Book Review: Copenhagen

Copenhagen, by Michael Frayn

Those who know me are well aware of my own tendency to chronicle and overanalyze my frequent awkward conversations [1].  This play is basically the attempt through research and analysis to provide a decisive interpretation of one of the more historically fateful awkward conversations of the 20th century.  As an expert in awkward conversations and someone with an interest in the larger implications of particle physics, I found this play to be immensely fascinating.  In enjoying this play, though, I am also of the awareness that I am likely to be somewhat unusual in really enjoying what this play has to offer.  This is a play for science nerds and people who struggle with issues of memory and communication and the political and social duties of scientists and other professionals.  This sort of play deals with matters of great personal relevance, but which are probably a bit too arcane for most people, which is a great pity.  Even so, for those people who relish the idea of having three characters try to trash out the meaning of an uncomfortable conversation as much as I do, this play comes with as positive a recommendation as I can give.

This two-act play centers around a heavily disputed conversation that took place in late September 1941 in Nazi-occupied Cophenhagen.  Famous German scientist Heisenburg came to that city ostensibly to give a talk to a captive Danish audience but in reality to feel out half-Jewish Danish scientist Niels Bohr about the repercussions of fission research.  The third party in this uber-nerd conversation was Bohr’s wife Margrethe, who represents in many ways the suspicious lay audience of the two theoretical physicists.  Over and over again the dialogue of the play consists of these post-corporeal characters discussing questions of memory and its reliability, the problems of calculations, and the moral obligations of scientists with regards to human life as well as intellectual progress.  Without coming to anything resembling certainty–Heisenberg is not known for nothing for his indeterminancy principle and his contributions to quantum mechanics–the play does raise questions that are valid far outside of its admittedly somewhat obscure field.  The fact that the elder Bohr and younger Heisenberg had a father and son-like relationship only adds to the poignancy of the play as a whole.  Who knew that discussion of obscure World War II conversations and esoteric scientific theory could be this emotionally deep?  Scientists are humans, after all, as much as we may forget it.

After the two acts of the play there is a somewhat lengthy afterword that places the drama in its larger context in the history of science.  As might be expected, much about the conversation is itself doubted, and both Bohr and Heisenberg were more than a bit cagey because of the fact that Bohr’s home was being wire-tapped and both scientists feared ending up on the wrong side of the Nazi SS.  Heisenberg, of course, was heavily involved in Nazi Germany’s controversial atomic research, which he claimed was merely a reactor program and not a weapons program after the war when coming under scrutiny from the victorious Allies.  Bohr dramatically escaped from Denmark just before the Germans sought to deport and exterminate him and his fellow Danish Jews.  Over and over again Bohr and his wife wonder in the play why Heisenberg came to them, what he was looking for, and what he was trying to accomplish in the awkward conversation and its equally awkward 1947 sequel.  At the end of the play we ultimately do not know, perhaps because Heisenberg did not really know himself and what he was really about either.  He would not be the first awkward communicator to be in such ignorance about his own mixed and complicated motives and aims, nor the last.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Book Review: Copenhagen

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