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Physics Goes to the Theater: A Review of "Copenhagen" by Michael Frayn

Loulwa Soweid By Loulwa Soweid Published on April 8, 2016

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Physics and I have never had a particularly amicable relationship; while I respected it from a distance, it remained that much-dreaded class in middle school that I vividly remember being allowed to pass so long as I promised never to take it again. So, when Copenhagen by Michael Frayn was introduced to me as “a play about quantum physics,” I moodily predicted that reading it would entail more than a couple hours of drudgery riddled with confusion and sprinkled with scientific jargon. And I am here to openly confess that my hastily-formulated theory was blatantly disproved, completely falsified, because the two-act play has since taught and touched me more profoundly than any physics class ever has. Because Copenhagen does not present physics as merely a field of science replete with equations and numbers and laws which I oft shied away from and found difficult to properly grasp; instead, physics is woven into the intricately-selected words in the characters’ speech, has been represented in the staging elements of live performances, is submerged into themes such as ethics and politics (“physics and politics,” it notes, “are sometimes painfully difficult to keep apart”), and intertwined in the experience of being human.

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Dialogue in the play takes place between its only three characters, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, and Margarethe Bohr, and while the topics under discussion can become slightly too technical for the layperson to understand, Copenhagen laces “the complexities of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle (the more precisely you measure one variable, the less precise your measurement of the related variable can be), [and] complementarity (perceiving something from two incompatible standpoints)”  into the fabric of the exchanges in such a way that the basics of these principles are simple to understand. A prime example of a linguistic hat-tip to the uncertainty principle is the characters’ numerous confessions that the more they have tried to explain Heisenberg’s trip to Copenhagen in 1941, the less they seem to understand it, and that just when they have one detail figured out, another becomes blurry. Uncertainty in and of itself can also be considered one of the play’s themes, and an article in The Guardian notes that the uncertainty principles “tells is that there is a fuzziness in nature, a fundamental limit to what we can know about the behavior of quantum particles,” and this notion of such “fuzziness” was reportedly “extrapolated [by Blakemore] to form the thematic underpinning” of Copenhagen, as he mentioned that “human intentions have their own irreducible fuzziness.” The concept of simultaneously existing as both one thing and another, as expressed by the complementarity principle, is highlighted through the fact that the characters are both dead and alive, like Schrödinger’s much-referenced cat, and through the descriptions of Heisenberg and Bohr as both old friends and bitter enemies, as both father and son, as both scientists and countrymen. Similarly, their discussions of the roles they played in World War II pushes readers to realize that decisions made during wartime can be both reproachable and yet twistedly understandable. As one who is not well-learned in physics, these manifestations allowed me to both understand these concepts more comprehensively, and marvel at the fact that they could be displayed so simply yet so effectively through language and human behavior.

Copenhagen is an interesting play to stage, especially when taking into consideration it’s lack of formal theatrical elements (other than language): the text contains no aforementioned props, specified stage directions, or mentions of lighting, costume, gesture or setting. But just as reaching new heights in physics is all about being imaginative (who but the great physicist Einstein declared that imagination is more important than knowledge?), director Michael Blakemore pushed his own creative 

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boundaries by choosing to integrate the notion of atomic structure into the play’s 1998 staging. He reportedly positioned performers on stage in such a way that they appeared to mimic the structure of an atom: Margarethe, the mock-nucleus, seated in the middle of Bohr and Heisenberg, who circled her as the rotating human-electrons. This layout offered the audience a novel way to analyze the characters by drawing relations between them and the subatomic particles they represented: for example, Margarethe seems set in her beliefs throughout the play, and thus may be more relatable to the static nucleus, while the opinions of of Heisenberg and Bohr are constantly shifting, hence making their mindsets more comparable to the moving electrons. Furthermore, another similarity between characters and particles is that they both act as constituents of something bigger and possess the potential to form and break bonds. Once again, seeing physics represented in a tangible, unorthodox way allows the audience to better comprehend physical notions in themselves, while in this case also adding an extra layer of depth to characterization.

Physics is often presented as a rather detached, cold and calculated field of science reserved only for those with an underlying expertise in it, and while it may mingle with other scientific fields such as biology, mathematics, chemistry, and the like, it is rarely perceived to have anything to do with affairs of the heart. And that is why I consider Frayn’s greatest achievement in Copenhagen to be the contextualization and humanization of physics. Yes, physics is at any normal time a completely objective science, untainted by the flaws of those who use it; other times, it can be manipulated to serve less-than-neutral purposes, and its potential as a tool for the progress or destruction of humankind lies in the hands of those who use it. As such, physics at times cannot be separated from human morals and errors, especially during a time in history which tested the ethicalities of many. Furthermore, readers see Heisenberg and Bohr as not just world-renowned physicists placed on a pedestal, but as relatable human beings who grapple with their own demons, recount their own memories, mourn their own losses and try to solve their own dilemmas of friendship, ethics, patriotism, hope and humanity. So, yes: Copenhagen is a play about quantum physics. It is also a play about humans, humans with dreams and fears and regrets, humans in their ability to create and destroy, humans “settled among all the dust [they] raised” who have come together for one final time to try and work out exactly what happened at their meeting in Copenhagen in 1941, and perhaps in the process find both meanings of peace.


Note I: definitions of uncertainty and complementarity taken from “Uncertainty in Life and in Science” by Daniel A. Michaels

Note II: some have criticized Frayn of portraying Heisenberg in too merciful of a light in Copenhagen; Frayn’s response to such criticisms can be found in the New York Review of Books’ article "Copenhagen Revisited"

Psychology graduate with a love of all things literature, poetry and theater!

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