave associated with it; each particle actually exhibits wavelike behaviour. The particle is most likely to be found in those places where the undulations of the wave are greatest, or most intense.

What is an example of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle? ›

Example of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

Example: If the location and speed of a moving car can be determined at the same time, with minimum error. However, in microscopic particles, it will not be possible to fix the position and measure the velocity/momentum of the particle simultaneously.

What is the uncertainty principle quizlet? ›

Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. States that the speed (or momentum) and position of a particle at an instant cannot both be known exactly - the more precise you measure one, the less you can find out about the other. Quantum Mechanics.

What is uncertainty in energy principle? ›

In essence, the formal uncertainty principle says: the momentum (Δp) times the uncertainty in the position (Δx) or alternatively, the uncertainty in the energy (ΔE) times the uncertainty in the time (Δt) is greater or equal to ћb.

Which one of the following statement is correct about uncertainty principle? ›

Answer (Detailed Solution Below)

It is impossible to determine simultaneously both the time and energy of an electron with accuracy.

What is uncertain in the Heisenberg uncertainty principle quizlet? ›

all particles have wave properties. What is "uncertain" in the Heisenberg Uncertainty principle? A. The value of the particle's position when the particle's momentum is known precisely.

Is Heisenberg uncertainty principle correct? ›

Common Interpretation of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle Is Proved False. Contrary to what many students are taught, quantum uncertainty may not always be in the eye of the beholder. A new experiment shows that measuring a quantum system does not necessarily introduce uncertainty.

Do we see the Heisenberg's uncertainty principle in everyday life explain? ›

The Principle says that the position and the velocity of an object cannot both be measured exactly at the same time. At the size of objects seen in everyday life, such as a car, the Uncertainty Principle has no real application. We can accurately measure both the speed and the location of a car.

What is the uncertainty principle that states that it is impossible? ›

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that it is impossible to simultaneously determine both the position and the velocity of a particle. The detection of an electron, for example, would be made by way of its interaction with photons of light.

Does the uncertainty principle apply to energy and time? ›

Answer and Explanation: Yes, the uncertainty principle applies to time and energy. In this case, the uncertainty principle expresses observable phenomena that include time and energy. Therefore, the uncertainty principle implies that uncertainties in energy and time are essential limits on a quantum scale.

Which statement best summarizes the uncertainty principle? ›

Which statement best summarizes the uncertainty principle? Either the position or the velocity of an electron can be accurately known at the same instant.

What did Einstein think about Heisenberg uncertainty principle? ›

The basic point is well known. Einstein never accepted Heisenberg's uncertainty principle as a fundamental physical law.

Why is the effect of Heisenberg uncertainty principle? ›

Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle states that there is inherent uncertainty in the act of measuring a variable of a particle. Commonly applied to the position and momentum of a particle, the principle states that the more precisely the position is known the more uncertain the momentum is and vice versa.

Why the effect of Heisenberg uncertainty principle is significant? ›

The effect of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is significant only for motion of microscopic particles and for macroscopic objects, it is negligible. We can say that when we calculate uncertainty of an object which has a mass of a milligram or more, it has hardly any consequence.

What is an example that Heisenberg's uncertainty principle has no significance in everyday life? ›

In everyday life the objects are not of small size and they do not have high velocity also hence the momentum and position can be determined with accuracy. For example football or cricket ball the momentum and position can be easily find out. That is why in everyday life the heisenberg principle has no significance.

How do you calculate the uncertainty principle? ›

Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Equation 1.9. 4 can be derived by assuming the particle of interest is behaving as a particle, and not as a wave. Simply let Δp=mv, and Δx=h/(mv) (from De Broglie's expression for the wavelength of a particle).

What is the formula for uncertainty? ›

The relative uncertainty or relative error formula is used to calculate the uncertainty of a measurement compared to the size of the measurement. It is calculated as: relative uncertainty = absolute error / measured value.

Is the uncertainty principle proved? ›

Common Interpretation of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle Is Proved False. Contrary to what many students are taught, quantum uncertainty may not always be in the eye of the beholder. A new experiment shows that measuring a quantum system does not necessarily introduce uncertainty.

What is an example of uncertainty in physics? ›

For example, if you measure a position carefully to the nearest mark in ruler with a mark every 0, point, 5, m, m,0.5mm, then the uncertainty is 0, point, 25, m, m,0.25mm. (In school experiments we always write uncertainties to 1 significant figure, so we would write this uncertainty as 0, point, 3, m, m,0.3mm.)

Why do we calculate uncertainty in physics? ›

Essentially, without uncertainties you are not able to compare measurement results “apples to apples”. Uncertainties are important when determining whether or not a part or a substance that you are measuring is within tolerance. For instance, think of the caliper example from earlier.

How do you find the uncertainty in a physics experiment? ›

The most straightforward way to find the uncertainty in the final result of an experiment is worst case error analysis, a method in which uncertainties are estimated from the difference between the largest and smallest possible values that can be calculated from the data.


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