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Michael Frayn's very good play, Copenhagen, revolves around a strange socio-political event in quantum physics. In 1941, patriotic german physicist Werner Heisenberg went to Nazi-occupied Denmark to visit his past mentor and collaborator, Neils Bohr. For Bohr, Danish and half-Jewish, to welcome a German into his home at this point in time was a deep compromise. For Heisenberg to present himself in the role of dinner guest was a terrible imposition.

The top-notch Jewish phsyicists were out of Germany. No scientists in occupied Europe were able to communicate with the US or Britain, yet physicists all over the world were working on nuclear fission. Nobody had the bomb quite yet. So why did Heisenberg come to Copenhagen? This is the central question of the play, which has only three characters, Heisenberg, Bohr, and Bohr's wife, Margarethe.

Did Heisenberg go to Copenhagen to warn Bohr that the Nazis were near to having the bomb? To find out if Bohr knew whether the Allies had the bomb? To get Bohr to stop the Allies from building the bomb? To get Bohr to stop him, Heisenberg, from building the bomb? To get absolution from Bohr for building the bomb? To test himself in the presence of Bohr, to force the issue of whether he, Heisenberg, was going to build the bomb or not? Did he trick himself into thinking that the chain reaction would take too much U235? Did he truly neglect to do the calculations? Was he lying? Did he really have that much power? Heisenberg spent the rest of the war trying to build a reactor. Hitler never got the bomb. Bohr went on (among others) to help USA build the bomb*. The US dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The main strength of the play is that it spins a web of possible interpretations, like an electron cloud, around the central event of the visit. It is surprisingly emotional, threading physics in and through huge cut-to-the-bone politics and the charged, potent, initimacy between competitive old friends and colleagues.

The weakness of the play is its romantic individualism. Heisenberg is saddled with the power to advocate to the Nazis for or against researching the bomb. He feels the fate of the worlds in his hands. Perhaps it was to some degree, but the fiction-like narrative structure makes too much of it.

Heisenberg is given some lines to the effect that his uncertainty principle is the advent of a 'new humanism' because it puts humans back at the centre of things. (As soon as you measure something, you introduce a new element that dictates the state of your measurement, so that, in effect, you create the world as you measure it.) I didn't buy it in semiotics, and I don't buy it here either. But, as in semiotics, the idea that our perception of meaning is meaning can be an extremely generative thought experiment. Too arrogant, however, when translated into big theatre about big important men.

*An interesting follow-up to Frayn's play is that Neils Bohr's estate released into the public domain a letter that he wrote to Heisenberg about their visit. Of course it is in hindsight and only tells Bohr's side of the story. But it's worth reading if you see the play!

Related links:
Atom Bomb Chronology by Tokyo Physicians for Elimination of Nuclear Weapons
Doomsday Clock by Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.

- sally mckay 2-12-2004 7:17 am [link] [6 refs] [add a comment]