Mathematical Shapes of Uncertainty
For a non-mathematical audience, the term ‘Uncertainty Principle’ is unequiv-
ocally associated with Werner Heisenberg’s 1927 statement, which has become one
of the fundamental constituents of quantum mechanics. In his ground-breaking pa-
per  Heisenberg explained the new principle in physical terms. A mathematical
justification quickly followed via the work of Kennard, Pauli and Weyl [75, 148].
The so-called Heisenberg Inequality, see (1.3), contained in Weyl’s work and attrib-
uted to Pauli, illustrates the mathematical meaning of the principle in terms of one
of the fundamental notions of Harmonic Analysis, the Fourier transform.
From 1924 to 1927 Heisenberg held a position of Privatdozent in G¨ottingen,
where together with Max Born and Pascual Jordan he worked on the foundations of
quantum mechanics. In 1925, G¨ ottingen was visited by Norbert Wiener who gave a
seminal lecture in Harmonic Analysis. The lecture intrigued the famous G¨ottingen
scientists including Hilbert, Courant and Born. In his memoir  Wiener writes:
“The talk which I gave the G¨ ottingen people on my work on general harmonic
analysis was very well received. Hilbert, in particular, showed great interest in the
subject, but what I did not realize at that time was that my talk was closely keyed
to the new ideas of physics which were about to burst into bloom at G¨ ottingen in
the form of what is now known as quantum mechanics.”
Wiener’s lecture concerned the basic question of Harmonic Analysis, the prob-
lem of decomposing a wave into a linear combination of simple harmonics. One of
the main points of the lecture, according to Wiener’s popular-science account in
, was the statement that a function and its Fourier transform cannot both be
localized. Aiming at a broader audience, Wiener discusses this statement using the
example of a musical note which cannot be both short in time and low in frequency.
From the point of view of the Fourier analysis, Heisenberg’s inequality expresses a
very similar property which looks like the next step in Wiener’s line of reasoning.
Although the exact contents of Wiener’s G¨ ottingen lecture seem to be lost, it may
be viewed as one of the early declarations of the Uncertainty Principle in Harmonic
Analysis, which happened two years before Heisenberg’s paper was published. A
possible conclusion to this historical remark is that, perhaps, it would be incorrect
to think that the Uncertainty Principle came to Harmonic Analysis from Quantum
Mechanics, or vice versa. Rather, like many fundamental ideas, it seems to have
emerged as a result of interaction between two adjacent areas of science.
Mathematical aspects of the Uncertainty Principle were studied by many promi-
nent mathematicians throughout the twentieth century. To this day it remains one
of the classic, yet active and exciting areas of research. New methods that ap-
peared in this area in the last 10-12 years have produced solutions to long standing
problems and sparked new interest towards the Uncertanty Principle from analysts
worldwide. Samples of this recent activity will be discussed in the present text.