Thursday, July 21, 2005

Michael Frayn -- "Noises Off" to nuclear secrets


Who is Michael Frayn? A British playwright, to be sure, but one I hadn't heard of until my wife and I saw the hilariously rambunctious "Noises Off" some while ago in Ashland, Ore. (The play was presented locally by Theatre on the Ridge and Paradise Performing Arts Center about a year ago.)

Even then, Frayn's name didn't stick until, just recently, I read the book version of his award-winning play, "Copenhagen" ($12 in paper from Anchor Books), and realized the same hand was at work (a publisher's note helped considerably!).

The joy of "Noises Off" comes only seeing its intricate machinery; the pleasures of "Copenhagen" (which received the 2000 Tony award for best play) are there within the printed page. It must be mesmerizing to watch but it is equally captivating to read.

"Copenhagen" probes the meaning of a strange meeting in 1941 between two giants of physics, Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, at Bohr's Copenhagen residence. History records that the meeting took place; but what was said, and what was meant, is shrouded in ambiguity. Even Bohr and Heisenberg themselves, when they were alive, could not -- or did not want to -- dispel the mystery. "Copenhagen" explores the intricacy of human motivation.

There are only three characters present in this two-act play: the two scientists, and Bohr's wife, Margrethe. (In this edition of the play, Frayn has added a long postscript that helps the reader more clearly see what is speculation and what is supported by the historical record.)

As the first act opens, Bohr and his wife are on stage. In just a few lines the entire play comes into view:

Margrethe: Why did he come to Copenhagen?

Bohr: Does it matter, my love, now we're all three of us dead and gone?

Margrethe: Some questions remain long after their owners have died. Lingering like ghosts. Looking for the answers they never found in life.

Bohr: Some questions have no answers to find.

Margrethe: Why did he come? What was he trying to tell you?

Bohr: He did explain later.

Margrethe: He explained over and over again. Each time he explained it became more obscure.

Bohr: It was probably very simple, when you come right down to it: He wanted to have a talk.

Margrethe: A talk? To the enemy? In the middle of a war?

Bohr: Margrethe, my love, we were scarcely the enemy.

Margrethe: It was 1941!

Bohr: Heisenberg was one of our oldest friends.

Margrethe: Heisenberg was German. We were Danes. We were under German occupation.

Bohr: It put us in a difficult position, certainly.

Margrethe: I've never seen you as angry with anyone as you were with Heisenberg that night.

Heisenberg's "uncertainty principle," formulated in 1927, said that, for a subatomic particle, "the more accurately you know its position, the less accurately you know its velocity, and vice versa." The theme of uncertainty plays out in the meeting with Bohr as well.

In 1928 Bohr recognized that Heisenberg's uncertainty principle was incomplete as a description of a particle. He integrated Schrodinger's wave theory to produce the "Copenhagen Interpretation" of quantum mechanics. But the wartime question for the Nazi government was whether such theory could be turned to practical use, either in the construction of a nuclear reactor -- or a nuclear bomb.

Germany began its research into atomic fission in 1939; by contrast, the Allied program began only in 1942. Why weren't the Germans successful? Heisenberg didn't think developing a bomb was possible, since it seemed tons of U235 would be needed, painstakingly separated from the more common form of uranium, U238. But did Heisenberg do the calculation? If he had, he would have seen that only a comparatively small amount of U235 would be needed. Did he do the calculation, but make a mistake? When he reported to Albert Speer after the meeting with Bohr, did Heisenberg convince Speer that a bomb project had little chance of success?

Why did Heisenberg meet with Bohr? To convince his mentor to join the German effort, or to leak the fact that there was such a program? To find out whether the Allies were working to build a bomb? To explain how he was impeding such development by his lack of enthusiasm? But then why did Bohr become angry? Did he misunderstand his former friend? Did his former friend want to be misunderstood?

Uncertainty abounds.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2005 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

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