Last night, I attended a play, Copenhagen by Michael Frayn. I was in the odd position of being invited to participate in a discussion at the end of the play, along with two other professors. I felt a bit superfluous — the play was very good, I didn’t have a lot to add.

You can watch the whole thing yourself with different players, since it was made into a movie. The movie is also very good, starring Stephen Rea and Daniel Craig, although it is marred by an introduction featuring Michio Kaku.

I saw it as an exploration of ambiguity and interpretation. Somehow our discussion afterwards veered into the virtues of negotiation and giving opponents an opportunity to explain their position, which I thought was a bit nuts. This was an example of the futility of trying to reason with fascists. It was about a meeting between Werner Heisenberg, proud German and head of the Nazi nuclear program (but not a Nazi) and Niels Bohr, half-Jewish Dane whose country had been taken over by the Nazis. This was in 1941, when there was no longer any doubt about the intent of Germany and the homicidal maniac running the country. In 1943, Bohr is going to have to flee his homeland to Sweden when the Nazis decide it’s time to clean up the Jewish ‘problem’ in Denmark.

(Horrible little story: Bohr was then evacuated to England in the bomb bay of a Mosquito fighter/bomber. Really? He was supposed to negotiate with the Nazis?)

Bohr and Heisenberg were two particles with complex and ambiguous relationships that they were struggling to resolve, but their countries, massive aggregates of particles, had a clear, sharp relationship that did not need further focus. The two individuals were old, close friends whose interpersonal relationship was a tangled mess that was well worth a conversation, but don’t extrapolate that to argue that we should be negotiating with Nazis.


  1. Walter Solomon says

    So burn the nazis before they burn us…or is that too extreme for those around here?

  2. awomanofnoimportance says

    One should not negotiate with Nazis if one has any real choice, but sometimes one does not have that luxury. Ultimately we were able to defeat them, but if they had proven stronger than the Allies, so that defeat was a real possibility, there may have been no realistic option. Sometimes all you can do is make the best deal you can.

    Though I’m really glad that wasn’t the case in 1945.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    Walter Solomon @1: Depends how you do the burning. How many non-nazis get burned in the process?

  4. says

    Yeah, there’s a point in the play where Heisenberg is bitter about the possibility that the Americans might have dropped the bomb on Germany, his people, but seems to be indifferent to the Japanese people who were incinerated instead. He’s mainly upset that the Americans built the bomb first, before Germany.
    I didn’t like the character of Heisenberg at all. He had that kind of blinkered nationalism that said he’d support Deutschland uber alles, no matter what kind of monster was running the country. Let’s not burn anyone, ‘k?

  5. whheydt says

    The Danes are one of the brighter lights in their resistance once the Nazis had taken over the country. Not only did they push back against the German efforts to ‘deal with the Jewish problem’, but when push cam to shove, they were able to get something like 90% of their Jews safely out of the country. Of those that were rounded up and put in concentration camps, most survived, partially because the Danish civil government sent a delegation to inspect camps where they were held, find out what they needed, and then get supplies delivered to them.

    The Danish churches nearly came to blows over who was going to hold and protect Torah scrolls.

    After the war, the Danish Jews came home to find their homes intact, maintained, cleaned and restocked waiting for them.

  6. robro says

    I’m confident that Roosevelt or Truman would have authorized dropping a bomb on Germany if the timing hadn’t worked out for Germany. However, Hitler was dead in late April 1945, Germany surrendered in early May and the Trinity test was not until mid-July. Plus, as I understand it, there were only three bombs in 1945 with one used for Trinity as “proof of concept”, so the US would have only had one bomb for Germany because one was certainly headed to Japan. More bombs would be made, of course, but that would take time.

    And yes, please, let’s stop killing each other.

  7. Rob Grigjanis says

    PZ @4:

    He had that kind of blinkered nationalism that said he’d support Deutschland uber alles, no matter what kind of monster was running the country

    That doesn’t square with secretly recorded conversations between German scientists held in the UK post-war. Heisenberg and others were glad the Allies had won.

  8. says

    I’m less impressed by what he said than what he did. He was leading the Nazi nuclear program! I’m not surprised that he was relieved that he didn’t have to be involved in building a nuke to drop on London, but still…he was working with Nazis. It’s hard to forgive that sort of thing. And he knew it, since he talked about how former physicist colleagues would refuse to shake his hand after the war.
    One of my advisors, George Streisinger, was a Hungarian scientist who fled Europe in 1937 to escape Nazi persecution. He became a lifelong peace activist, and I don’t think he would have looked kindly on Heisenberg.

  9. Rob Grigjanis says

    He deserved his lumps (maybe more!) for working for the Nazis at all, but saying he was “leading the Nazi nuclear program” is nonsense.

