Hidden Gems -- Copenhagen | Mechanics' Institute

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Hidden Gems -- Copenhagen

Everyone recognizes the name Albert Einstein, but the 20th century was "the century of physics," and we have many other brilliant people who made enormous contributions to our understanding of the universe at the atomic, or quantum, level. Here, we have a play about two of them: Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg.  Although only about 16 years apart in age, many referred to Heisenberg as "Niels Bohr's eldest son." 

They met in Göttingen in 1922. According to one anecdote, after Bohr finished a lecture Heisenberg had a contentious exchange with him during the question and answer session, perhaps a case of a young man trying to show off. Bohr looked past the youthful hubris, realizing that the young scientist had demonstrated an understanding of the higher level physics Bohr pioneered in order to be able to ask sharp questions. Bohr approached Heisenberg afterwards and asked if they could talk more. From that day forward, the two men spent much time together, mostly taking hours long walks, talking about concepts in physics that only they and about a hundred other people in the world understood. 

Then World War II started. Heisenberg belonged to a non-observant German Lutheran family, while Bohr was a Danish Jew. Although not a Nazi, Heisenberg headed Germany's atomic energy program. The two met for the last time in Bohr's home in Copenhagen in 1941. Heisenberg left very soon after arriving. Neither of them nor Bohr's wife gave a clear account of what transpired between them. Playwright Michael Frayn created a fascinating speculative history dramatizing this last encounter that I found at once engaging, suspenseful and  educational. In addition to the drama of an old friendship disintegrating and the frightening prospect of Nazi Germany acquiring the atomic bomb, you also come away from this play with a pretty good lay person's understanding of quantum physics and the construction of the atomic bomb. Frayn even covers the speculation over the years that Heisenberg secretly sabotaged the Nazi atomic program.  

The Mechanics Institute Library has three versions of Michael Frayn's brilliant play, Copenhagen:

The original script in our book collection: Copenhagen 822 F847c

The TV adaptation of the play starring Daniel Craig and Stephen Rea DVD

The Radio play adaptation by L. A. Theatre Works as an eAudiobook

Posted on May. 23, 2023 by Steven Dunlap