Copenhagen has ratings and reviews. But in his Tony Award- winning play Copenhagen, Michael Frayn shows us that these men were passionate. In Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, a fictional account of an actual event during World War II, two physicists exchange heated words and profound. A review, and links to other information about and reviews of Copenhagen by Michael Frayn.
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Victor Weisskopf makes a cameo appearance on the left, in the back. Did Heisenberg try to sabotage the German bomb project? What do historians think, in the end, that Heisenberg was trying to do when he visited his mentor Niels Bohr in occupied Copenhagen in the fall of ? These questions, often without saying so explicitly, tend to stem from one source these days: This pair of questions, as a pair of cities Hiroshima and Copenhagenis interesting to me as a historian. One rooted in a controversial act of war, the other in a controversial piece of theatre.
It is, perhaps, more of a testament to the theatre to get people at least some people thinking about history than one might typically suspect — that Americans think about Hiroshima is perhaps as it ought to be, that they think about Copenhagen is far more curious. One of my last acts at Berkeley was to design the cover for an excellent volume of historical essays on the play.
So the play has had a remarkably large role in my early interest in nuclear history. Aside from giving me a chance to visit my old grad school stomping grounds the first time, I think, since I started my current jobit also gave me a fresh excuse to revisit the play, about a decade after I last spent any real time thinking about it.
What did Heisenberg and Bohr talk about in ? I think the main response from historians that you are likely to get is: Which is to say, not much of an answer. Niels and Margrethe Bohr, on the motorcycle of George Gamow, The Bohr letters released in are an example of this. Bohr, infuriated that Heisenberg might be saying such a thing, wrote a strongly-worded language arguing for the opposite. In any case, the point is simple enough: One might also point out as the play does that in the end, Bohr was the one who did contribute towards making a weapon of mass destructionnot Heisenberg, and for Bohr to think that Heisenberg was attempting to claim a moral high-ground as a result would have been particularly galling.
And memories are, of course, tricky things, as any psychologist will tell you. One meeting is generally not the stuff that history is made of. Allied troops disassembling the German experimental research reactor at Haigerloch, as part of the Alsos mission. But it might appear to give an one of those questions that people have been asking since But here also is where the historians might be annoying and pedantic. There are very few historians who believe that Heisenberg or any of the Germans working on the project were actively trying to avoid making an atomic bomb.
It leaves up in the air whether Heisenberg was trying to sabotage consciously or notmaking it seem that this is as equally plausible an interpretation as any other. This can be misleading. The reason why is simple enough: In fact, it seems to have been offered up, quite post-hoc, as an explanation while the German scientists were being interred at Farm Hall and trying to grapple with the meaning of Hiroshima.
Instead, through many other books which I have discussed in another postwe have a pretty good picture of the German atomic program, how it was decided that it would pursue reactors, not bombs, and how paltry it was in comparison to the Allied effort.
Because the American case is the anomaly, not the German case.
The Americans ended up for various reasons thinking it could fratn done; the Germans thought it was not worth the risk and expense. The Americans, in any case, barely pulled it fayn. Had their schedule been off by a few months, there would have been no atomic bombs ready for use during World War II, and the Manhattan Project still holds the world record for fastest time between deciding to make a nuclear weapon and actually having one.
Heisenberg and Bohr in Copenhagen in the early s. If Copenhagen errs this is copsnhagen it errs: This is not what most historians see in the historical record. In its fallback position, the play presents the idea that the German bomb program was a failure on a very basic technical level — that nobody had run the critical mass equation correctly, that nobody had realized a few very basic ideas.
They knew what plutonium was. They knew what atomic bombs could be. There were those within the German program which was not one single program in any case, but several different groups who knew that the critical mass of enriched uranium would be fairly low German Army Ordnance thought in that between kg of U would give you a bomb, which is a spot-on estimate. Their problem was not one of basic technical errors. Heisenberg made some technical errors, but he was not the only one on the project.
There are many other, more interesting reasons to attribute the failure of the German bomb project. They lacked the fear of an Allied project that the Allies had of them. They feared over-promising with regards to a risky endeavor. During the later parts of the war, they suffered from supply setbacks due to their being targets of bombing and sabotage raids. They lacked anything like a Leslie Groves or Lavrenty Beria figure who could push the work through, against all odds and setbacks, in the limited amount of time that cpoenhagen might have been successful.
I actually like the play a lot. Same scene as above, different moment. In my mind, those are the really important things to get out of a play.
But it made that scholarship seem relevant. It makes people ask me about Heisenberg. Of course, there are limits to this sort of attitude.
This is a much more insidious sort of erroneous history, in my mind, because it is used to paper over the moral questions on the American side of things, and commits a multitude of factual sins in the process. The question of whether Heisenberg was a saboteur or not is not on that level, even if I think the bulk of the historical profession would not agree with Frayn that it is as likely an explanation for the German failure as any other.
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Copenhagen by Michael Frayn
Both comments and pings are currently closed. According to Rhodes book, Heisenberg slipped Bohr a copy of the German reactor plans during the Coopenhagen meeting. There have been some articles on this. Jeremy Bernstein in particular has done some work on it. It is not a clear statement for or against a bomb to mention an experimental reactor design — you can interpret it multiple ways, depending on what one thinks Heisenberg was trying to accomplish e.
Moderator was probably an apt term, since I literally had to get between Tom and critics, to keep the latter from physically attacking him. The amount of vitriol was impressive. But enjoyed your thoughtful take on the subject, as always. Some of the critics have very strong opinions on the matter — in part because they really think the idea that Heisenberg was somehow taking a moral high-ground is very offensive, especially considering the propagandizing Heisenberg did during the war for the German Foreign Office.
I can see that. Building things and managing labs or people was not his forte.
Arguably Oppenheimer would not have been a good pick either, had their not been a Groves. If micael Germans had someone more like Fermi on their team, one can imagine them getting a pile working by the end of the war. It was Diebner, not Heisenberg, that suggested using colenhagen of uranium and not plates.
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Copenhagen review – Michael Frayn’s masterwork still blazes with mystery
Rfayn 26, at 1: Alex Wellerstein is a historian of science and nuclear weapons and a professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology. This blog began in For more, follow wellerstein.
Truman 10 Hiroshima 42 Historiography 22 J.