Redux: Of Heisenbergs and Beethovens

The historian of science Owen Gingerich died on May 28. We’re re-posting this essay, which originally appeared on June 10, 2011, because it involves the author’s personal encounter with him. The references to dates (e.g., “A few months ago”) remain as in the original post.

The 16-year-old student has an idea, but she doesn’t have the maths to support it. She does, however, have a drawing. She submits it to her tutor. He examines it, then delivers his verdict.

“This is not science,” he says. “This is story-telling.”

The scene is from Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia. The setting is an English country house in 1812. The student has been wondering why a steam engine can not re-energize itself forever, and she believes she has arrived at the answer: heat loss. And, yes, she understands the implications of a physics whose arrow of time goes in only one direction.

“So the Improved Newtonian Universe must cease and grow cold,” her tutor says. By “Newtonian universe” he means not just the cosmos but the whole clockwork kit and caboodle.

Classical physics. Cause and effect. Determinism.

“Dear me,” he adds, dryly.

The pupil has, in effect, discovered entropy. Or rather, “discovered.” She won’t get the credit for it, in part because her drawing will disappear for nearly a couple of centuries—half the play takes place in the present day, in the same room, as scholars puzzle over the drawing and other documents—and in part because all she has to show for her insight are her artwork and some inadequate equations.

But what if she had made the discovery? Would it matter that it was she who made it? Why would it, if the discovery were out there, waiting to be made? Was the discovery out there, waiting to be made?

The nature of scientific discovery, of course, has been a subject of debate at least since Plato wrote a parable about shadows on a wall. The Nature of Scientific Discovery is also the title of a volume of transcripts from an April 1973 Smithsonian Institution symposium commemorating the 500th anniversary of Copernicus’s birth. A few months ago, even before seeing Arcadia in a Broadway revival, I found myself pulling The Nature of Scientific Discovery off my bookshelf just so that I could return to a favorite passage. In a discussion of “Discovery in Art and Science,” the moderator, John U. Nef, at the time a University of Chicago emeritus professor of history, recounts an anecdote:

“I am told that Heisenberg is a very good player on the piano, by the way. He was in residence at Cambridge not too long ago and they asked him if he would play.

“He sat down at the piano and played from beginning to end Opus 111, the last sonata of Beethoven, which is an absolutely unique work. All the dons were more and more overwhelmed by this music, and there wasn’t a sound when he finished.

“Heisenberg is reported in this connection to have discussed the difference between science and art. ‘If I had never lived, someone else would probably have formulated the principle of indeterminacy. If Beethoven had never lived, no one would have written Opus 111.’”

The implication is that scientific discovery is deterministic. That even the discovery of indeterminacy is deterministic. That Plato was right: The forms are out there, waiting to be discovered. That even if what you’re discovering is the principle of uncertainty, the discovery is certain. That there is something inherently Newtonian about scientific discovery, even when the discovery is the demise of Newton’s universe.

But what of artistic creation? What of story-telling? In Arcadia, the tutor offers a distinctly minority opinion when he cautions his student not to expend too much grief on the burning of the library at Alexandria: “The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language.” This discussion comes near the end of the play. The tutor is breathing (as we know, in retrospect) a last gasp of determinism. As one of the scholars from the present day says, “We’re better at predicting events at the edge of the galaxy or inside the nucleus of an atom than whether it’ll rain on auntie’s garden party three Sundays from now.” The presence of too many variables renders an outcome unpredictable—and what could have more variables than the artistic mind at work?

Or so the argument goes. Maybe if the tutor had lived long enough to hear about chaos theory, he would have revised his interpretation of artistic creativity as deterministic. Then again, maybe not, if only because sometimes, as we all know, even chaos needs a curator.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting the editor of the aforementioned The Nature of Scientific Discovery, the great Harvard historian of science Owen Gingerich. I mentioned that I had recently re-read the passage about Heisenberg’s reflections on his own work versus Beethoven’s Opus 111; thirty-six years after the publication of the book, Gingerich recalled the passage instantly.

Presumably it stuck in his memory because he had tried to fact-check it with Heisenberg himself. Heisenberg, Gingerich said, wrote back that he couldn’t remember if Opus 111 was what he had played on that occasion. This reply was music (if you will) to a historian’s ears: Heisenberg accepted the occasion itself as a given. The anecdote was true!

But was it factual? In addition to what music he had played, Heisenberg went on to question what scientist he had cited. In his letter to Gingerich, he wrote that he probably wouldn’t have mentioned his own work; he suggested he might have used the example of Einstein instead. For Gingerich, however, that possibility carried unpleasant complications. In Nazi Germany, saying that if Einstein had never lived someone else would have discovered relativity was anti-Semitic code. What had begun as a charming anecdote about art and science was threatening to devolve into the chaos of memory and ideology.

“So,” Gingerich concluded, “I decided to leave the quotation as Nef had said it.”

Now that’s story-telling.

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Top: photo by Heidrun Löhrthe from a 2016 Sydney Opera House production of Arcadia. Middle: Beethoven’s Opus 111.