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Copenhagen For most people the principles of nuclear physics are not only incomprehensible but inhuman The popular image of the men who made the bomb is of dispassionate intellects who number crunched their way towards a weapon whose devastating power they could not even imagine But in his Tony Award winning play Copenhagen Michael Frayn shows us that these men were passionate philosophical and all too human even though one of the three historical figures in his drama Werner Heisenberg was the head of the Nazis' effort to develop a nuclear weapon The play's other two characters the Danish physicist Niels Bohr and his wife Margrethe are involved with Heisenberg in an after death analysis of an actual meeting that has long puzzled historians In 1941 the German scientist visited Bohr his old mentor and long time friend in Copenhagen After a brief discussion in the Bohrs' home the two men went for a short walk What they discussed on that walk and its implications for both scientists have long been a mystery even though both scientists gave conflicting accounts in later years Frayn's cunning conceit is to use the scientific underpinnings of atomic physics from Schrdinger's famous cat to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle to explore how an individual's point of view renders attempts to discover the ultimate truth of any human interaction fundamentally impossible To Margrethe Heisenberg was always an untrustworthy student eager to steal from her husband's knowledge To Bohr Heisenberg was a brilliant if irresponsible foster son whose lack of moral compass was part of his genius As for Heisenberg the man who could have built the bomb but somehow failed to his dilemma is at the heart of the play's conflict Frayn's clever dramatic structure which returns repeatedly to particular scenes from different points of view allows several possible theories as to what his motives could have been This isn't the first play to successfully merge the world

10 thoughts on “Copenhagen

  1. BlackOxford BlackOxford says:

    uantum EthicsIntentions maketh the man in love life and war Well perhaps not Who knows anyone’s genuine motives especially one’s own Our reasons for acting the way we do involve telling a story Stories justify intentions as rational beneficial necessary or just plain good But whose story? All stories are arbitrary or at least incomplete And they’re all told after the fact Stories reuire a point of view which can only be adopted after the conseuences of action have emerged So how compelling are these stories about intentions?Sometimes as in uantum Physics different fundamentally incompatible stories appear necessary to account for what happens Wave vs Particle stories for example uantum physics raises the uestion of what is real in the physical world Analogously Copenhagen raises the same issue of reality in the moral world Frayn uses multiple fictional dialogues between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in 1941 with Bohr’s wife in a role of moderator as a way to investigate this realityFormerly intimate friends Bohr and Heisenberg found themselves mortal enemies after Germany invaded Denmark in 1940 Both had been instrumental in the discovery of the possibility of nuclear fission and therefore the the atomic bomb The purpose of their meeting initiated by Heisenberg has always been somewhat mysterious Frayn uses the confusions of memory and possible misinterpretations of both men to invent his own story about the meetingScientists like Bohr and Heisenberg tend to tell their stories about the physical world in multiple drafts that are then critiued by their colleagues So Frayn has them do this dramatically about their own intentions The first draft is purely professional all about scientific necessity and the analytic challenges of uantum theory Intellectual importance the interests of science the dignity of humankind are the sorts of motives at hand Pragmatics in other words the theory was useful; it worked But do these motives work to explain the phenomena of their own behaviour?The second draft opens the possibility of personal ambition This version involves a considerable degree of self rationalisation and putting the best possible gloss on matters of faded memory Personal reputation fears jealousies and antipathies emerge as things far important than science or the advance of knowledge But who can be sure of the combined effects of these hidden emotions Many of these emotions may be unconsciously harboured and never reach the level of articulate thought A principle of moral uncertainty emerges Can we be aware of these motives and act on them at the same time?The third draft includes the ‘bigger picture’ like involvement in non scientific ethics other things that were done or prevented from being done during the war that point to justification of one’s actions Influence rather than direct undertaking is what’s relevant here Therefore actions are difficult to pin down as the origin of a chain of events a chain reaction indicating an overall programme Intention becomes murky; and its justification even murkier Can moral reality be described as a sort of uantum entanglement among events or is it a profoundly artificial abstraction of a sociological system?It is clear that Copenhagen highlights the issue of scientific ethics What isn’t clear is what contribution it makes to either the debate or the moral thinking of individual scientists Heisenberg worked to help a homicidal maniac Bohr worked to stop that maniac and participated in killing several hundred thousand Japanese as a result Both men enabled a global reign of terror that persists Is there an ethic in this story which makes sense?So uncertainty rules everywhere However it is Margarethe Bohr’s wife who sees through the male logic and understands the central moral import of the situation “If it’s Heisenberg at the centre of the universe” she says “then the one bit of the universe that he can’t see is Heisenberg” Ethics come from elsewhere; we can’t trust ourselves with the burden Who else to trust therefore is the critical uestion

