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An Irishman’s Diary about bad grammar and Heisenberg

Uncertainty principle gave rise to ‘many worlds’ theory which may excuse BBC commentators

Werner Heisenberg

One of the more annoying grammatical errors of our time is a tendency to confuse “may” and “might” when speaking of the past. You’re watching football on TV, for example, and a striker attempts a volley, but instead balloons the shot high over the crossbar. Then the commentator notes that the player had time to control the ball first and adds that, if he had done, “he may have scored”.

What the commentator means is that he might have scored. Whereas “may” implies that he possibly did score, but we don’t know enough about the incident yet to be sure.

This even though the ball has just knocked the false teeth out of a pensioner in Row W of the stand behind the goal.

Of course, we should never be too adamant about the rules of grammar, because language is a slippery thing, and so is reality. This point was forcefully underlined for me recently when I saw the same may/might error in a book about the great English physicist Paul Dirac, a Nobel prize-winner in 1933.


In a passage discussing the extraordinary new ideas physicists were advancing then, the book laments that they didn’t communicate these better to journalists. If they had done, it continues, “quantum mechanics may well have become much better known, along with its creators”.

It’s clear the author believes it and they had not become well known at the time. That, like the aforementioned soccer ball, quantum mechanics had passed well over most people’s heads. But then again, the particular context of his comment was Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (1927), in the wake of which, it was hard to be sure of anything again.

Broadly speaking, Heisenberg’s principle means that the sub-atomic particles whirring around in all things are subject to unpredictable and unknowable fluctuations. That you can measure, for example, the position of an electron, or its momentum, but not both simultaneously.

And that this has nothing to do with the instruments. The apparent “reality” of an electron is defined only in the act of observing it. What the electron is doing when not being observed is a set of possibilities impossible to pin down.

Applied on a larger scale, the idea led to such famous thought experiments as Schrodinger’s Cat, an animal simultaneously dead and alive until an observer decides the matter one way or other.

Applied on the ultimate scale, it gave rise to the “many worlds” theory, which suggests an infinite number of parallel realities, in which everything that can happen does.

In short, getting back to Match of the Day, it may be only in our universe that the striker missed so badly. In another world, he may indeed have taken a touch first and scored.

Heisenberg himself, by the way, was disinclined to pursue his ideas to such lengths. Like many of his generation, he had enough problems dealing with his immediate environment – Germany before the war – to worry about the possibility of parallel versions where things happened differently.

Not being Jewish, he didn’t have to go into exile in the 1930s. On the contrary, he was said to be delighted when Hitler first came to power.

And although the Nazis were suspicious of the new science – “Jewish physics” they called it – Heisenberg was one of those entrusted to build an atomic bomb.

That the Germans didn’t acquire the bomb is one of the mysteries of the war. They had the engineering capacity, the uranium, and the brainpower.

They also had a big start on the Americans. But the project was abandoned as unfeasible in 1942.

Heisenberg never quite lived down his war record. Einstein (who hated the uncertainty principle too) despised him for it. Dirac was more understanding, but his wife used to call Heisenberg “that Nazi”, something the man himself insisted he had never been.

He died 41 years ago yesterday, his role in the bomb project still unexplained. But a book of his wartime correspondence has just been published. And amid renewed interest in events of the 1930s, at least one US critic (for the New York Review of Books) has seen in it evidence that Heisenberg was a conscientious objector.

In the guise of protesting the bomb was too great a challenge, he “found a silent way to make a moral decision” about something he didn’t want to do. If so, he helped the Allies win.

At the very least, he may have nudged the alternative into a parallel universe, like Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle, in which the victorious Germans and Japanese jointly occupy a 1960s United States.