AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXII, No. 1, Spring 2000

 

“Copenhagen” Play Portrays Bohr and Heisenberg
by Finn Aaserud, Director, Niels Bohr Archive, Copenhagen

Please click on any photo to view an enlarged version.

photo of New York production of the play 'Copenhagen'It is not often that a play comes along that is based on solid research in the history of science. It is even rarer that such a play becomes a considerable public success, while at the same time receiving high acclaim from historians of science and scientists alike. Michael Frayn’s play “Copenhagen,” based on the uncertainties surrounding the 1941 meeting between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in German-occupied Copenhagen, is such a play. It has already played for nearly two years in London, has been extremely well received in several other European cities, and recently opened in New York City.

The play has been published as a book in England and is forthcoming in the US. The book includes a “Postscript” in which Frayn explains why he wrote the play along with a competent discussion of some of the main historical issues involved. The Postscript shows that Frayn is not satisfied with showing the play, he also encourages discussion of it.

In this spirit, the Niels Bohr Archive (NBA) in Copenhagen was able to organize, onPhoto of Copenhagen production of the play 'Copenhagen' 19 November 1999, a public seminar entitled “‘Copenhagen’ and Beyond: The Interconnections between Drama, Science, and History.” Whereas Frayn took up the issue from the point of view of the dramatist, historian of science Robert Marc Friedman (who himself has written a televised drama drawing on his historical research) introduced the historian’s perspective. The director of the Danish production, Peter Langdal, talked about the special challenges involved in setting up the play in Bohr’s home town. The physicist’s viewpoint was taken care of by Nobel laureate Ben Mottelson. Further information about the seminar is being entered on the NBA’s new Web site, http://www.nbi.dk/nba/. The event was by far the best-attended in the NBA’s irregular series of history of science seminars.

In the same spirit, the opening of “Copenhagen” in New York City precipitated a day-long series of workshops on March 27 organized by The American Physical Society and co-sponsored by the Friends of the AIP Center for History of Physics. Frayn shared the discussion with prominent physicists such as Hans Bethe and John Wheeler, who are old enough to have discussed the fateful 1941 meeting with Bohr or Heisenberg a few years after it took place. The workshops attracted an overflow audience and a surprising amount of media attention. It is important that historians of science continue to draw on Frayn’s play in order to explore not just the specific historical question, but also how history of science can inform dramatic work, and, most challenging of all, how and when drama can be used as an alternative vehicle for presenting history of science to scholars and the general public alike.


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