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Copenhagen: a Play about the Science, Politics, and Morality of Atomic Weapons

Arms Control NOW

On a calm and cool January evening, we found ourselves attending a stimulating showing of Michael Frayn’s 1998 Tony award-winning play, Copenhagen, at Theater J in Washington D.C. Before going any further, perhaps we should start with some personal background (and humility). We are not nuclear weapons experts. Or physicists. Or historians, really. Rather, our recollection and understanding of World War II and the race to the atomic bomb is, shall we say, rusty. We’re both young professionals working more on conventional weapons issues–from examining the global arms trade to analyzing defense acquisition processes and technological advancements. Yet the two hours we spent immersed in Niels and Margrethe Bohr’s living room drew our attention to numerous issues surrounding WMD (non)proliferation and emphasized the relevance of nuclear weapons concerns today.

Photo by C. Stanley Photography.  Tim Getman and Michael Russotto in COPENHAGEN. Used with Permission.Copenhagen centers around the 1941 visit of German nuclear physicist Werner Heisenberg to his former colleague, Niels Bohr. World War II was in its second year, and Germany had since invaded Denmark despite a nonaggression agreement between the two countries, making for a dangerous and indeed awkward encounter between Heisenberg and Bohr. Bohr was an esteemed nuclear physicist in Denmark and had served as Heisenberg’s mentor. The play traces the two scientists’ professional relationship and highlights their historic contributions to physics –  such as their influence on quantum mechanics and the roles they played in the race to develop the atomic bomb. It is widely presumed that during this Copenhagen meeting, Heisenberg and Bohr broached the topic of the possibility of building a nuclear bomb, but it remains a mystery as to what exactly the two physicists discussed. The play examines this unanswered question and places the characters in a posthumous limbo, where they repeatedly try to clarify what happened and answer Bohr’s wife Margrethe’s initial inquiry: “Why did [Heisenberg] come to Copenhagen?”

Though the play depicts events from over 75 years ago, many of the overarching themes remain relevant today. Indeed, the play revolves around the risks posed by nuclear proliferation and the use of nuclear weapons–a critical security concern that has been a mainstay in U.S. foreign policy since World War II. And more broadly, the play—which focuses on Heisenberg’s and Bohr’s ethical concerns about a new and potentially devastating weapons technology—echoes contemporary conversations about technological advancements, such as those pertaining to lethal autonomous systems or synthetic biology. In this way, the play extends beyond issues of science and nuclear armament, and can be seen to resonate with current national and international security concerns.

Additionally, Copenhagen highlights the crucial role that scientists, researchers, and general subject-matter experts play in informing and influencing consequential policy decisions. Heisenberg illustrates this point in the play when he emphatically explains that he would be asked about the potential to develop a nuclear weapon and that, as a result, he would shape Germany’s path toward a nuclear weapons program. Indeed, Heisenberg’s and Bohr’s repeated exchanges about their roles in the different nuclear programs underscore the importance of experts who understand the impact and implications of certain policy decisions, both domestically and internationally.

The play ends without resolving Margrethe’s initial question and while we may never know precisely why Heisenberg visited Bohr in 1941, we are left reflecting on the significance and implications of the development of weapons of mass destruction and the science that makes these weapons possible. Overall, Copenhagen provides audiences with an intimate and indeed human look at questions of morality and uncertainty that characterized efforts toward nuclear armament. While it is easy to get lost in the dramatized back-and-forth between Heisenberg and Bohr as they speedily discuss, say, the calculation of the critical mass of U-235 necessary for an atomic bomb, the broader themes of this play remain relevant in 2017. Copenhagen expertly highlights the intricate and complex relationship between science, politics, and morality, and underscores the importance of maintaining these conversations as weapons technologies continue to evolve now and into the future.

—Shannon Dick is a research associate at the Stimson Center. Rose Morrissy is a research assistant at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.