sexta-feira, junho 26, 2015

Theatre and Physics: "Copenhagen" by Michael Frayn

Published August 8th 2000.

Why do I go to the theatre? The question bears the same gravitas as the one regarding books. Much like books, the theatre allows me to experience something different. Not like books or movies though, the theatre often feels more real since I share the same space as the actors. While books can help me enter the world of the story, and temporarily leave my own life, being a theatre buff can also bring meaning into my life as well. Maybe the play shows me a different perspective of the world that I did not notice before. Often, plays give me that something extra, be it the love, the strength, the determination, etc. that I need to move forward in my life.

What about “Copenhagen”? Bottom-line. It’s a Hamlet play. It’s also about the fallibility of memory, human relationships, and being at a crossroad in life:

"Now we’re all dead and gone, yes, and there are only two things the world remembers about me. One is the uncertainty principle, and the other is my mysterious visit to Niels Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941. Everyone understands uncertainty. Or thinks he does. No one understands my trip to Copenhagen. Time and time again I’ve explained it. To Bohr himself, and Margrethe. To interrogators and intelligence officers, to journalists and historians. The more I’ve explained, the deeper the uncertainty has become. Well, I shall be happy to make one more attempt. Now we’re all dead and gone. Now no one can be hurt, now no one can be betrayed."

(Act One)

Occasionally, instead of a normal evening at the theatre, sometimes I get a powerful, and thought-provoking play to watch. That play was "Copenhagen". My wife and I faced the rain to go and watch it. I had not read up about the play, or had watched it before, and it came as a total surprise in 2005. Theatre and Physics. What a combination. I watched it in Portuguese at Teatro Aberto in Lisbon: starring Paulo Pires (as Niels Bohr), Carmen Dolores (as Margrethe Bohr, her last play), Luís Alberto (as Werner Heisenberg), Vera San Payo de Lemos (translator) and João Lourenço as stage director.
The most important “piece of text” in the play, and the one I tend to think as the one that most perfectly identifies the core of it, is the following (quoted verbatim from the text I just read):

Bohr: Why are you confident that it's going to be so reassuringly difficult to build a bomb with 235? Is it because you've done the calculation?

Heisenberg: The calculation?

Bohr: Of the diffusion in 235. No, it's because you haven't calculated it. You haven't considered calculating it. You hadn't consciously realized there was a calculation to be made.

Heisenberg: And of course now I have realized. In fact it wouldn't be all that difficult. Let's see … The scattering cross-section's about 6 x 10-24, so the mean free path would be … Hold on …

This is the dialogue I remember most vividly when I watched the play in 2005 (with text in Portuguese of course, but as soon as I read them in English in 2015 everything came back to me). Stage-wise what happened? At Heisenberg’s words an explosion, bright light, and a racket filled the stage, simulating the burst of a bomb.

Was this a world-changing decision as some proclaim? Did it change the outcome of the war? After reading the play (and remembering the play), I think that’s what Frayn tried to state.
Reading the play in 2015, and after watching it 10 years ago, I came to understand that the material is very rich in terms of exploring the social aspects and the ethical dilemmas in science, particularly the ones involving the two most important physicists in terms of quantum theory and nuclear fission.  The presence of the fundamental aspects of the complementary and uncertainty principles in the lines of the characters the way Frayn did, helped me understand, in a theatre play, how seamless it all can seem.  Socially speaking, the play showed me that Quantum Mechanics, and the Copenhagen Interpretation in particular, was developed in a wider context, involving ethical issues among top scientists. Although with only three characters, in a theory that had many contributors (Born, Dirac, Schrödinger, Pauli, etc.) in terms of its foundation, the play can be seen as an instrument for a more widespread discussion of the role of science and its use society-wise.

After reading the play, I just wanted to watch it again. I remember what was going through my mind when I watched it 10 years ago: did Heisenberg really dragged his ass so that the German Bomb effort would fail, allowing the allies to be able to get the bomb first? Did Heisenberg really know how to create an atomic bomb? Was he really able to perform basic mathematical calculations? Was he the genius everyone thought he was (I think he was; his approach to Quantum Mechanics using matrix algebra was nothing short of masterful)? Did he want to prevent the allies from developing the bomb? Was he an infiltrated German agent only trying to worm information out of Bohr? All of these run through my mind while watching the play in 2005 and now 10 years later the same thing happened, but the answers were nowhere to be seen, as expected. Too bad this play isn’t playing anywhere…I’m off to watch the movie version directed by Howard Davies, starring Daniel Craig and Stephen Rea. It isn’t the real McCoy, but what is?

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