Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Copenhagen by Michael Frayn


In this play, the ghosts of Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Margarethe Bohr reflect upon and debate Heisenberg's strange visit to Copenhagen in 1941. To this day biographers and historians debate the content and the essence of this meeting between these two giants of theoretical physics - Bohr and Heisenberg revolutionized atomic physics in the 1920s, and, come 1941, Heisenberg was the director of the German atom bomb project, while Bohr's homeland - Denmark - was occupied by German forces. History has it, that as a result of this meeting, Bohr went to went to London to tell colleagues that he thought the Nazis were getting Heisenberg to build an atomic bomb to drop on the Allies. This kick-started Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard into writing their famous letter to President Franklin Roosevelt, warning that Hitler was trying to develop an atomic weapon. In response, America commenced a massive atomic bomb program....and the rest - Hiroshima - is history...

Heisenberg, however, claims that his intention was to persuade Bohr to help arrange a pact among atomic physicists throughout the world to never build an atomic weapon. He also claims  that he was deliberately sabotaging the Nazi program; that it was necessary that he control the German atomic program least the Kurt Diebner did - a physicist who, as Bohr points out had a mere tenth of Heisenberg's ability, but, as Heisenberg counteracts, he wanted to built the bomb ten times more than Heisenberg did. Margarethe suggests
that this is a convenient ethical scape-goat for a physicist who tried but failed to build an atomic bomb. Certainly, Heisenberg was a talented and ambitious physist: what exactly were his motives? At a crucial point in the play, Frayn reminds his audience that Bohr played a significant role in the Manhattan Project to create the first atomic bomb... and the ethical ramifications of each physicist's argument thickens...

Frayn does an excellent job of demonstrating the brilliant minds behind theoretical physics, as well as the incredible focus, drive and ambition. It is scary stuff. I certainly hope that all those atomic physicists out there have hearts as big as their brilliant brains!

Frayn has done a heap of research into this pivotal meeting, as evidenced by the post-script in which he discusses his research, and responds to criticisms of his depiction of the event. In fact, if you don't like plays, the post-script alone is a good read.

I imagine that those with insight and knowledge into this event and the events leading up to it might have quite a different response, but for one who was until now ignorant of the brains and motives behind the will to atomic power, I think that this play (and post-script) is fascinating stuff. Most of the content is riveting, and I think Frayn does a great job of raising important questions and ambiguities, as well as giving political and social context, throughout the entire play. I was less interested in some of the 'domestic references' and descriptions of friendship that Frayn has crop-up, but I guess that this is important to establishing the great friendship and working relationship between the two men, and Bohr's father-like mentor role in Heisenberg's personal and professional development prior to the 1941 meeting.

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