Bohr and Heisenberg

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Mon May 8 11:59:58 MDT 2000

Frayn's 'Copenhagen' Plays Well, at History's Expense


[C]openhagen is a kind of Rashomon-like treatment of a central historical
episode, but one refracted through a postmodernist lens and complicated by
philosophical ideas derived (a little too glibly) from the quantum
mechanics pioneered by Heisenberg and Bohr -- such oft-misunderstood, if
oft-cited, concepts as Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and Bohr's
complementarity principle. The limits of knowledge, of knowledge of others,
of oneself, of the external world of politics and morality; the plasticity
of memory; the impossibility of arriving at definitive moral judgments --
this is the heady stuff of Copenhagen. The 20th century has seen at least
two remarkable plays that drew their inspiration from the world of science
-- Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo and Friedrich Durrenmatt's The
Physicists -- but none has achieved the brilliance of Copenhagen in
rendering the technical discussion of scientific ideas dramatically
convincing and, at the same time, accessible to scientists and
nonscientists alike.

But even the play's admirers may have felt a certain unease. Was Heisenberg
really the character depicted so sympathetically on stage? Was his attitude
toward Nazism really so ambivalent, or so justifiable, as Frayn variously
suggests? Did the meeting really take the form -- or rather forms -- that
Frayn depicts? On a more general level, must our historical knowledge of
people and events inevitably be as foggy as Frayn paints it?


Recent research has established the facts of Heisenberg's allegiance to the
Reich. Consider his negotiations with Heinrich Himmler to obtain a chair at
the University of Munich and Heisenberg's insistence that he be allowed to
publish an article in the SS's scientific journal to vindicate, he said,
his "honor." Note his visits to occupied Krakow, Holland, and Copenhagen,
and his crass comments to his former friends in those places about how
marvelous the Nazi conquest of Europe was. Mark his wistful remarks in
Switzerland in 1944 about how the war was lost, but "how beautiful it would
have been if only we had won," and his truly amazing assertion to Jewish
acquaintances in England and America after the war that, if only the Nazis
had been given 50 years, everything would have settled down nicely.

The evidence is consistent in showing Heisenberg to have been a brilliant
but weak man, whose shallow moral character allowed him to be easily
corrupted by his nationalist German sympathies into colluding with Nazism.
His ability to rationalize instantly, whatever the circumstances, any path
of conduct stood him in good stead after the war, when he concocted his
various "versions" of what had happened at Copenhagen and, indeed, of his
entire career as scientific chief of the Nazi atomic-bomb project.

As to the scientific aspect, Heisenberg's misconceptions about the nature
of an atomic bomb have in the last few years been exposed once and for all
by the release and publication of the Farm Hall transcripts -- taped
conversations of German scientists interned at Farm Hall, England, at the
time of Hiroshima -- as well as by the availability of the nearly 400
secret wartime reports of the German project of which Heisenberg was the
scientific chief. Those sources unequivocally reveal just how crude and
wrong-headed Heisenberg's approach was to the theory of the bomb. Although
he understood that the bomb would have to use a fast-neutron reaction in
nearly pure uranium 235, he misconceived the formula and equation that
would have yielded the correct critical mass of uranium on the order of
tens of kilograms. Instead, he concluded through false reasoning in 1940
that tons would be required. That scientific error blinded him for the
remainder of the war. (He also erred in conceiving of an alternative kind
of messy, small-scale bomb that essentially would have been an exploding
reactor -- the idea that he discussed with Bohr in 1941.)

It was only after the news of Hiroshima that Heisenberg finally went back
to the drawing board and, within a week, concluded that, after all, only
kilograms of uranium were needed. Had he realized that in 1940, the German
project would certainly have gone into high gear, and perhaps even succeeded.

Frayn refuses to comprehend, or perhaps acknowledge, Heisenberg's
scientific misunderstandings. The play does portray Heisenberg as squirming
a bit when conceding that on the evening of Hiroshima, he had told Otto
Hahn and others that a ton of uranium would be needed for a bomb. But then
Frayn allows Heisenberg to explain this away in a manner clearly believable
to the author and endorsed in the play's postscript, where Frayn decides,
after all, that he will play the role of historian.

Confusingly, Frayn allows Heisenberg to argue that: (a) he had never
calculated the critical mass, but was going on a generally accepted
intuitive view of a large bomb mass, and (b) he did the detailed
calculation using diffusion theory only for a seminar given at Farm Hall on
August 14, 1945. Frayn doesn't appear to notice (though some in his
audiences have) that even if one were to believe that version of events, it
undermines the play's notion of Heisenberg as a saboteur of Hitler's
bomb-making effort.

At any rate, Frayn's version is blatantly wrong in one crucial respect.
Heisenberg had indeed made an earlier, erroneous calculation, in 1940,
yielding a mass of tons, and it is that calculation (based on a random-walk
analysis) that Heisenberg explained repeatedly, and in detail, at Farm Hall
on August 6, 7, and 9. However, the analysis of the critical mass in the
August 14 seminar is quite differently, and correctly, conceived. In the
days between August 9 and 14, Heisenberg had desperately gone back to first
principles and rethought the whole critical-mass problem.

