‘Copenhagen’ by Michael Frayn
Margrethe But why?
Bohr You’re still thinking about it?
Margrethe Why did he come to Copenhagen?
The play ‘Copenhagen’ by Michael Frayn has been in my reading list for a long time. When the opportunity of traveling to the city presented all of a sudden I instantly remembered the book. All the same, disregard my fetishism; it would not add much to the city or to the book reading ‘Copenhagen’ in Copenhagen. The charming Danish capital is worth visiting at any time, and you should not wait any longer to read the book or see the play. Indeed I finally got it immediately afterwards, when I stopped in London, and I read it overnight.
‘Copenhagen’ is a play in two acts, a work of fiction based on real events and real personages, only three characters, the scientists Heisenberg and Bohr and Bohr’s wife Margrethe. It was premiered in London in May 1998 and in New York in April 2000.
The core of the play is the visit the German physicist Heisenberg made to his old friend and mentor Niels Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941. Denmark was under military occupation by Nazi Germany at the time. The outcome of Heisenberg’s visit meant the breakdown of their friendship though the causes were never clear. The play inquires on the circumstances and possible themes of their conversations through dialogues that take place before, during and after the visit, including in the afterlife. Ultimately, ‘Copenhagen’ is about why we do what we do and the difficulties to really know the answer.
Bohr was a father figure on theoretical physics in the period between wars. Many relevant scientists in the field are related to him directly or indirectly and to the research institute in Copenhagen now bearing his name. Heisenberg went to study with Bohr, 16 years his senior, under a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship in 1924 and stayed there until 1927 as his assistant. Is in Copenhagen where Heisenberg developed his ‘Uncertainty Principle’.
I have long been captivated by this epoch time in physics and the flurry of new ideas: theory of relativity, uncertainty principle, complementary principle, quantum mechanics… The classical physics challenged, whereas the alluded ambiguities meant more accurate measurements condensed in ever more precise formulas. Not indisputable then, and today questioned or superseded with new theories.
The protagonists of this scientific outburst are still more fascinating, they lived in turbulent times and their work changed our world. Many are mentioned in the play: Einstein, Max Born, Pascual Jordan, Wolfgang Pauli, Schrödinger, Otto Hahn, Goudsmit, Enrico Fermi, Oppenheimer… Forming a small community, most were friends, colleagues, or direct disciples of Bohr and Heisenberg, like Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls, who − relevant to the play − argued that if the rare isotope uranium 235 could be extracted from naturally occurring uranium 238, the amount needed for an atomic bomb could be measured in kilograms rather than the early estimates of tons.
The dialogues are enthralling, generally in short sentences, not contrived, and accessible to all. Including those concerning science, revealing how discoveries are based on studies complementing earlier studies, work not only done in the laboratory, but also sparked by intuition in a casual setting. We learn of Heisenberg’s and Bohr’s families, the tragedy of lost children, or their cheerful memories sailing, skiing or playing cards; Germany’s precarious and unsettled situation after its defeat in the Great War; the merciless persecution of Jews ─ many of those scientists were Jews, Bohr himself was half Jewish and managed to escape in a fishing boat to neutral Sweden.
The conversations over fission, electrons orbiting the nucleus, particles or waves blend naturally with the characters’ recollections of the autumnal colours in Copenhagen, the soothing air strolling through Felden Park behind the Institute, the atmosphere of an encounter at the train station. I relish the polite demeanor of our protagonists and I realize, besides the friendship, the competition and also the misgivings.
Here we are confronted with fundamental questions and complex moral issues, but helped with the force of the characters’ argumentation. The story itself is full of paradoxes. Peaceful, honorable Bohr eventually ended up in US, working in Los Alamos for the Manhattan Project that led to the atomic bomb; while Heisenberg, who had no role in the death of any human being, was left forever involved in a cloud of suspicion and rejection.
‘Copenhagen’ is an example of how fiction can give valuable insights on history. Interestingly, Bohr was famously inarticulate, fastidious to find the right words, and poor at explaining a narrative; while Heisenberg was reserved to the point of being distant, unable to express emotions. Fiction, theater here, gives them a voice. Fiction, as well, helps to fill a gap with a plausible guess. Why Heisenberg went to Copenhagen? What did he tell to Bohr that meant the end of their friendship?
The author Michael Frayn, superior playwright, novelist and biographer, explains in his Postscript the research foundation of the play studying all the materials available concerning the protagonists. The difficulties faced by an author working with real events are manifold, and here Frayn had to deal with a typical one. It is rather bewildering, for instance, how the protagonists’ or their relatives’ accounts differ in small details of time and place, let alone substance, or how their recollections change over time, perhaps due to a failing memory, or affected by different circumstances and events.
The contribution of ‘Copenhagen’ went beyond expectations. Thus, in the wake of the repercussions after the premieres in London and New York, new materials came to light. Frayn was able to make some changes to the play, but again new evidence concerning Heisenberg and Bohr meetings in Copenhagen emerged which substantially affected the author’s stance in the play, that would imply to change it completely, what he could no longer do. Even it is only recently that we have learnt there was a German program on nuclear fusion, not just fission. All this is explained in the Post-Postscript. The edition I read, supposed to be the latest, is of 2009.
Some of the most interesting pieces of historical evidence Michael Frayn had access to were the transcripts of the conversations between 10 leading German scientists confined after the war at Farm Hall, in England. These included Heisenberg, Weizsäcker and Otto Hahn, and a scientist I did not know until I read the book, Max von Laue, who had the courage to challenge the Nazi authorities without being punished. All their conversations were recorded, since they were under surveillance. Their reactions at the news on Hiroshima when they listened to a BBC report are revealing to me: they did not want to do it.
It is a strange coincidence that I finish this article today, 6th of August, when we remember the victims of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima.