In 1968 the Nobel Laureates in Physics met for 6th time. Werner Heisenberg, as a staunch believer in the Lindau concept of mixing with students and young researchers, had lectured at all the physics meetings and had participated in twice as many. This time, as several times before, his choice of subject was at the research frontier and at the end of his lecture he generously passed out important unsolved research problems to the younger generation. In a general sense, his lecture “Cosmological Problems in Modern Atomic Physics”, which was given without slides, is today still a very interesting and quite topical lecture. This can be inferred, e.g., from the fact that the key argument of Heisenberg is based on the concept of broken symmetry appearing spontaneously in the ground state of certain physical systems and that, 40 years after his lecture, one of the 2008 Nobel Prizes in Physics was awarded to Yoichiro Nambu “for the discovery of the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics”. Physics has of course progressed enormously since 1968 and some of Heisenberg’s arguments are a bit dated, but many of his questions are still relevant. Since there is only one Cosmos, Heisenberg argues that one cannot discuss “the laws of Cosmos” and asks if it is possible to find out some of its properties from the known symmetries of the (then) mostly unknown quantum theories governing the interaction of elementary particles. While most theories governing interactions of elementary particles contain forces that act over very short distances, Einstein’s gravitational theory and the theory of electromagnetism have the special property that their forces also act over large distances. With the help of results from quantum theory, Heisenberg argues that it might be possible to look upon the existence of these two long-range acting forces as a sign that a spontaneous symmetry breaking has occurred in the formation of our Cosmos. At the very end of the lecture, the three symmetries C(harge), P(arity) and T(ime) are discussed and Heisenberg ventures the belief that cosmology will become a part of elementary particle physics. This has turned out to be true, as can be seen in the recent use of the terminology “astro-particle physics”!

Anders Bárány

Werner Heisenberg (1968)

Cosmological Problems in Modern Atomic Physics (German Presentation)

Werner Heisenberg (1968)

Cosmological Problems in Modern Atomic Physics (German Presentation)

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