  10. says

    And, now the u.s. gov’t (with biden’s cheerleading) is pumping billions into new nuclear weapons to match putin’s threats. The arms race just got put on steroids. But, OOOOH! Michio Kaku is so Sciency!
    I remember the ‘ATOMIC ATTACK’ drills in the 1950’s:
    Loosen your tie, sit in a chair, bend over and KISS YOUR ASS GOODBYE!
    Wasn’t it Edwin Hawkin’s song that went: ‘War! good god y-all! What is it good for? Absolutely Nothin!’

  11. Rob Grigjanis says

    Walter Solomon @11: I’ll leave that to the philosophers of mass destruction.

  12. Dennis K says

    Before running off to hang Heisenberg’s reputation from the nearest yardarm, it might be worth listening to Edward Teller’s remarks. Teller was pretty bombastic about this stuff, but between his words here and other excerpts from the Farm Hall transcripts, it seems doubtful Heisenberg ever seriously considered the bomb. His focus was on nuclear power.

  13. birgerjohansson says

    The Germans miscslculated the amount of fissionable material needed for a chain reaction.
    Instead of calculating the radius of a mass needed to get 1.1 (or even 1.01) new fissions per fission, they assumed they needed at least two whole neutrons from each fission to trigger new fissions. 1 to 2 to 4 etc instead of 1 to 1.1 to 1.2 …
    The extreme speed of the chain reaction means once you break even it goes Boom even if many neutrons disappear without splitting more atoms.
    The Germans did not get that, and thought an absurd amount of a fissionable isotope would be needed.
    (I am referring to an explosive reaction, not the reaction you get in a nuclear reactor)

  14. weylguy says

    As a physicist, I read two of Michio Kaku’s books on string theory and quantum field theory. All fine and good. Then he turned to whoosh-bang pseudo-science reporting, which apparently pays better than a professor’s salary. “If you see a black hole coming, watch out!” was just one of his stupid statements. He’s a smart man, but he reminds me of Einstein becoming a contestant on The Apprentice or a paid contributor to Fox News.

  15. Pierce R. Butler says

    OP: This was in 1941…

    PZ Myers @ # 4: … there’s a point in the play where Heisenberg … seems to be indifferent to the Japanese people who were incinerated instead.

    So this play involves time travel too?

  16. rrhain says

    @18, Pierce R. Butler

    Not “time travel” as such. It is not a direct recreation of the meeting between Bohr and Heisenberg. Instead, three spirits (one is Margarethe Bohr, Niel’s wife) discuss the meeting, the time in which it took place, their lives, and events that happened after.

    I did a staged reading of it playing Bohr.

  17. rrhain says

    While the underlying concept of “negotiation and giving opponents an opportunity to explain their position” is a sound one, the problem with those who continually parrot it is that it assumes that there hasn’t been such negotiation and opportunity to explain.

    As Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” This desire to allow people the “chance to speak” and that “the way to counter bad speech is better speech” is a lovely one, but there comes a time when they have had that chance and we have given the better speech and any continuation will just be a rehash of everything that has come before and will just be exhausting. The ones who have decided to make other people’s lives horrendous are simply waiting for the exhaustion to take out those who would respond so that they can be the only voice speaking.

    We see this in those who whine about “PC” and ‘being canceled” and how they will “never play college campuses.” They’re upset that the audience already knows what they’re going to say and are tired of having to defend against it. What is the point of listening to someone whose entire argument is going to be that “[INSERT MARGINALIZED GROUP] is the root of all evil”? Yeah, it’s good to be open minded, but not so open that your brain falls out.

    Not every conversation is productive. And you don’t always have to have it first before you know it.

  18. chrislawson says

    @18– Frayn’s original play is apparently quite different to the TV movie version and has a lot of non-linear inclusions.

  19. ethicsgradient says

    The other evidence that should be taken into account when thinking about Heisenberg is the letters Bohr drafted, but never sent to him, between 1957 and 1962. These were only made public after Frayn wrote ‘Copenhagen’.
    ‘But in one letter, Bohr says he remembered Heisenberg telling him “everything was being done in Germany to develop atomic weapons” and that Heisenberg “had spent the last two years working more or less exclusively on such preparations”. In another, Bohr writes: “It is therefore quite incomprehensible to me that you should think that you hinted to me that German physicists would do all they could to prevent such an application of atomic science.”’
    There’s a longer article here:
    ‘“However, what I am thinking of in particular is the conversation we had in my office at the Institute, during which, because of the subject you raised, I carefully fixed in my mind every word that was uttered. It had to make a very strong impression on me that at the very outset you stated that you felt certain that the war, if it lasted sufficiently long, would be decided with atomic weapons. I had at that time no knowledge at all of the preparations that were under way in England and America. You added, when I perhaps looked doubtful, that I had to understand that in recent years you had occupied yourself almost exclusively with this question and did not doubt that it could be done’

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