Frayn trickily alludes in a very vague way to the 1939-40 calculation of
tons of uranium in Act I, perhaps expecting his audience to forget that,
when the critical mass of tons is raised dramatically at the climax of Act
II, it has been arrived at by calculation, not conjured out of thin air.
Frayn's sleight of hand camouflages the fact that, at Farm Hall in the
first days after Hiroshima, Heisenberg still fervently believed in the
technical correctness of his early calculation.

The bottom line is that Heisenberg, like Weizsacker, had been working hard
in 1939-40 to make a bomb for Hitler, but -- scientifically speaking -- was
barking up the wrong tree.

Frayn has evidently fallen for some of the more absurd moral justifications
by the Axis scientists for their serving the Nazi regime. Those excuses
included Heisenberg's sanctimonious comment in 1948 that "I have learned
something that my Western friends do not yet completely wish to admit --
that in such times almost no one can avoid committing crimes or supporting
them through inaction, be he on the German, Russian or Anglo-Saxon side."
That self-serving statement allowed Heisenberg to pose at least as Bohr's
moral equal, perhaps even his superior, and it is a notion that drifts
noxiously in and out of Copenhagen.

It is simply monstrous to draw or imply a moral symmetry between Bohr and
his disciple. Niels Bohr was a man of the most intense moral awareness,
whose integrity has been universally recognized. If he became involved in
the Los Alamos bomb project after his harrowing escape from Denmark, in
1943, it was only after his serious ethical misgivings about such a weapon
had been overcome by consideration of the immediate evil presented by
Nazism. To put a character of Bohr's moral stature on anywhere near the
same plane as a superficial, rationalizing sophist like Heisenberg suggests
an incomplete knowledge not only of the historical facts, but of human
character. Heisenberg never accepted moral responsibility for his role
either in the Nazi state or in the Nazi atomic-bomb project.

It was that evasion that drove Heisenberg to invent the Copenhagen version
that Frayn obviously prefers. Yet this version was -- in the words of
Heisenberg's sympathetic British minder, Ronald Fraser, during a second
visit to Copenhagen after the war -- "a typical Heisenberg fabrication. ...
He rationalizes that quickly that the stories become for him the truth. ...
Pitiful, in a man of his mental stature."

"Now no one can be hurt, and no one betrayed," purrs Heisenberg in the
play. But the memory of Bohr has been hurt, and Heisenberg's true history
betrayed. And Heisenberg is left approvingly with the last treacherous --
and banal -- words in the play about "some event that will never quite be
located or defined ... that final core of uncertainty at the heart of

The elegiac and exhausted ending of the play is where the accumulation of
distortions and mistakes finally turns into something altogether more
distasteful. It has the appearances of a Lear-like transcendence of the
destructive futility of human striving. We are with three characters, all
passion spent, but with Heisenberg having the unanswered final say. He is
granted a wrenching speech lamenting the death of his poor "dishonored
Germany," which audiences receive as a moving testimony.

It is a spurious absolution, for Heisenberg himself was one of those who
made that dishonoring possible through his selfish compromises with the
Nazi regime -- an irony to which Frayn seems oblivious. Frayn's irony,
instead, is applied to a vicious denigration of Bohr, "the good man," who
emerges by the end as a self-absorbed prig, indifferent to the births and
welfare of his own children, who contributed to the deaths of tens of
thousands through his work on the Allied bomb.

Bohr is not the only one who turns out to be an unintentional villain. The
Allies are in general, and the Jews, too; after all, as Frayn's play points
out -- in a moment that stuns a New York audience -- the true inventors of
the bomb, Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls, were Jews. Everyone, then, is
seen to be guilty, and so everyone is blameless. There is no difference
between the Gestapo and British intelligence. The British bombing of
Dresden and Berlin is as bad as Hitler's Blitz on British and Polish
civilians. Churchill and Roosevelt are amoral power-wielders, just like
Hitler (another Heisenberg glibness), and so on.

It all makes one wonder what the Second World War was fought for. Was it
just another dreadful mistake like its precursor? Was appeasement, after
all, the right policy, as a few radical British historians have argued?

When I first read Copenhagen, I found its elan disarming. But the generally
uncritical reception in the last two years and the prospect of more of the
same in New York have aroused, no doubt unworthily, a more puritanical
feeling. Thanks to the play's chic postmodernism as well as the complexity
of its ideas, the subtle revisionism of Copenhagen has been received with a
respect denied to such cruder revisionisms as that of David Irving's
Holocaust denial. Revisionism it is, nonetheless, and Copenhagen is more
destructive than Irving's self-evidently ridiculous assertions -- more
destructive of the integrity of art, of science, and of history.

[Paul Lawrence Rose is the Mitrani Professor of Jewish Studies and European
History, and the director of the Center for Research on Antisemitism, at
Pennsylvania State University at University Park. He is the author of
Heisenberg and the Nazi Atomic Bomb Project: A Study in German Culture
(University of California Press, 1998).]

Complete review at:

Louis Proyect

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