Saturday, December 11, 2010

Bohred to Death

by Drew Martin

I just finished reading a play that will take some time to digest: Copenhagen by the English playwright and novelist Michael Frayn, which is a conversation, in theory, of what could have been said during a (WWII) wartime meeting between the German physicist, Werner Heisenberg, and his peer, the elder, Jewish Dane, Niels Bohr...with plenty of interjections by Bohr's wife.

The play was written 57 years after the brief and awkward 1941 meeting. The topic of discussion was the development of the atomic bomb and the nuclear capabilities of the German and the allied forces. The conversation was never recorded and left open to numerous accounts of what could have been said and hearsay.

The problem with much of the material Frayn had to work with is the hatred of and bias towards Heisenberg for his Nazi involvement: the competencies of both physicists have been skewed over time.

I wish I could see Copenhagen performed because I marveled at the physics-dominated lines, which the actors would be required to commit to memory. I am still, however, a little unsure of the work. On one hand, it seemed a bit if it was developed around a checklist of everything that could have been discussed. On the other hand, despite a lot of technical information about slow and fast fission, the conversation never really enters the deep thinking of a physicist. It comes off as drama with buzzwords. For all of Frayn's efforts to construct a play about the struggles of humans to simultaneously create and accept the consequences of a devastating atomic bomb, the fact that so much of the discussion is about the past, relieves the characters and (unfortunately) the reader from the raw moments characters endure, for example, in Greek classics and Shakespeare.

What I enjoyed most of all was a very thorough postscript. I am glad Frayn did not let this play "speak for itself" because there is much to be gained from reading this addendum. By stepping back from the volley of lines and comparing the play with its content, one can appreciate the Frayn has given us a reflective is a play about uncertainty: uncertainty principle of physics, the uncertainty of the German nuclear program including Heisenberg's fumbling or thwarting of it and certainly the uncertainty of what was said between the two men during the visit that inspired the play. This is not unrelated to Heisenberg's urge to be understood, even for a man who may not have understood himself.

Though I love being a visual person I constantly remind myself of this mode's limitations so I specifically enjoyed one articulation of Heisenberg...

"...he had the first truly quantum-mechanical mind - the ability to take the leap beyond the classical visualizing picture into the abstract, all-but-impossible-to-visualise world of the subatomic..."

One focus of the postscript I appreciated was Frayn's effort to explain the difficulty and pitfalls of laying a fictitious dialogue into a historic nest:

I can only appeal to Heisenberg himself. In his memoirs dialogue plays an important part, he says, because he hopes 'to demonstrate that science is rooted in conversations.' But, as he explains, conversations, even real conversations, cannot be reconstructed literally several decades later. So he freely reinvents them, and appeals in his turn to Thucydides. (Heisenberg's father was a professor of classics, and he was an accomplished classicist himself, on top of all his other distinctions.) Thucydides explains in his preface to the 'History of the Pelopennesian War' that, although he had avoided all 'storytelling', when it came to speeches, 'I have found it impossible to remember their exact wording. Hence I have made each orator speak as, in my opinion, he would have done in the circumstances, but keeping as close as I could to the train of thought that guided his actual speech.'...The greatest challenge facing the storyteller and the historian alike is to get inside people's heads, to stand where they stood and see the world as they saw it, to make some informed estimate of their motives and intentions - and this is precisely where recorded and recordable history cannot reach. Even when all the external evidence has been mastered, the only way into the protagonist's heads is through the imagination. This indeed is the substance of the play.

If WWII seems too distant for younger readers to connect with (Frayn was born in 1933), Copenhagen is entirely relevant for the current discussions surrounding the Iranian nuclear program. The postscript clearly explains the difference between developing a reactor and a bomb and this is done so in favor of Heisenberg, who insists throughout the play that he made no move towards nuclear weapons. One of the issues presented in Copenhagen is not about drawing a moral line as a scientist when one's research may be devastating but trying to determine where that line is. While Heisenberg was working on a nuclear reactor for Germany, Bohr (through Los Alamos) contributed to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The deaths from the blasts and the acute effects were in the hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese civilians.