Copenhagen: A successful theatrical dilemma


“In the tragic situation which confronts humanity, we feel that scientists should assemble in conference to appraise the perils that have arisen as a result of the development of weapons of mass destruction…”, are the opening lines of the Russel-Einstein resolution proposed by the most eminent of scientists in 1955, during the aftermath of nuclear weapons used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

With anguish, we may remember the Hiroshima and Nagasaki incident as a culmination of political turmoil, but not always do we learn about the people who made it possible – it was, unfortunately the grandest of science all used up wrong. In retrospection, while we have the luxury of peace and comfort (at least many of us)we may now easily see that it was perilous. But if we forget to forge ethics and humanity in the science we take up, it could usher in such perils yet again.

The Play

As part of the Nobel prize celebrations, many events are happening in Sweden. Gothenburg is hosting the Nobel Week Dialogue and as a precursor to that hosted a different kind of a play at Chalmers.

Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, at the turn of the 20th century, were the pioneers paving way to nuclear physics. The play is about an interaction between them. Rarely one witnesses performances that reside in the intersection of Physics, politics, theater and history.

Copenhagen, a staged reading of the play written by Michael Frayn was a scintillating experience, overall. Do not be disappointed at the sound of it being a “staged reading”. It was read by two Nobel laureates, with all the emotion that no artist but a person soaked in science could deliver. Nobel laureate in Physics David Gross played Werner Heisenberg, whereas Alan Heeger, a Nobel laureate in Chemistry played Neils Bohr. Fiona Shaw, a well known actress played Bohr’s wife Margrethe Bohr, whose witty lines in fact were the best Physics humor I have heard!

This play was organised by the Nobel Prize committee, hosted and sponsored by Chalmers at the RunAn auditorium. A Sunday evening well spent, for sure.

The play was based on an encounter in 1941, where Heisenberg meets Bohr in Germany occupied Denmark. It takes us through the alleys of politics then, and the struggle of these two mavericks in balancing ethics over science. The moral dilemma of Heisenberg – if he wanted to build Germany’s nuclear arsenal, or betray his country to defeat in war is effectively portrayed in this two act play. Bohr, the paternal figure to Heisenberg argues, debates and tries to understand Heisenberg’s dilemma.

This debate nonetheless is not obsolete – Ethical science is the need of the hour. Do we make weapons, or do we connect people? Do we destroy resources, or make it sustainable for the future generations. A play like Copenhagen, re-emphasises on the responsibility each of us carry when we do science and create technology.

In conclusion, the draft of Russel-Einstein resolution has these profound lines, which I am sure will do well if we all bear in mind:

There lies before us, if we choose, continual progress in happiness, knowledge, and wisdom. Shall we, instead, choose death, because we cannot forget our quarrels? We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open to a new Paradise; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death.

Copenhagen: Stuck in between science and ethics

Copenhagen: Stuck in between science and ethics

PS: The play if you cannot watch it soon, BBC has made a television movie of it. You can try to watch that! http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0340057/