Jan Golinski


Copenhagen as history of science narrative.



            Science and theatre have had a troubled relationship, which still awaits its historian.  Francis Bacon denounced the “idols of the theatre”: the seductive showiness of established systems of philosophy.  Bacon believed these systems owed their dominance over the minds of men to the beguiling charm of their dramatic presentations, like painted stage machinery displayed to ignorant peasants.  Notwithstanding Bacon’s strictures, the empirical science that he inspired found it had to develop its own kind of dramaturgy: an experiment was, at least in certain circumstances, a kind of show.  The leading experimental philosophers of the seventeenth century appreciated this.  Robert Boyle narrated the small-scale tragedy of a bird’s death in his air-pump.  The little lark died after agonized convulsions, “her breast upward, her head downwards, and her neck awry.”  “The whole tragedy,” Boyle concluded, was over “within ten minutes of an hour.”  Joseph Priestley, a century later, who used mice to test the breathability of the gases he made in his own experiments, was to see them resurrected by Anna Laetitia Barbaud who wrote a dramatic dialogue in which one of them voices a plea for animals’ rights.


            These were not human dramas, of course, but pathetic miniatures with animal stand-ins.  But Priestley also invoked the values of drama in connection with the human story of the history of science, of which he was a pioneering practitioner.  What he called “philosophical history” was said to present a “sublime” spectacle, a scenario more morally uplifting than the confused and contingent one of “civil” history.  In the early nineteenth century, William Whewell advocated a history of science in which, “the progress of knowledge only … is the main action of our drama.”  Priestley and Whewell saw a value in dramatic spectacle when its purpose was pedagogical.  Apparently, for the history of science—natural philosophy teaching by example, as it were—the idols of the theatre were an asset rather than a threat.  This was to make the history of science into a peculiarly impoverished kind of drama.  To engage the sense of the sublime among its readers, history simply had to present an impressive spectacle, in the views of Priestley and Whewell.  The characters were superhuman heroes and the only element of plot was the upward march of progress, guaranteed by divine providence.  There was no call for conflict or tension, resolutions or twists.  This kind of history was not disfigured by the chaotic mess of warfare and politics; its sublimity resided precisely in its freedom from such elements of strife, which are usually regarded as the engines of human drama.  In Aristotelian terms, there might be “discoveries” in this kind of dramaturgy but there were no “reversals” or “peripeties.”


            It is hard to imagine any playwright being inspired to produce a work along these lines.  And, if they did, the result would arguably not be dramatic at all.  There is a substantial difference between genuine drama and the kind of artificial dialogues philosophers and scientists have found useful for their didactic purposes.  Dialogue, which Galileo, Boyle, and others adapted from ancient philosophical predecessors, is a tool of pedagogy rather than a form of dramaturgy.  It may conjure up a setting and characters (more or less richly delineated), but everything remains under the control of the author, who—crucially—is also identified with one of the characters in the conversation.  Thus, scientific or philosophical dialogues tend to merge into expositions of the author’s own point of view, even when they also allow the author to preserve a degree of deniability over what is argued, as Galileo certainly wanted to do as regards the Copernican doctrine advocated by his character Salviati in the Dialogues Concerning Two Great World Systems (1632).  Even modern scientific dialogues, like John Casti’s The Cambridge Quintet (an imaginary conversation on artificial intelligence featuring Alan Turing and Ludwig Wittgenstein), still fall short of real dramatic quality.  Though there is some tension of opposing viewpoints in Casti’s text, there is also a lot of straight exposition of ideas—enough to try the patience of any plausible dramatic characters or any genuine audience.  There are also shortcomings in plot and character development, elements which are essential to true drama but secondary to the purposes of pedagogical dialogue.


            If real drama will always burst out of the straightjacket Priestley and Whewell designed for their histories, can it nonetheless have a significance for the work of historians of science?  I think it can, and I want to argue the point with specific reference to Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen.  Frayn’s play has tensions and twists a-plenty; there are discoveries and peripeties, and there is a peculiar kind of plot.  It doesn’t present the sublime spectacle of the onward march of scientific knowledge, but it is nonetheless a drama with potential implications for the history of science.  I think, furthermore, that its popularity with audiences in many locations should be taken as an encouraging sign of public receptivity to more complex historical narratives than Priestley or Whewell aimed to provide.  I take the play’s success as an indication that people want more than to be awed by the spectacle of progress, that they want to escape the baleful influence of the idols of the theatre that have too often held sway over the history of science.


