Indeterminability in Copenhagen

Eva and I were in San Francisco during  January, 2002. We attended a performance of the play Copenhagen at the Curran Theater, the undated playbill of which I recently came across, and was reminded of my resolve to get the script of the play for later reading. I have now done so. I am glad I did because I had forgotten the important points it presented. These points are in the realms of war, science, philosophy, patriotism, politics and morality. Will this be enough for you to chew on?

Beside the important subjects presented, the play (that is, the playwright Michael Frayn) quite cleverly interweaves the quantum mechanics concept of indeterminability (or indeterminacy) with that of the uncertainty about the purpose of the character Werner Heisenberg, a renown German scientist whose name is attached to The Uncertainty Principle, regarding his fateful 1941 visit to Niels Bohr, a Jew, in Copenhagen during the occupation of Denmark by Nazi Germany. Before the war, the older Bohr had been like a father to Heisenberg but now that Heisenberg was working for the Nazis, this past relationship was quite strained.

Copenhagen Playbill CastAt the end of the book there is a lengthy Postscript which provides the reader with what is known and what remains unknown about Heisenberg’s visit to Bohr, and about the other scientific and political characters before, during and after the war, who were significant in the development of the science underlying atomic weaponry. Did Heisenberg try to enlist Bohr for work on a German bomb? Did he want intelligence about what the Americans and British were doing? (Bohr had scientific contacts all over the West.) There are other, fascinating questions presented.

Terminology used in this blog entry needs to be explained. The uncertainty principle is well known and firmly in the popular and scientific vocabulary. However, the German phrase used originally and more accurately by Heisenberg and others translates to indeterminability. Hence, the use of the word in the title of this blog.

The Published Book

Finally, the Postscript gives us an “outline sketch” of the scientific and historical background to the play: