GG_sm Lorna Mills and Sally McKay

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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]

guess I'm still a newbie. I had the admin wrong on this page so anyone could post, thinking that was required for comments to be enabled. Just got an anonymous post that probably should have been a comment (below), though I'm not sure to what thread. I've fixed it now, sorry everyone.
- sally mckay 2-11-2004 11:47 pm [link] [1 comment]

Ursula Franklin from The Real World of Technology Massey Lectures, Toronto: CBC Enterprises, 1990

Looking at technology as practice, indeed as formalized practice, has some quite interesting consequences. One is that it links technology directly to culture, because culture, after all, is a set of socially accepted practices and values. Well laid down and agreed upon practices also define the practitioners as a group of people who have something in common because of the way they are doing things.

. . . I sat in the back of a large meeting room, listening to a long and boring discussion. I began to knit. A young woman came over, sat down next to me, and whispered, "I'd like to talk to you. You knit just like my mother." Of course, her mother was also German, and there is a German way of knitting.

I think it is important to realize that technology defined as practice shows us the deep cultural link of technology, and it saves us from thinking that technology is the icing on the cake. Technology is part of the cake itself.

Like democracy, technology is a multifaceted entity. It includes activities as well as a body of knowledge, structures as well as the act of structuring. Our language itself is poorly suited to describe the complexity of technological interactions. The interconnectedness of many of those processes, the fact that they are so complexly interrelated, defies our normal push-me-pull-you, cause-and-consequence metaphors. How does one talk about something that is both fish and water, means as well as end?

- sally mckay 2-10-2004 7:59 am [link] [1 ref] [add a comment]

clockwise from top: "Flutter Nutter" (detail), 2003, "Crushed" (detail), 2004, "Neapolitan Sunset" (detail) 2003

As part of the now disbanded collective, Bucky and Fluff's Craft Factory, Allyson Mitchell has been using this over-the-top artsy-crafty style for awhile, with a blowyourmind, sequins and macramé, girl-positive, glitter-glue and plastic toys, quantity over quality approach that's always been fun but pretty light fare. Now, in The Fluff Stands Alone, Mitchell has focussed that frenetic energy into a really solid body of work. This big, ambitious series of wall hangings and bedspreads reinvents the women of Playboy cartoons as fuzzy, happy, flocked and fun-furred beasts. Mitchell's sense of kittenish play is still here in spades, but the work has taken on a satisfying weight and presence. I resisted the tempation to rub my face on the art, but I'm sure others did not.

- sally mckay 2-09-2004 7:36 am [link] [1 ref] [7 comments]

Message to email subscribers: thank you for signing up! (I hope your inbox is holding out). I have a request; if you want to respond to an update, please log on to the site and use the comments button. Or you can email your post to me at If you simply reply to your email update it creates more work for the webmaster, and he is a sweet guy who already does too much to make this whole thing run smoooothly. Thanks in advance! - SM

- sally mckay 2-06-2004 6:49 pm [link] [add a comment]


circa. 2003

- sally mckay 2-06-2004 8:35 am [link] [11 comments]

Hey what gives? Here's the current outgoing message at the Ydessa Hendeles Art Foundation:
We have suspended the foundation's exhibition program and are currently generating books. There is nothing on exhibit at the foundation.
If you know the skinny, please leave a message in the comments below!

- sally mckay 2-06-2004 5:43 am [link] [2 comments]

Got a goodreads email recently with a nice quote from Steven Pinker. It reminded me about this list (below) of traits shared by the Universal People , researched by Donald E. Brown, and transcribed here from Pinker's, The Language Instinct, pgs. 429-430.

Value placed on articulateness. Gossip. Lying. Misleading. Verbal humour. Humourous insults. Poetic and rhetorical speech forms. Narrative and storytelling. Metaphor. Poetry with repetition of linguistic elements and three-second lines separated by pauses. Word for days, months, seasons, years, past, present, future, body parts, inner states (emotions, sensations, thoughts), behavioural propensities, flora, fauna, weather, tools, space, motion, speed, location, spatial dimensions, physical properties, giving, lending, affecting things and people, numbers (at the very least "one," "two," and "more than two), proper names, possession. Distinctions between mother and father. Kinship categories, defined in terms of mother, father, son, daughter, and age sequence. Binary distinctions, including male and female, black and white, natural and cultural, good and bad. Measures. Logical relations including "not," "and," "same," "equivalent, " "opposite," general versus particular, part versus whole. Conjectural reasoning (inferring the presence of absent invisible entities from their perceptible traces).

Nonlinguistic vocal communication such as cries and squeals. Interpreting intention from behaviour. Recognized facial expressions of happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, disgust, and contempt. Use of smiles as a friendly greeting. Crying. Coy flirtation with the eyes. Masking, modifying, and mimicking facial expresssions. Displays of affection.

Sense of self versus other, responsibility, voluntary versus involuntary behaviour, intention, private inner life, normal versus abnormal mental states. Empathy. Sexual attraction. Powerful sexual jealousy. Childhood fears, especially of loud noises, and, at the end of the first year, strangers. Fear of snakes. "Oedipal" feelings (possessiveness of mother, coolness toward her consort). Face recognition. Adornment of bodies and arrangement of hair. Sexual attractiveness, based in part on signs of health and, in women, youth. Hygiene. Dance. Music. Play, including play fighting.

Manufacture of, and dependence upon, many kinds of tools, many of them permanent, made according to culturally transmitted motifs, including cutters, pounders, containers, string, levers, spears. Use of fire to cook food and for other purposes. Drugs, both medicinal and recreational. Shelter. Decoration of artifacts.

A standard pattern and time for weaning. Living in groups, which claim a territory and have a sense of being a distinct people. Families built around a mother and children, usually the biological mother, and one or more men. Institutionalized marriage, in the sense of publicly recognized right of sexual access to a woman eligible for childbearing. Socialization of children (including toilet training) by senior kin. Children copying their elders. Distinguishing of close kin from distant kin, and favouring of close kin. Avoidance of incest between mothers and sons. Great interest in the topic of sex.

Status and prestige, both assigned (by kinship, age, sex) and achieved. Some degree of economic inequality. Division of labour by sex and age. More child care by women. More aggression and violence by men. Acknowledgement of differences between male and female natures. Domination by men in the public political sphere. Exchange of labor, goods, and services. Reciprocity, including retaliation. Gifts. Social reasoning. Coalitions. Government, in the sense of binding collective decisions about public affairs. Leaders, almost always nondictatorial, perhaps ephemeral. Laws, rights, and obligations, including laws against violence, rape and murder. Punishment. Conflict, which is deplored. Rape. Seeking of redress for wrongs. Mediation. In-group/Out-group conflicts. Property. Inheritance of property. Sense of right and wrong. Envy.

Etiquette. Hospitality. Feasting. Diurnality. Standards of sexual modesty. Sex generally in private. Fondness for sweets. Food taboos. Discreetness in elimination of body wastes. Supernatural beliefs. Magic to sustain and increase life, and to attract the opposite sex. Theories of fortune and misfortune. Explanations of disease and death. Medicine. Rituals, including rites of passage. Mourning the dead. Dreaming, interpreting dreams.

- sally mckay 2-05-2004 8:33 am [link] [1 ref] [7 comments]


- sally mckay 2-02-2004 8:52 am [link] [3 comments]