Uncertain brilliance

Local theatre group C2C are bringing Michael Frayn’s internationally acclaimed work Copenhagen to town with an intimate performance at Rabbittown Theatre. Directed by Lois Brown, and featuring actors Bryan Hennessey, Mary Lewis and Charlie Tomlinson, the play reveals the explosive potential of atoms and physicists.Elling Lien is relatively certain you will most certainly enjoy this play about uncertainty, ethics, and the bomb.

I know what you’re thinking.

“Ooh! Theoretical physics on a bare stage! How exciting!

“A play about a meeting between two physicists in 1941 sounds about as exciting as a pile of cracker crumbs,” you say.

You wouldn’t be the first to doubt the idea behind Copenhagen.

For your information, this script – by English playwright Michael Frayn – has been entertaining audiences on commercial stages around the world for years now. The general public has been able to get in on the whole thing, and they liked it.

So bear with me here.

Copenhagen the play is based on the true story of the Danish, half-Jewish physicist Niels Bohr and the German Werner Heisenberg, his former student, friend, and close colleague.

On one day in 1941, in the middle of the Second World War, Heisenberg paid Bohr a visit in Copenhagen. Although these two had been close before, the meeting was full of argument and confusion. Bohr was furious, and Heisenberg left. Their friendship was at a difinitive end.

No one to this day knows precisely what happened during their meeting.

Both men were major contributors to the field of atomic physics in the 1920s with their work on – most notably – complementarity, the Copenhagen interpretation, and the uncertainty principle.

When you understand Heisenberg was part of a team working on the development of atomic weapons for Germany during World War II, a hazy picture starts to develop.

“The central mystery is,” says director Lois Brown, “what did Heisenberg say in 1941 that made Bohr so upset? Did he say ‘let’s not build a bomb?’ Did he ask Bohr if he was helping the Americans build a bomb? Or did he say ‘I’m not going to build a bomb?’ Did he say ‘what’s the moral obligation of a physicist in this situation?’

“Do scientists have moral obligations, or are they committed only to uncovering the mysteries and leaving other people to deal with what they discover?”

The closer one feels to the answer, another possibility pops up which seems just as likely.

Many believe Heisenberg was trying to get information from Bohr to use it in the German bomb program. Others believe he was warning Bohr about the existence of the Nazi project.
Whatever it was, Bohr reacted violently.

The time for nuclear power was at hand. Scientific teams on both sides of the war were eager to harness the power of the atom as a weapon ever since 1934 when Enrico Fermi of Italy irradiated uranium with neutrons and (unknowingly) achieved the world’s first nuclear fission.

In Fraye’s script, Bohr’s wife Margarethe, and the proudly German Heisenberg are set in a kind of temporal limbo where the three characters – who are unsure themselves what actually happened – live and relive the events of the day in an attempt to get to the bottom of it.

“I’m working with three very established, talented artists,” says Brown. “We decided that we would do it at Rabbittown, which seems to work really well in the three quarter round.”

“And the thing that’s so wonderful about the space is that you’re so close to the actors…. You know, you can see it’s not a trick. You could be just two or three feet away, so when you look, you can see they are completely believing the truth in what they say.”

The characters interact like one might imagine electrons and photons might.

“It’s almost like a dance,” says Brown. “There’s so much mathematics in the script that the lines and movement really starts to pop out at you. It looks really beautiful.”

But some of the real beauty of this play is in the dialogue between Bohr, Heisenberg and Margarethe – in listening to people who obviously enjoy the game of conversation as they discuss everything from quantum mechanics to fading friendship to peoples’ motives and memory. Three brilliant minds playing a game of mental chess where they are unable to see even their own pieces clearly.

Copenhagen runs from March 1 – 4, 8pm at Rabbittown Theatre, at the corner of Merrymeeting Rd. & Linscott St. 739-8220. $20 General, $15 Student/Senior. Tickets available at the door or in advance at Bennington Gate, Travel Bug, or Fred’s Records (Cash only)

(Pay-What-You-Can Matinee 2pm, Sunday, March 4)

(Nowhere near) everything you wanted to know about quantum mechanics but were afraid to ask:

Quantum mechanics: the really tiny world of matter and electromagnetic radiation. A place where weird things happen and classical physics does not always apply.

A quantum: an indivisible ‘packet’ of energy. (Plural: Quanta)

Uncertainty principle: put forward by Heisenberg in 1927, this is a mathematical limit on how accurately you can measure things in the quantum world. You can’t, for example, measure both the momentum and position of a particle to the same degree of accuracy. The more precisely you know a particle’s position, the less precisely you know its velocity, and vice versa.

Complementarity: a theory put forward by Bohr in 1928 explaining that little subatomic ‘packets’ have both qualities of waves and qualities of a particles which complement each other.

Cyclotron: a machine used to smash atoms.

Nuclear fission: Splitting an atom (and releasing a large amount of energy.)

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