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Breaking Bad: Why Heisenberg Was Walter White's Moniker (& Why It Mattered)

AMC's "Breaking Bad," which ran from 2008 to 2013, is one of the most critically acclaimed TV series ever made, as is its successor series "Better Call Saul." The original series tells the story of Walter White's (Bryan Cranston) transformation from underachieving high school chemistry teacher to a criminal kingpin controlling Albuquerque's crystal meth trade. As creator Vince Gilligan told NPR in 2011, he wanted to tell a story about Mr. Chips transforming into Scarface.

During Season 1, Episode 6, "Crazy Handful of Nothin'," Walt undergoes the first stage of that transformation, both physically and symbolically. It starts when Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) is viciously beaten by Tuco's (Raymond Cruz) henchmen for selling their ultra-pure meth in his territory. Walt decides to confront Tuco and put a scare into him the best way he knows how, by using chemistry–specifically, by creating an explosion with volatile fulminated mercury — which is also the same substance he introduced to his students earlier in the episode.

Losing his hair from chemotherapy, and needing to alter his appearance for the meeting, Walt shaves his head and visits Tuco. When he arrives at Tuco's office, he introduces himself as "Heisenberg," the name that becomes his criminal alias. This is a nod to the famed quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg. Later, he adds a black pork pie hat and sunglasses to complete the look. Like many details on "Breaking Bad," there are many reasons why Walter White chose the name of a German physicist instead of that of a famous chemist as his criminal alter-ego.

Heisenberg is famous for the Uncertainty principle

Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle, published in 1927, is a foundational part of quantum physics and states that it's impossible to determine the position and momentum of a particle like an electron or photon with absolute accuracy. On a literal level, this reflect's Walt's uncertainty about the criminal enterprise he's about to undertake. As much as he needs to put up a steely, intimidating exterior, this is clearly a man in over his head. 

The name also reflects Walt's pride. It's not a coincidence that Walt is comparing himself to a Nobel prize winner. In the previous episode, "Gray Matter," Walt goes to a birthday for his former business partner Elliott Schwartz (Adam Godley), who is also the current husband of Walt's ex-girlfriend, Gretchen (Jessica Hecht). During the episode, it's revealed that Walt, Elliott, and Gretchen once started a company called "Gray Matter." Walt sold his share for $5,000, and Elliott and Gretchen went on to make billions — with Walt's ideas. Walt likely considers himself an overlooked genius on par with a Werner Heisenberg. 

Finally, choosing "Heisenberg" shows Walt's arrogance. By naming himself after a scientist, he's giving everyone a clue to his real identity. Walt just thinks that the average cop or criminal wouldn't know who Heisenberg is and therefore wouldn't recognize the name's significance. He's not wrong, either.