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uncertainty principle

uncertainty principle, physical principle, enunciated by Werner Heisenberg in 1927, that places an absolute, theoretical limit on the combined accuracy of certain pairs of simultaneous, related measurements. The accuracy of a measurement is given by the uncertainty in the result; if the measurement is exact, the uncertainty is zero. According to the uncertainty principle, the mathematical product of the combined uncertainties of simultaneous measurements of position and momentum in a given direction cannot be less than Planck's constant h divided by 4π. The principle also limits the accuracies of simultaneous measurements of energy and of the time required to make the energy measurement. The value of Planck's constant is extremely small, so that the effect of the limitations imposed by the uncertainty principle are not noticeable on the large scale of ordinary measurements; however, on the scale of atoms and elementary particles the effect of the uncertainty principle is very important. Because of the uncertainties existing at this level, a picture of the submicroscopic world emerges as one of statistical probabilities rather than measurable certainties. On the large scale it is still possible to speak of causality in a framework described in terms of space and time; on the atomic scale this is not possible. Such a description would require exact measurements of such quantities as position, speed, energy, and time, and these quantities cannot be measured exactly because of the uncertainty principle. It does not limit the accuracy of single measurements, of nonsimultaneous measurements, or of simultaneous measurements of pairs of quantities other than those specifically restricted by the principle. Even so, its restrictions are sufficient to prevent scientists from being able to make absolute predictions about future states of the system being studied. The uncertainty principle has been elevated by some thinkers to the status of a philosophical principle, called the principle of indeterminacy, which has been taken by some to limit causality in general. See quantum theory.

See W. Heisenberg, The Physical Principles of the Quantum Theory (tr. 1949); D. Lindley, Uncertainty (2007).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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