Magazine article The American Prospect

History's Heisenberg Principle

Magazine article The American Prospect

History's Heisenberg Principle

Article excerpt

In September 1941, Werner Heisenberg, at the time Germany's pre-eminent scientist and the head of its atom bomb program, traveled to Nazi-occupied Copenhagen to visit his old friend and mentor, Niels Bohr. Both were Nobel laureates; both were among the giants of modern theoretical physics. Eighteen months later, Bohr would escape and work on the Manhattan Project, helping to build a bomb for the Allies. But what happened at that meeting is still pretty much a mystery: Did Heisenberg come to pump Bohr about what he might know from his overseas contacts about any Allied bomb program? Was he there to talk about the morality of scientists engaging in work on terror weapons and thus, perhaps, to dissuade his Western counterparts from engaging in such an undertaking? Was he trying to recruit Bohr for the German bomb?

Behind those questions lurks a much larger mystery that may always bedevil historians: Why did Heisenberg and the Germans never even come close to producing a bomb for Hitler? Did he try and fail, or was he, in effect, a subtle saboteur empowered with scientific knowledge that no one could challenge? In his massive book Heisenberg's War: The Secret History of the German Bomb, Thomas Powers says that Heisenberg, who never became a Nazi and balked at the immorality of building a bomb for Hitler, did what he could to guide "the German atomic bomb effort into a broom closet." But Powers also knows that the evidence is not conclusive and that Heisenberg, who lived until 1976, did little to clear things up. "Frustrated by Heisenberg's silence," he writes at the very end of his book, "something in the historian wants to lecture his shade and say: Your history is incomplete. No one can fairly complain of the way things turned out, but you shirked your final duty--to accept responsibility for what you did and tell us about it. No one else can clear up the confusion...."

Michael Frayn has tried to do almost precisely that. He's conjured up Heisenberg's shade, along with those of Bohr and Bohr's wife Margrethe, to recreate the meeting in Copenhagen--to imagine it from all of its many uncertain perspectives--and, in the process, produce a riveting piece of theater. Both in text and as staged--first in London, where it played for two years, and now in New York--Copenhagen is a metaphor for uncertainty, an echo of Heisenberg's own great scientific work. He theorized that the process of observing subatomic particles itself affects their behavior. The more precise the measurement of the position of a particle, the less precise the measurement of its momentum. Beginning with Einstein, the new physics, as Bohr declares in the play, turned the old deterministic world "inside out.... We put man back at the center of the universe." But if Copenhagen's brilliance lies partially in its intellectual and rhetorical elegance, even in its ability to elucidate some difficult theoretical physics, its real power is in its dramatic plumbing of human uncertainty--its portrayal of people entangled in some of life's most vexing mysteries and in moral dilemmas of Talmudic dimensions.

On the bare circular stage conceived by director Michael Blakemore and designed by Peter J. Davison, the players move about each other, like particles in a nuclear experiment, observer and observed changing positions, the observer subtly becoming the observed, the observed the observer. Together and separately--never quite certain of the details--they recall the lovely days of collegiality and affection of the long-gone past, the silly moments of play, and the long walks and intellectual controversies out of which the great insights of quantum mechanics were forged: uncertainty, complementarity, the great compromise of the Copenhagen Interpretation that light can be both wave and particle. The play shifts seamlessly from flashback to the posthumous present, then back again, as Bohr and Heisenberg seek each other out, and moment gives to dazzling moment. …

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