Science, Uncertainty and the Bomb
by Michael Frayn. National Theatre.
Michael Frayn, whose previous work has won him a trio of coveted “Best Comedy of the Year” awards (for Make and Break, Alphabetical Order, and the hilarious Noises Off), has, perhaps unexpectedly, fashioned a wonderful play about science which is full of ambiguity and paradox. Its focus is atomic physics, hardly the most accessible of subjects. But such are Frayn’s linguistic skills that the audience has little difficulty in following narrative, and what emerges is a compelling play about how science is done, and the way that the scientific enterprise-like other behaviour-is mediated by the personalities of those involved. In the process Frayn has written one of the best plays about science and society that it has been my pleasure to see, and one which is marvellously realised on the stage of the Cottlesloe Theatre.
In 1941, in the Second World War, Nils Bohr, the so-called “father of atomic physics”, met Werner Heisenberg in Copenhagen. Heisenberg had been Bohr’s research assistant in the mid-1920s, and together they had developed two of the key insights of modern atomic theory: the complementarity hypothesis (Bohr) and, especially, the uncertainty principle (Heisenberg). Uncertainty is one of those common scientific ideas (chaos is another) which has become part of the common currency of language, and in doing so has lost much of its original meaning. The uncertainty principle does not suggest that the behaviour of, for example, electrons is unknowable, but rather that “what is limited is the simultaneous measurement of connected variables such as position and momentum, or energy and time”. The more precisely you measure one variable (such as the position of an electron), the less certain can you be of the value to attach to the second variable (such as “its speed”).
What Frayn has done is to examine the uncertainties which lie behind Heisenberg’s apparent motivations. Why did he, a German working on research into nuclear fission, journey to Copenhagen in 1941, to speak to his previous professor, a citizen of a country occupied by Germans? Drawing on biographical and autobiographical records he has fashioned a handful of separate explanations, all but the last of which have already been explored reasonably fully in various publications. Frayn doesn’t suggest that our thoughts and motivations are specified as pairs of variables, but rather that a person’s thoughts and motivations “cannot be established more clearly than he or she is willing to state them”. Frayn wants to know whether Heisenberg (or indeed anyone else) really understands with any certainty the basis of their own thoughts and motivations.
What emerges is a picture of two scientists, previous colleagues, who find themselves caught up in the race to build the atomic bomb. (A year after their conversation in Copenhagen, Bohr was spirited out of Denmark and transported to the United States where he became a key member of the team which successfully built the first atomic weapon.) The evidence seems to suggest that Heisenberg perhaps deliberately mislead the German authorities about the difficulties which faced the research team, and as a result knowingly prevented the likelihood of Germany producing the bomb first. After the end of the war he and his team were captured by the British and brought to Britain, apparently to prevent them handing on any secrets to the French and Russians. And in a postscript Frayn describes the horror with which Heisenberg first heard of the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb. We cannot be certain but it appears that were it not for Heisenberg’s common humanity either London, or Paris, or Amsterdam might have been devastated rather than Hiroshima. Such is the murderous way in which the scientific enterprise is used by capitalism. The profits of the few must always matter more than the lives of the many. About that there can be no uncertainty.