AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXIII , No. 1, Spring 2001


Bohr-Heisenberg Drama Continues to Stir Debate
by Finn Aaserud, Director, Niels Bohr Archive, Copenhagen

Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen, drawing on the meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in the Nazi-occupied Danish capital in September 1941, has experienced public attention and critical acclaim rarely seen for a fictional account drawing on events and issues from the history of science (see article in Spring 2000 newsletter). Although it recently ended its run on Broadway—as well as in London, where it premiered back in May 1998—the play continues to be staged and to draw interest internationally. The play was presented in Berlin in February this year, and in the fall of 2001 it will begin a U.S. tour, starting in San Francisco.

Whereas theater critics and physicists have reacted to the play with virtually unanimous acclaim, the response of historians of science who have worked with Frayn's historical issues has been mixed. The ongoing dispute is mainly rekindled when one historian or another takes issue with the historical veracity of Frayn's account of why Heisenberg traveled to Copenhagen in 1941, and more generally the question of why Nazi Germany did not get far towards building an atomic bomb. Debate continues especially in the U.S. news media. Frayn, who presented his historical sources in a "Postscript" to the published version of his play, has been quite willing to engage in this debate on the historians' premises (e.g., Los Angeles Times December 31, 2000 and January 21, 2001, and New York Review of Books, February 8, 2001).

This has created opportunities for a constructive dialogue between dramatists, physicists and historians about what sort of communication and collaboration is possible among the three disciplines of drama, physics and history. This issue has been addressed, for example, in the New York symposium organized in connection with the opening of the play on Broadway (see, in a German-language book being published by the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and in a seminar organized in November 1999 by the Niels Bohr Archive (for a complete transcript, including the animated and extensive discussion with the audience, see ).

The Niels Bohr Archive (NBA) is now planning a second, more ambitious symposium, sponsored by the Danish Ministry of Research and the Faculty of Science at the University of Copenhagen. At this event, Frayn will meet some of the foremost historians of science with special knowledge of the issues and events taken up in the play. Nevertheless, the objective is less to continue the dispute about the 1941 Copenhagen meeting than to explore further the possibilities for communication and collaboration between dramatists and historians of science. In addition, the symposium will address questions such as perspectives for transforming historical events into contemporary issues, why the play has been so extraordinarily successful, and how it is understood by the wider public. Sessions are expected to take place at Niels Bohr's residence at the Carlsberg Mansion, where the action of Frayn's play occurs, and at the Niels Bohr Institute, where Heisenberg lived and worked with Bohr in the 1920s. More detailed information about the symposium, which is tentatively scheduled for September 22-23, 2001, will be posted on the NBA's Web site, Questions may be addressed to the Niels Bohr Archive, Blegdamsvej 17, DK-2100 Copenhagen, Denmark; e-mail, phone +45 353 25219, fax +45 353 25428.

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