Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Copenhagen (play)

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The title aptly plays on the locale and the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics. This play is about intentions and their interpretations thereof. And the difficulty that arises when things are left unsaid.

Niels Bohr had treated Werner Heisenberg as more than a colleague, closer to a star protégé or a son. And Heisenberg was the prodigal upstart of the physics world who corrected Bohr's math error at a conference when he was a 21-year-old grad student. Thus began ~20 years of collaboration that revolutionized quantum physics until they had a falling-out when Heisenberg insisted on meeting Bohr in WWII-raging 1941... while they were on the opposite sides of the war.

In a way, they are both like experimenters trying to characterize an elusive particle, trying to understand why one wants to meet the other while the potential barrier is overwhelming. (Oh punny puns...) In the attempt to gauge what the other is thinking, they ask questions (make a measurement), all the while tiptoeing around political landmines (stringent experimental conditions).

I would like to think that Heisenberg wanted to warn Bohr about the destructive force of atomic fission and thereby dissuading the governments (on both sides) to develop weapons from it. Or he could have been trying to fish out information from Bohr. Or he missed his mentor after being out of touch for many years. Or some combination thereof. So many eigenstates... whose wavefunctions collapsed into a broken friendship.

All the while, Niels' wife Margarethe stays mostly in the background as an observer, albeit not a neutral one. Like a meta-overseer whose presence keeps the particles from bouncing off into Neverland, i.e. talking in math equations and throwing nerdy references around.

My favorite scene is where Heisenberg likens Margarethe to an atomic nucleus, Niels to an electron who is "here, there, everywhere and nowhere", and himself to a photon trying to find the electron. Upon meeting, both particles are deflected, i.e. affected forever. It captures their dynamic rather well...

As an aside, all the actors are fantastic in this. Daniel Craig (Heisenberg) is probably the most famous of the three in the U.S. at least, and it was fun watching him play a brilliant, troubled, earnest character.

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