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Heisenberg’s False Uncertainty About Calculus

By Dan Tortorice

Staff writer


Colonial Theater

May 14-19, 8 p.m. Tue-Sat, 2 p.m. Sat-Sun, 7:30 Sun

Written by Michael Frayn

With Len Cariou, Mariette Hartley, and Hank Stratton

Copenhagen, the 2000 Tony Award-winning play, is Michael Frayn’s look at the well-known, poorly understood meeting between the eminent physicists Werner Heisenberg, a German, and Niels Bohr, a Dane, in German-occupied Denmark during World War II. No one, not even Heisenberg nor Bohr, recalls what exactly happened the evening of that meeting. But what is known is that meeting marked the end of the great friendship and partnership between Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg.

Frayn’s recreation brings Bohr, Heisenberg and Bohr’s wife Margrethe back together again, after they have died, to try one more time to make sense of that evening. They recreate the conversation between Bohr and Heisenberg, spinning out many possible scenarios that all try to answer the question: why did Heisenberg come to Copenhagen? The play suggests that he wanted to warn Bohr of the German program, find out about the Allied program, show off Germany’s power, obtain absolution, or even recruit Bohr to work on the bomb. Fray mixes these different scenarios and creates an air of uncertainty. The minimalist set, just three actors and three chairs in an indeterminate space, adds to this effect. We are then taken on a quest to discover why Heisenberg went to Copenhagen and, in the end, are told that it can’t be known.

While the premise of the play is striking, and perhaps enough to sustain one’s interest through the work, the play and the production miss a crucial element. The characters are simply implausible to anyone who has ever studied science at an advanced level (I mean the level of an MIT student; I haven’t done more than 8.02). Frayn spins wonderfully poetic metaphors between principles of physics, most notably Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and Bohr’s complementarity principle. But, since he needs to make it accessible to his audience, the principles must be discussed on a superficial level.

You’ve probably noticed that when a writer wants to make a character sound intelligent he will have the character utter some phrase littered with mathematical buzzwords like, “I calculated the matrix covariance differential.” I imagine most MIT students groan when they hear statements like this. That’s what Copenhagen was for me: two hours of almost continuous groaning. Not that Frayn often uses buzzwords; he is more sophisticated than that. However when the physics is discussed it is emphasized so much that it feels fake, just like “the matrix covariance differential.”

But what makes this problem even worse is the actors’ overexcitement when they discuss these principles of physics, since it’s tough to imagine an actual physicist would get so worked up. In one line, Heisenberg, played by Hank Stratton, mentions his initial difficulty with “matrix calculus.” He seems amazed by the words, as if he were uttering the name of a deity. But I imagine a physicist, especially Heisenberg, whom the play makes clear worked extensively with matrix calculus, wouldn’t think it was that big a deal. Even worse, Heisenberg is wearing a well-tailored green suit and his hair is slicked back; he looks more like he belongs on Wall St. than in a university lecture hall.

By many accounts, Copenhagen is an excellent play. Even some other MIT students who saw it have liked it. But be warned that if you go, you risk feeling as if you are sitting through a reading of Science for Dummies spliced with a bit of interesting philosophy.