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Issue 31, October 1998

Scientists, morality, and the bomb

By Michael Frayn.
In repertory at the National Theatre, London.
Bookings, information etc on 0171-452-3000.
Reviewed by Pete Dickenson

MICHAEL FRAYN'S NEW play, Copenhagen, concerns the race to build an atomic bomb in the second world war, in particular the motivation of the central character, Werner Heisenberg, who was in charge of the Nazis' nuclear programme. The issues raised include the social responsibility of scientists on both sides to consider the results of their actions and whether there was hypocrisy in the general condemnation of Heisenberg's role in the scientific community after the war. It also touches on some fascinating questions involving the theoretical controversies in nuclear physics in the first half of the century.

Heisenberg was one of the most brilliant nuclear scientists of the 20th century and the most able of the new generation who followed Einstein, Bohr and Rutherford. He won the Nobel prize for developing his 'uncertainty principle' which postulated that for the greater certainty there is of predicting the velocity of an atomic particle there is a correspondingly greater uncertainty in predicting its position. He also took sides in the controversy over whether light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation could be most usefully considered as particles or continuous waves. He initially supported the particle theory, but subsequently accepted Bohr's complementarity idea which said that light has dual characteristics which can be modelled by particle or wave theories.

The play has only three characters, Heisenberg, Niels Bohr and Bohr's wife, Margrethe, who have a series of meetings both real and imaginary where the issues are debated. The dramatic tension is maintained throughout, which is a great compliment to the author and actors, considering the complex scientific ideas involved and the almost complete lack of conventional 'action' in the play.

  Bohr, a Dane, was known by the other atomic scientists as 'the Pope' because of the importance of his ideas and the fact that he was by that time seen as a father figure by the younger generation. At the outbreak of the war he was living in Copenhagen, which was over-run by the Nazis in 1940. He was not molested however, despite being half Jewish, and in 1941 Heisenberg came to see him; the outcome of that meeting has remained obscure and controversial ever since and is the main theme of the play. The Danish resistance was tipped off about the round up of the Jews in Copenhagen in 1943, and Bohr managed to escape to Sweden, and subsequently to Los Alamos in the USA, where he worked on the US atomic bomb programme. He was credited with the idea for the detonator for the Hiroshima bomb, one of the most difficult technical problems.

At the outbreak of the war, both sides knew of the theoretical possibility of producing large quantities of energy by splitting the atom and harnessing it to make an explosion of staggering proportions. Uranium is a metal which occurs naturally and can be mined. Bohr had realised in 1939 that 99% of the natural uranium could not be used to make a bomb, only the remaining 1%, known as uranium 235, would serve that purpose. In 1940 two migrant German Jewish scientists at Birmingham University calculated that a few kilograms would be needed to make a 'critical mass' and build a bomb. The problem was in separating out the 235, which was difficult, long and expensive. This was the route taken by the US Manhattan project.

In Germany Heisenberg concentrated on making a nuclear reactor with the more common form of uranium, which could never be used to make a bomb. There was the theoretical possibility, if the reactor worked, of producing plutonium which could have been used to make a bomb, but this was a very distant possibility, especially since Heisenberg never solved the technical details of reactor design.

  To return to the meeting between Bohr and Heisenberg in 1941. Various interpretations have been put on it. The first is that Heisenberg simply wanted to boast to his old teacher about how important he was in the Third Reich and that he was in charge of the German bomb programme. Another was that he wanted to recruit Bohr to his team. A completely different possibility is posed by Michael Frayn in this play: that he wanted to propose that the scientists on both sides should refuse to make the bomb, or should sabotage efforts to make it. This puts the question of why the Nazi programme was unsuccessful in a new light; not that Heisenberg was incompetent, but that he sabotaged it.

Heisenberg told Speer, the Nazi armaments minister, that the possibilities of making a bomb quickly were not great, and consequently small resources were put into it. Could his advice to Speer have been the result of elementary miscalculations? It appears the possibility of using uranium 235 was never considered and that the calculation of what critical mass of uranium was needed to make a bomb was not done.

Whatever the truth, which will probably never be known, there are is a general point which can be made here: the naivete of the scientists on both sides who regarded themselves as 'progressive' or liberal, in not questioning their own role and the way they were manipulated by their governments. The leader of the US programme, Robert Oppenheimer, who had links to the US Communist Party, and was probably affected by 'the only good German is a dead German' chauvinist propaganda of Stalin, justified his work precisely because the bomb was going to be dropped on Germany. He opposed the Japanese bomb. Heisenberg correctly says in the play that dropping the bomb on a German city would have been just as great a crime as Hiroshima.

Heisenberg, so the theory goes, kept just enough progress in the project so he wasn't removed as its chief, and replaced by a pro-Nazi scientist. This story has to be treated with some scepticism since people who worked for the Nazis tried to cover their tracks. There is however significant doubt based on the published facts, and the various possibilities are explored brilliantly in this play.

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