Collaboration Matters

CopenhagenSoren Sorensen, who was helping to host the “Quark Matter 2009” international physics conference, had a dilemma.

Throughout a distinguished career in physics, Sorensen, head of the Physics and Astronomy Department at UT Knoxville, had attended dozens of conferences all over the world. He found that the daytime talks were generally valuable but demanding, so by evening the conferees inevitably were tired and hungry and ready for mind-mending entertainment. But Sorensen had attended too many conferences in which the evening’s entertainment was, well, boring. He wanted something different.

That’s when he hit upon the idea of a play. “A play would showcase the university and our outstanding Theatre Department,” Sorensen says.

At that point, he approached Calvin Maclean, head of the UTK Theatre Department, and asked if the department could do a play that would appeal to conference participants as well as a wider audience.

Maclean was intrigued. “I like plays about ideas,” he says. “I like plays about both history and science. Theater has a way of allowing people who know nothing about a subject to really encounter it.

“I had recently produced Galileo, which would have been ideal, and we talked about Copenhagen, which is also a natural choice because it covers a topic inherently interesting to physicists. Besides, Soren is Danish and earned his doctorate at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen.”

The conference came at an awkward time for the Theatre Department, though. The department had already solidified plans for an eight-play season. A ninth play at the time of the conference—March 30 to April 4—would fall between scheduled plays, but fortunately, the Carousel Theatre was available.

Maclean also was concerned about cost. A ninth play could do serious damage to an already stretched budget. But when Bruce Bursten, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, heard about the collaboration between the departments, he graciously guaranteed to cover any production losses from a College Enrichment Fund gift. Copenhagen it would be.

“The collaboration between our two departments to put on this play is fascinating,” says Sorensen. “If you were to string out all of the departments in the college, most people would put physics and theater at opposite ends. Physics is hard science; it’s cool and calculating. Theater is art; it’s warm and emotional.”

The collaboration didn’t end with an agreement to do the play, however. “We asked Soren to be an adviser to the production,” says Maclean.

And for Kate Buckley, the director of the play, that’s when the real collaboration began. (Buckley is a UTK assistant professor, but directing is a side job that takes her all over the country. Immediately after Copenhagen opened she flew to Ashland, Oregon, to direct a production of Much Ado about Nothing for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.) In preparation for Copenhagen, Buckley steeped herself in the culture and lore of physics. At nights and on weekends she read books about physics and physicists; she listened to physics lectures on tape while driving back and forth to work. Her goal, she says, was “to try to understand how the minds of these people work and how they express themselves so that we can theatricalize their humanness.”

Since neither the director nor any of the cast had science backgrounds, Sorensen proved to be an invaluable asset. “I wish I had had Dr. Sorensen every day at rehearsals,” Buckley says. “He’s so insightful.

“Initially I asked him basic things, like the pronunciations of people’s names. But soon he was helping us understand the background so we could do more realistic portrayals of the characters in the play.

“He explained the difference between complementarity and the uncertainty principle. We’d ask him questions like How does fission work? What’s a reactor? What’s a cyclotron? What it’s like walking through Faelled Park in Copenhagen, where Bohr and Heisenberg spent so much of their time together? How do you pronounce Faelled Park? He was enormously helpful.

“The rehearsals were a joyous experience,” Buckley goes on. “One night during rehearsal, we spent an hour and a half discussing two paragraphs in the play before we could put them up on the stage. It was wonderful work—a wonderful collaboration.”

The play itself can be read as a modern morality tale about collaboration. Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg had one of the most successful collaborations in the history of science when together they unraveled the secrets of the atom in the mid-1920s. During the Second World War, however, that collaboration fell apart when each tried separately from opposite sides of the conflict to put those secrets to use for an ultimately destructive purpose—the building of an atomic bomb.

In the play, Bohr, whose mother was Jewish, questions the morality of Heisenberg’s working on atomic energy to aid Hitler, but Heisenberg challenges Bohr for helping the Americans build the bomb.

“The play raises important ethical questions for scientists,” Sorensen explains. “Today, especially in fields such as medicine and biology, scientists dealing with fundamental new knowledge often must face sticky ethical questions. Stem-cell research and cloning are good examples. Science raises these ethical issues: society as a whole must address them.”

“You can read this play on many levels,” Maclean concurs. “It clearly raises ethical and moral issues. Copenhagen is a Rashomon kind of play—the story is told from three points of view. It uses the uncertainty principle as a metaphor to explain how people experience life. Everything is uncertain. The play presents far more questions than answers.

“And on one level, you can read it as a play about collaboration—collaboration for a good end works, while collaboration for a bad end fails.

“The collaboration between the Theatre Department and the Physics Department to produce Copenhagen certainly worked,” Maclean concludes. “I think I can say that with a reasonable degree of certainty.”

About the Play

Margrethe: Why did he come? What was he trying to tell you?
Bohr: He did explain later.
Margrethe: He explained over and over again. Each time he explained it became more obscure.
Bohr: It was probably very simple, when you come right down to it: he wanted to have a talk.
Margrethe: A talk? To the enemy? In the middle of a war?
Bohr: Margrethe, my love, we were scarcely the enemy.
Margrethe: It was 1941.
Bohr: Heisenberg was one of our oldest friends.
Margrethe: Heisenberg was German. We were Danes. We were under German occupation.

So begins Copenhagen, a play by Michael Frayn about one of the most famous conversations in all physics.

The protagonists—Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, the cofounders of quantum mechanics, and Margrethe Bohr, Neils’s wife—meet in the afterlife and discuss the conversation, years after the last participant has died.

The conversation itself was brief. Heisenberg, who was in charge of Hitler’s nuclear program, visited Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941, presumably to discuss the atomic bomb. Denmark by then had been overrun by Germany, and Bohr’s sympathies were clearly with the Allied forces.

No one knows what actually occurred during the conversation. It took place out of earshot of the Gestapo—the play’s characters are sure that the Bohr home has been bugged—when Bohr and Heisenberg went for a walk together, as they had done so often when they worked out the details of quantum mechanics during the years from 1924 to 1927.

Did Heisenberg hope to discover whether the Allies were building an atomic bomb? Did he intend to tell Bohr that he was, or was not, working on a bomb? Was he seeking fatherly advice about the ethics of using science for destructive ends? What was he really after? Even the 2002 release by the Niels Bohr Archive of some of Bohr’s private papers related to that meeting shed little light on the episode.

What is known is that the two men separated in silence and recrimination. Both wrote about the incident, confusedly and contradictorily, and those writings did nothing to defuse their hostility. Perhaps neither understood what was said, or unsaid, at the time, but history shows that their friendship did not survive the encounter.


—Dennis McCarthy