“Copenhagen” by Michael Frayn

2013/04/07 § 1 Comment

If you’re interested in history of science and WW2, especially physics and atomic bomb, I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Of course, this is a work of fiction and Michael Frayn knows nothing about quantum mechanics, but still… it’s interesting, informative and cleverly written.

Why did Heisenberg go to Copenhagen in 1941?

Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr after the war
(click for the background story of their 1941 meeting)

The Idea

“The idea for ‘Copenhagen’ came to me out of my interest in philosophy. It was when I read a remarkable book called ‘Heisenberg’s War‘ by Thomas Powers, that I came across the story of Werner Heisenberg’s visit to Niels Bohr in 1941. As soon as I read it I began to think that this story reflected some of the problems that I had been thinking about in philosophy for a long time. How we know why people do what they do, and even how one knows what one does oneself. It’s a fundamental question… this is the heart of the play.

We can [in theory] never know everything about human thinking. I wanted to suggest with ‘Copenhagen’ that there is some kind of parallel between the indeterminacy of human thinking, and the indeterminacy that Heisenberg introduced into physics with his famous Uncertainty Principle.” (Michael Frayn)


“Frayn says he follows the philosophy of history found in the work of Thucydides, and in so doing, he takes on the task of any imaginative writer: to shape disparate facts into an intelligible and interpretable whole.” If you want facts read more here (Resources for Frayn’s Copenhagen @ MIT), here (letters and drafts of letters from Bohr to Heisenberg @ Niels Bohr Archive) and here (documents by Werner Heisneberg @ University of New Hampshire).

Characters & Structure of the Play

Heisenberg: “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.”

(Copenhagen, Act One)

So, the ghosts of Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr and Margrethe Bohr (Bohr’s wife) came together to answer why. Bohr and Heisenberg are longtime friends and collaborators, and from them we hear about their relationship and their physics, how politics affects everything, and how difficult it is to keep those apart. Margrethe is there to ask questions on our behalf, to make them explain their science “in plain language” (cause she, though an intelligent lady, wasn’t a physicist herself) and to represent public opinion (while Bohr adored Heisenberg, “she always had a much more negative view of him and she was particularly suspicious of that meeting in 1941… Margrethe is there in the way that all the other people in the world are attempting to explain his behavior”, says Frayn). They sit and talk, over and over again trying to reconstruct what happened, but can’t agree (as Bohr wrote to Heisenberg in a letter he never sent: “I am greatly amazed to see how much your memory has deceived you…”). The way Frayn applied their scientific theories to their lives particularly impressed me, but, above all, it’s a story about scientists as ordinary human beings, something I always enjoy reading.

COPENHAGEN (1998) by Michael Frayn

It is an award-winning play in two acts premiered at the National Theatre in London in 1998 (Wiki).

[LibraryThing] Download (free) Frayn’s postscript to the New York production of “Copenhagen” (.doc) from [1]


Listen to the BBC Radio 3 adaptation, first broadcast in January 2013, with Benedict Cumberbatch as Heisenberg, Simon Russell Beale as Bohr and Greta Scacchi as Margrethe:

[UPDATE] The video has been removed. You can buy the audiobook here.


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