Published in KPBS On Air Magazine April 2002
1941. Copenhagen. German physicist Werner Heisenberg makes a clandestine visit to his former mentor, Danish physicist Niels Bohr. What was the nature of that fateful visit? And why does it still fascinate and intrigue us?
It’s all about the bomb. Although the two brilliant, Nobel Prize-winning scientists were colleagues and friends, they found themselves on opposite sides of the war, both racing against time, struggling with the challenge of nuclear fission and the creation of an atomic bomb. The Germans ultimately failed to develop a nuclear weapon — but why? Was it because Heisenberg, the head of the project, intentionally sabotaged the program so Germany wouldn’t win the war? Or was it incompetence and oversight, a scientific failure on his part?
And why, in the middle of it all, did the brash, impetuous Heisenberg come to visit the methodical, contemplative Bohr? Did he just want to learn what the Allies were up to in nuclear fission? Did he want to reassure Bohr that Germany wasn’t working on a bomb? Was he trying to recruit his colleague to the other side? Was he looking for advice? Absolution?
We’ll never really know. And that’s exactly what the award-winning playwright Michael Frayn chose to focus on in “Copenhagen,” which won the 2000 Tony Award for Best Play. The topic seems unlikely — a drama about quantum physics, nuclear fission, the physical principles of Uncertainty and Complementarity. But really, it’s about friendship and conscience. The meeting of these minds affected the fabric and future of our society.
“I was 14 or 15 when the A-bomb went off,” says veteran actor William Cain, who plays Bohr in “Copenhagen’s” 30-city national tour (which culminates at the Spreckels Theatre, April 23-28). “I remember the scare it put into us. I think it was the defining moment of the 20th century. We’re still living under it, and could die under it, too.”
Also a young man at the time was Marvin “Murph” Goldberger, UCSD professor emeritus, a physicist who, from 1944-1946, worked in the Chicago section of the bomb-building Manhattan Project.
“I was a very minor player in Chicago,” says Goldberger, now 79. “A 21 year-old soldier in the Manhattan Project. I didn’t know too much firsthand. But I do know that we worked like dogs and were terribly apprehensive about what the Germans might be doing. I never believed that the Germans were deliberately resisting the idea of developing a bomb. I never believed Heisenberg would go against his country; his wife was an admitted, active member of the Nazi Party. I believe that Heisenberg made a mistake in calculating the so-called ‘critical mass’ needed for fission, and that’s why there was no German bomb.
“Heisenberg was an unbelievably great physicist who made incredible contributions to the field. But by the time I met him in the ’50s, he was no longer on top of the subject. I met Bohr several times, too, and what they say is true. He was a great scientist, but virtually impossible to understand, with his accent and his muttering. I think the Powers book on which the play was based [‘Heisenberg’s War: The Secret History of the German Bomb,” by Thomas Powers, published in 1993)] contains an awful lot of crap. But I also think it was the play that propelled the Bohr family to help set the record straight, by releasing 11 documents in early February, drafts of unsent letters written by Bohr to Heisenberg. Bohr had the reputation of writing and rewriting everything, sometimes up to 100 times. I’m not sure I believe that. But to me, these letters state rather baldly that Heisenberg was completely familiar with the details of atomic weapons. If this letter, written 16 years after the 1941 visit, is accurate…”
Ahh, uncertainty rears its ugly head again. The Uncertainty Principle was one of Heisenberg’s primary contributions to physics, and uncertainty governs the play. As playwright Frayn puts it in his postscript to the text, we can never know the true motivation of others: “The only way we have of entering the mind of another is through the imagination.”
So the play depends upon the intelligence and imagination of the audience. It opens on a bare stage with three chairs, no props. The two protagonists, plus Bohr’s wife Margrethe, are already “dead and gone.” But they’re all still obsessed with that 1941 meeting. Throughout the course of the evening, they try to understand and deconstruct that meeting, playing and replaying multiple, alternative and co-existing possibilities, explications and What If’s.
“It’s like three electrons inside an atom,” says Cain, “bouncing off each other and colliding. Margrethe is the skeptic in the center, telling the audience what to look at, what to contemplate.”
In his 50 years onstage, Cain finds “Copenhagen” to be “unquestionably the most complicated and hardest play I’ve ever worked on. It’s about the unpredictability of human behavior. It says that basically, we can never get down to the bedrock truth — not in atoms, not in history — as long as people are involved. It’s so complex, so thought-provoking. But to enjoy it, you don’t have to know physics. You just have to sit up and pay attention.”
[Copenhagen runs from April 23-28 at the Spreckels Theatre, brought to us by Broadway/San Diego; 619-570-1100).
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.