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Dialogue between Einstein and Heisenberg

a 1926 dialogue presented in Werner Heisenberg Encounters with Einstein
© 1983

For the first time, therefore, I now had the opportunity to talk with Einstein himself. On the way home, he questioned me about my background, my studies with Sommerfeld. But on arrival, he at once began with a central question about the philosophical foundation of the new quantum mechanics. He pointed out to me that in my mathematical description the notion of "electron path" did not occur at all, but that in a cloud chamber the track of the electron can of course be observed directly. It seemed to him absurd to claim that there was indeed an electron path in the cloud chamber, but none in the interior of the atom. The notion of a path could not be dependent, after all, on the size of the space in which the electron's movements were occuring. I defended myself to begin with by justifying in detail the necessity for abandoning the path concept within the interior of the atom. I pointed out that we cannot, in fact, observe such a path; what we actually record are frequencies of the light radiated by the atom, intensities and transition probabilities, but no actual path. And since it is but rational to introduce into a theory only such quantities as can be directly observed, the concept of electron paths ought not, in fact, to figure in the theory.

To my astonishment, Einstein was not at all satisfied with this argument. He thought that every theory in fact contains unobservable quantities. The principle of employing only observable quantities simply cannot be consistently carried out. And when I objected that in this I had merely been applying the type of philosophy that he, too, has made the basis of his special theory of relativity, he answered simply: "Perhaps I did use such philosophy earlier, and also wrote of it, but it is nonsense all the same."... ...He pointed out to me that the very concept of observation was itself already problematic. Every observation, so he argued, presupposes that there is an unambiguous connection known to us, between the phenomenon to be observed and the sensation which eventually penetrates into our consciousness. But we can only be sure of this connection, if we know the natural laws by which it is determined. If, however, as is obviously the case in modern atomic physics, these laws have to be called into question, then even the concept of "observation" loses its clear meaning. In that case, it is the theory which first determines what can be observed.


Comment from Richard Feynman echoing this dialogue

from Feynman, Leighton, and Sands The Feynman Lectures
© 1965

Another thing people have emphasized since quantum mechanics was developed is the idea that we should not speak about those things which we cannot measure. (Actually relativity theory also said this.) Unless a thing can be defined by measurement, it has no place in a theory. And since an accurate value of the momentum of a localized particle cannot be defined by measurement it therefore has no place in the theory. The idea that this is what was the matter with classical theory is a false position. It is a careless analysis of the situation. Just because we cannot measure position and momentum precisely does not a priori mean that we cannot talk about them... ...It is always good to know which ideas cannot be checked directly, but it is not necessary to remove them all. It is not true that we can pursue science completely by using only those concepts which are directly subject to experiment.


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