  2. Manuel Antão Manuel Antão says:

    If you're into stuff like this you can read the full reviewTheatre and Physics Copenhagen by Michael FraynWhy do I go to the theatre? The uestion bears the same gravitas as the one regarding books Much like books the theatre allows me to experience something different Not like books or movies though the theatre often feels real since I share the same space as the actors While books can help me enter the world of the story and temporarily leave my own life being a theatre buff can also bring meaning into my life as well Maybe the play shows me a different perspective of the world that I did not notice before Often plays give me that something extra be it the love the strength or the determination that I need to move forward in my life What about “Copenhagen”? Bottom line It’s a Hamlet play It’s also about the fallibility of memory human relationships and being at a crossroad in life Now we’re all dead and gone yes and there are only two things the world remembers about me One is the uncertainty principle and the other is my mysterious visit to Niels Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941 Everyone understands uncertainty Or thinks he does No one understands my trip to Copenhagen Time and time again I’ve explained it To Bohr himself and Margrethe To interrogators and intelligence officers to journalists and historians The I’ve explained the deeper the uncertainty has become Well I shall be happy to make one attempt Now we’re all dead and gone Now no one can be hurt now no one can be betrayed Act One The rest of this review can be found elsewhere

  3. Manny Manny says:

    So what did you think? I liked it A lot of really interesting historical stuff about the BohrHeisenbergSchrödinger triangle And I just had no idea about Heisenberg's involvement in the Nazi nuclear project Fascinating Can't imagine how I missed reading about that earlier Ah come on George surely you got out of it than that? Well okay okay it was technically pretty impressive too The way he uses uantum mechanics as a sustained metaphor throughout I didn't think he'd be able to pull it off but it worked Nice going Mr Frayn Damn you're still giving me that look George you know perfectly well that's not what the play was about It was about relationships People trying their best to be decent human beings when all they have are bad choices It was very moving You just won't admit it Look it was about uantum mechanics too Bohr was always sceptical about Heisenberg's matrix algebra but Heisenberg's line was that if it made the right predictions then it doesn't matter that there's no intuitive interpretation I thought Frayn was clever to twist it around and apply Heisenberg's reasoning to his own life I'm not sure you really understood that bit I did so understand it It wasn't that hard to follow You did? Yeah You're pretty bright For an arts graduate And you've got a lot of emotional intelligence for a scientist I noticed tears in your eyes at one point Damn I thought I'd got away with it Look it's both isn't it? Science and emotion Neither one explains the whole story you have to keep going back and forward between them It's like what do you call it The Principle of Complementarity Exactly Hm You might have a point there Yes that can't be accidental He was smart to do that I was smart to figure it out You were And ah you're kind of beautiful too I was wondering if I could kiss you I was wondering when you'd ask Mm Mmmm George? Yes? I think your place is closer isn't it?

  4. Bettie Bettie says:

    view spoiler Bettie's Books hide spoiler

  5. Jenny (Reading Envy) Jenny (Reading Envy) says:

    I wish this had come with stage directions because it was difficult to understand some of the dialogue without knowing how they were interacting or not on stage Interesting subject first act was much better than the second I thought the author was trying too hard to make uantum mechanics match the possibilities of what happened at Bohr's home

  6. Michael Michael says:

    240318 much later addition i read this again with somewhat educated stance at least in philosophy and i am again so impressed this is a memory play the characters heisenberg bohr bohr's wife margarethe as if recounting this true incident as ghosts forever trying to understand the other in thoughts in acts but best resolved in metaphoric terms of the 'copenhagen interpretation' of uantum physics and the uncertainty principle and relativity i have grown up and seen my scientist father and colleagues endeavour to communicate share dispute abstruse physics and can easily imagine these characters doing exactly as they are portrayed for me this play ranks with 'waiting for godot'??? 2000s first review now i want to see it produced tv movie dvd where are yousecond review i read a critical complaint that the character of heisenberg musing on the horrors of war inflicted on germany was rationally convincing himself that this was reason enough to help the nazis and build an atom bomb and the reviewer was outraged this was not balanced by the horrors the nazis were responsible for and she castigated the writer frayn for this but i would argue this would have been entirely consistent for heisenberg this could have been his thoughts which are not those of the writer this suggests how real the characters become in this excellent play

  7. Laura Dam Laura Dam says:

    I saw the play in 2003 in a memorable version that was presented to science students at the University of Buenos Aires which was followed by intense debate Also I´ve watched the playmovie version with Stephen Rea and Daniel Craig several times since i use the movie for teaching I read the play this week to extract uotes for further work with my students It´s pure genius one of the best plays i have ever seen