            One of the distinctive features of Frayn’s drama is its abandonment of the pretense of naturalistic narrative.  Unlike, say, Brecht’s Galileo, it does not purport to show us an episode from history or to tell us how things actually happened.  I suggest that criticism of the play by historians ought to start by acknowledging the non-realism of its style; to expect a work of this kind to give an “accurate” picture of historical events is to ask it to be something other than it is.  The fundamental purpose of the play is not to depict events; if it were, the action would occur at a specific time and place—a historical setting would be delineated—and in Copenhagen it isn’t.  It does, however, seem important that the characters in the play correspond to real individuals, historical persons who left memories and records of their lives.  It was part of Frayn’s declared purpose to portray Niels and Margrethe Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in a way that is broadly consistent with what is known about them.  Otherwise, the play would not have characters with these names who discuss episodes in which the real individuals were involved.  It seems quite legitimate to try to measure the dramatic representation of a historical figure like Heisenberg against the testimony of other sources.  When the individual concerned is the subject of fierce controversy as regards his political morality and personal integrity, then the playwright may be held to account for choosing to portray him in a certain way in a drama.  It would be unwise, however, to jump to conclusions as to what judgment of Heisenberg this particular play is rendering.  Before doing that, it seems essential to consider how the characters are developed in the course of the plot.


            I propose that the dimension of narrative structure or plot is more fundamental than the depiction of events or the development of character in Frayn’s play.  Assessments of how accurately episodes correspond to historical reality or how true-to-life the characters are have to be premised on an understanding of the play’s narrative structure.  We cannot judge the accuracy with which episodes are depicted until we understand how those depictions function within the play; we cannot assess the characters until we grasp how the characters express themselves through the unfolding narrative.  This is particularly important because the play has a very non-classical plot structure.


            To focus our discussions of this, I offer the following schematic outline of the plot.

            [DIAGRAM: Act I and Act II are mapped out in the same way.  Aligned left are topics discussed by the characters outside a specified framework of time and place.  Indented are depictions of events or discussion topics that appear to unfold within a specific time-frame.  There are several of these, introduced by some remark that indicates when it is.  Some are reenactments of the 1941 visit of Heisenberg to Copenhagen, which is the central subject of the play.  Sometimes these are punctuated by the bell (in the staged production, if not in the play script).  Further indented are a few incidental remarks that briefly interrupt the action.  Then, aligned right are hypotheses about the crucial problem of the play—why did Heisenberg come to Copenhagen?—together with responses to the hypotheses voiced by the characters.]


            One thing that emerges from this kind of mapping is a clearer sense of what the play is about: it appears that this is not a historical drama but a meta-historical one.  Rather than participating in the development of some action, the characters are exploring various possibilities for what happened in history.  Comparison of them with the historical individuals after whom they are named has to acknowledge that the characters are not developed as they would be if the action were to unfold in a realistic way.  Nor are the episodes depicted realistically; when more than one version of an event is offered, the illusion of realism cannot be sustained.  Rather, the characters voice different possible interpretations of what the historical individuals were actually doing, what their conscious intentions and unconscious motives might have been.  The characters speak not for themselves, in other words, but for the scholars and others who have tried to account for the individuals’ actions.  They are participants in a dramatization of the process of historical inquiry; the spectacle they present to us is not history ready-made but history in the making.


            Once we realize this (and most commentators on the play have realized it, at least implicitly), we can begin to ask what the play is telling us about how history is made.  It is notable, for example, that the final hypothesis is cast in the form of a “thought experiment,” considering how things might have turned out differently if the Copenhagen encounter had taken a slightly different path.  If Bohr had listened a little longer and allowed Heisenberg to get into the topic of nuclear fission and the necessary critical mass for a weapon, the latter might have been stimulated to perform the calculation that could have given the Nazis the bomb.  This is a little exercise in “virtual history” of the kind that some historians have also been engaging in recently.  One motive for such exercises, aside from their intrinsic fascination and popular appeal, is to draw attention to the contingencies of history, to the impossibility of ever completely explaining historical events.  If a slight perturbation in the balance of the encounter between Bohr and Heisenberg could have produced such a radically different outcome to World War II, then isn’t what happened to a significant degree the outcome of chance?  Isn’t it pure hubris for historians to lay claim to explain what actually happened if things might so easily have been entirely different?  Heisenberg’s concluding soliloquy on his encounter with the SS man—whatever its other dramatic implications—confirms this sense of the massive contingency of history, of how in wartime so many individuals’ lives hang by the slenderest thread of chance.


            Although the concluding hypothesis of the play raises a counterfactual historical vision, it does so without conveying a sense of finality.  New speculative possibilities are opened up at the end of the action, rather than being closed off.  If we read this as an allegory of the process of making history, then it suggests the open-endedness of historical inquiry.  Divergent interpretations of a contested episode, like Heisenberg’s visit to Copenhagen in 1941, are likely to persist.  Conclusive resolution of exactly what happened may well continue to elude us, even when the participants are truly “all dead and gone” and the historians can move in to take unchallenged control.  Even new findings in the archives won’t necessarily resolve all uncertainty.  Of course, newly found documents will constitute evidence that will have to be taken into account, perhaps closing off certain possibilities, but no document compels its readers to interpret it in just one way.  Controversy, spurred by differences over interpretation of the archival record, is likely to persist, just as uncertainty persists in the play.  By modeling this situation within the action of  his drama, Frayn has communicated very effectively how historians make history in a climate of pervasive and continuing uncertainty.


