When two Nobel Prize-winning physicists come together to play the roles of two other Nobel Prize-winning physicists in a Tony award-winning science play, the result is a sure fire formula for success.
Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen drew a full house last Sunday at Santa Barbara’s Music Academy of the West. The event, organized by Ensemble Theatre Company, was a benefit reading of the play and featured two of University of California, Santa Barbara’s Nobel Laureates—Alan Heeger (Nobel prize, 2000) and David Gross (Nobel prize, 2004). They played the two leads, Danish physicist Niels Bohr and German physicist Werner Heisenberg, respectively. Veteran actress Stephanie Zimbalist played Bohr’s wife, Margrethe.
The two-hour play centers on an event that occurred in Copenhagen in 1941,a meeting between Bohr and Heisenberg—two old friends who had collaborated on crucial physics research, but whom World War II had placed on opposite sides. What was discussed at the meeting remains a mystery, and has long been the subject of debate among scientists and historians. What is certain, however, is that things were never the same for Bohr and Heisenberg after the 1941 meeting, that one or both parties was terribly offended, and that they subsequently parted ways.
Through a series of clever and witty conversations among Heisenberg, Bohr and his wife, the play attempts to answer the question that has plagued the scientific world since the 1940s: Why did Heisenberg visit Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941?
At the center of the conflict was the atomic bomb. In 1941, it was unclear how or even whether an atomic bomb could be built. Heisenberg appears to have wanted to discuss with Bohr his ethical concerns about developing weapons of war, more specifically, the atomic bomb. However, Bohr, who at that time was living in Nazi-occupied Denmark, was of the opinion that Heisenberg had no moral qualms in creating atomic weapons for Germany.
Over the years, many questions have arisen as to what actually happened in the 1941 meeting. Was Heisenberg trying to persuade Bohr to steer the Allies away from developing atomic weapons? Or was he trying to obtain information from Bohr that would help Hitler’s Nazi regime to develop the atomic bomb? The play does not answer these questions specifically, but offers several versions of their 1941 exchange, with the actors discussing the idea of nuclear power, and the rationale of building (or not building) an atomic bomb. In the course of their conversations, conflict between countries and conflict between friends is painfully obvious.
The conversations in Copenhagen revolve a great deal around quantum physics, but Heeger and Gross (both novice actors) handled their roles excellently by never letting the play soar off into the clouds of highbrow science—something that was undoubtedly appreciated by the non-scientists in the audience.
Although Sunday’s event was a reading, the theatrics of the play were not missing from the equation—both actors managed to successfully deliver convincing expressions, and in many instances, read animatedly, making the play lively, entertaining and at times, even humorous. Zimbalist, in her role as Bohr’s wife, was superb, and served somewhat as a Greek chorus in keeping the Bohr-Heisenberg exchanges down-to-earth and within the realm of a layman’s understanding.
In spite of the physics that abound in it, Sunday’s reading of Copenhagen managed to bring to the surface the moral material that rests at the core of the play, making the experience much more thought-provoking and engaging for the audience. One can only hope that Santa Barbara will be treated to a similar reading sometime in the near future.