  8. notgettingenough notgettingenough says:

    What a play As I watched it I knew I had to see it again but wouldn't be able to as the season was booked out As it was the night we went our seats were on the stage A peculiar experienceStill it meant I bought the book the next day Gleefully grabbed by one of the people I went with before I could blink so I hope that gives you an idea of how dense and yet magnetic this play is

  9. Milica Chotra Milica Chotra says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed this book If you're interested in history of science and WW2 especially physics and atomic bomb I can't recommend it highly enough Of course this is a work of fiction and Frayn knows nothing about uantum mechanics but still it's interesting informative and cleverly written Why did Heisenberg go to Copenhagen in 1941?The Idea The idea for Copenhagen came to me out of my interest in philosophy It was when I read a remarkable book called Heisenberg's War by Thomas Powers that I came across the story of Werner Heisenberg's visit to Niels Bohr in 1941 As soon as I read it I began to think that this story reflected some of the problems that I had been thinking about in philosophy for a long time How we know why people do what they do and even how one knows what one does oneself It's a fundamental uestion this is the heart of the playWe can in theory never know everything about human thinking I wanted to suggest with Copenhagen that there is some kind of parallel between the indeterminacy of human thinking and the indeterminacy that Heisenberg introduced into physics with his famous Uncertainty Principle Michael FraynHistoricity Frayn says he follows the philosophy of history found in the work of Thucydides and in so doing he takes on the task of any imaginative writer to shape disparate facts into an intelligible and interpretable whole If you want facts read here Resources for Frayn's Copenhagen MIT here letters and drafts of letters from Bohr to Heisenberg Niels Bohr Archive and here documents by Werner Heisneberg University of New HampshireCharacters Structure of the Play Heisenberg Now we’re all dead and gone yes and there are only two things the world remembers about me One is the uncertainty principle and the other is my mysterious visit to Niels Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941 Everyone understands uncertainty Or thinks he does No one understands my trip to Copenhagen Time and time again I’ve explained it To Bohr himself and Margrethe To interrogators and intelligence officers to journalists and historians The I’ve explained the deeper the uncertainty has become Well I shall be happy to make one attempt Now we’re all dead and gone Now no one can be hurt now no one can be betrayed Copenhagen Act OneSo the ghosts of Werner Heisenberg Niels Bohr and Margrethe Bohr Bohr's wife came together to answer why Bohr and Heisenberg are longtime friends and collaborators and from them we hear about their relationship and their physics how politics affects everything and how difficult it is to keep those apart Margrethe is there to ask uestions on our behalf to make them explain their science in plain language cause she though an intelligent lady wasn't a physicist herself and to represent public opinion while Bohr adored Heisenberg she always had a much negative view of him and she was particularly suspicious of that meeting in 1941 Margrethe is there in the way that all the other people in the world are attempting to explain his behavior says Frayn They sit and talk over and over again trying to reconstruct what happened but can't agree as Bohr wrote to Heisenberg in a letter he never sent I am greatly amazed to see how much your memory has deceived you The way Frayn applied their scientific theories to their lives particularly impressed me but above all it's a story about scientists as human beings something I always enjoy readingI hear there's a TV movie based on it Copenhagen 2002 with Daniel Craig as Werner Heisenberg guess that's as close as I'll get to seeing this playRead this review on my blog

  10. Aj Sterkel Aj Sterkel says:

    Likes I don’t read many stage plays because watching them is always fun than reading them but I thought I’d give Copenhagen a shot It has amazing reviews and has been nominated for many many awards What could go wrong?I enjoyed the historical aspect of the play It’s based on a real meeting that occurred in 1941 between physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr They were both working on secret government weapons projects and they found themselves working for opposite alliances during WWII There is debate over what they talked about at their meeting This play imagines the conversations they might have had I think the “characters” are believable They’re passionate about science but they have complicated feelings about their actions during the war and how their work will be used by people in power This is a play about memory ambition and regret“We have one set of obligations to the world in general and we have other sets never to be reconciled to our fellow country men to our neighbors to our friends to our family to our children We have to go through not two slits at the same time but twenty two All we can do is to look afterwards and see what happened” – CopenhagenDislikes So unpopular opinion time I know this play is beloved by everybody but I struggled with it A lot Even though it’s short it seems long because I got really really bored I think it needs actors to bring it to life The dialogue is dry Reading it is like reading an argument between two college professors about a topic that I don’t understand and don’t care aboutThis play also has no stage directions That made it hard to picture what was happening The characters often talk to the audience or talk about each other like they’re not all on stage together It’s very jarring until you get used to itThe Bottom Line I got bored and confusedDo you like opinions giveaways and bookish nonsense? I have a blog for that

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