            Frayn’s play cannot prove any of this about history, of course.  It can remind historians of the importance of contingency and the persistence of uncertainty, and it can perform the very valuable function of communicating these things to a wide public audience, but what counts as history will be established within historical practice itself.  It will be up to us whether we incorporate within our historical writings any dramatic techniques that reflect the uncertainties of our craft: for example, by introducing “multiple voices” into our texts, as historians in certain other fields have been doing to represent the viewpoints of different ethnic groups involved in episodes of conflict.  Are we historians of science prepared to exhibit the work of making history within our texts, displaying its contested and uncertain origins?  Or will we continue to hide all that away, believing that readers will only accept a version of the traditional “straight story”?  One virtue of Frayn’s play is that it should inspire us to build a relationship of greater trust with our potential audiences.  We could try to raise the relationship beyond the level at which the public is expected to pay its devotions to the sublime spectacle of scientific achievement.  The popularity of Copenhagen may well indicate a public capacity for more sophisticated understandings of history, which professional historians ought to recognize.


            Copenhagen is important and valuable for historians because of its willingness to cross the line between the genres of fiction and history.  It is a play (as one feels inclined to emphasize when reading some of the scholarly critiques) but it isn’t just a play (because—notwithstanding its non-realism—its historical reference is so direct).  Precisely because it is a fiction, it can explore issues of how history is made with a freedom usually denied to themselves by historians; it can even recruit scientific metaphors such as “uncertainty” to provide a vocabulary for the debate.  The value of the work lies in the tensions between its status as a product of creative imagination and the philosophical and moral claims that it makes about historical reality and historians’ practice.  It is not possible to exclude either dramatic or historical dimensions from an analysis; each cuts across the other.  To extend the metaphors from physics still further, one might say that the fictional and historical aspects of the work are “complementary” variables, not specifiable independently of one another.  The fertility of their interaction is the measure of the productivity of what Clifford Geertz called “blurred genres”—not, that is to say, the elimination of distinctions between history and creative fiction but the bleeding of elements of style and content across the boundary between them.  History won’t become drama, but it can benefit greatly from a deeper engagement with it, not least in reaching across the gulf that too often separates us from the wider public.

Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen: An outline of the plot.


[B = Bohr, H = Heisenberg, M = Margrethe]




               Why did he come?                                           

               All dead and gone

               H and B: father and son?


               September 1941                                               (Memory like a dream)

                              Nazi surveillance

                              Fission—could H be working on it?


bell                       Treacherous opening civilities

                              Pleasanter subjects: skiing … enemy occupation

                              Working on fission?                                                        Has H come to borrow the cyclotron?

                                                                                                                        (Mustn’t jump to conclusions)

                              Contacts with Britain, America?

                              B protected by German embassy                               Has H come to tell him this?



               Memories of Göttingen 1922

                              H’s competitiveness in skiing, physics

                              Uncertainty, two-slit experiment, shooting Casimir/Gamow

                              H on music and love


               Christian’s death


               B & H go for walk, return                                   (M on B’s walking)


               What did H say?

                              Fission chain-reactions, uranium isotopes


               Copenhagen in 1947: what happened in 1941?

                                                                                                                        H asked for moral advice; told B that

                                                                                                                                       fission could be used for weapons

                                                                                                                        B’s “misunderstandings”


               Let’s start again: what does H want to say?

                                                                                                                        Seeking absolution?

                                                                                                                        H wants to know if Allies are building

                                                                                                                                       a bomb

               H on love of country

               H: did Allied physicists stop to think?

               H’s experience of bombs in Berlin

                                                                                                                        H wanted B to tell Allies to stop

                                                                                                                        (The gall of it!  Bold skiing!)

               H soliloquy on Farm Hall, news of Hiroshima

               B’s role at Los Alamos: anything to defend?

               H’s 1942 meeting with Speer: the reactor program, a happy time


               Why did you come?  Another draft


bell        It’s the 1920s again




               H in Copenhagen, 1924: walking, Elsinore, B’s train trip

                              Copenhagen Interpretation: B & H together or apart?

                              Matrix mechanics, Schrödinger, Uncertainty Principle, complementarity

                              Implications for the observer’s role in reality …

                                                                                                                        impossibility of knowing one’s motives


               H’s career


                                                                                                                        M: H came to Copenhagen to show off


                                                                                                                        Why didn’t B have H killed?


               B’s escape from Denmark


                                                                                                                        M: H didn’t understand physics to

                                                                                                                                       build bomb

                                                                                                                        H gave Hahn figure of 1 ton critical mass

                                                                                                                                       at Farm Hall

                                                                                                                        (Hadn’t done the calculation on U-235)

                                                                                                                        Why not?


               One more draft of the 1941 visit


bell                       Each observing the others

                              The walk, the question

                                                                                                                        A thought experiment: what if B had


                                                                                                                        What if H had done the calculation?:

                                                                                                                                       a terrible new world

                                                                                                                        H should thank B for having misunderstood


               Saving of Danish Jews after tip-off

               B’s role at Los Alamos

               H’s soliloquy on encounter with SS man

               Lost children, preserved by the moment in Copenhagen