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Copenhagen
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80 of 81 people found the following review helpful
on March 27, 2000
Format: Paperback
Who would think that a play about two theoretical physicists, Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr would pack such dramatic interest for people with little background in nuclear physics? Yet Michael Frayn's Copenhagen provides both the human drama of the scientists involved in the nuclear weapons race between Nazi Germany and the Allied Forces ,and the ironic parallels between the Principle of Uncertainty in physics developed by these scientists and the unpredictability of outcomes involving human variables in their own lives. My rather "dry " summary of the content of this play, however, does not begin to convey the drama, irony and humour in the play . Three characters, Heisenberg, Bohr and his wife Margrethe met once again after their death to try to understand Heisenberg's "real " reason for his strange visit to Bohr in 1941 in occupied Copenhagen while Heisenberg was heading the German nuclear reactor program. Through the recollection of each from their points of view about the events of the past, the play reveals the personal and professional relationship between the two scientists and others in the elite scientifc community. The dialog is fast moving, sparkles with humor and dazzling description of the mind games of the brilliant and ideosycratic group of scientists. But in these exchanges between the characters, one understands how important and potentially deadly these "games" and the players can be for humanity. With the three perspectives of the same events provided by the three characters, the play reveals mulitple motives and meanings that conclude in the abrupt termination of the meeting between Heisenberg and Bohr in 1941 that might have been the reason that the Nazis failed to develop an atom bomb before the Allied Forces! Or maybe a lost opportunity for deterring the development of nuclear weapons by either side? In two acts, one is absorbed by the levels of relationship between the characters, the irony of academic brilliance and real life failures, the dilemma of pursuit of scientifc 'truth' and responsibility to humanity. Along with all these heady issues, however, ones gains enough knowledge of nuclear physics to see the parallel in the human drama of these scientists in their personal lives. This play is trully a heady trip that makes one want to slow down the racing of ideas in the dialog by going back to catch the multiple meanings one missed in the first reading. It makes one continue to post "what if's" about the development of nuclear weapon and the possible human histories of our lifetime. I saw the play in London before reading the book, but find the book to be a even more satisfying experience. Don't miss it!
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32 of 32 people found the following review helpful
on February 10, 2001
Format: Paperback
The basic story of Copenhagen--and the playwright's leap of imagination to create the conversation of the 3 principles--deserves any accolades that can be awarded: what if, within one fateful day, the leading scientist for the German nuclear development team had received the insight he needed to arm the Nazis? The ramifications are so huge, so mind-boggling, that it's all the more important that Frayn chose to shrink the scale of his dialogue, and make this play as much about the dynamics of how humans understand each other as how we, as a race, could possibly comprehend the worldwide impact of nuclear arms. This is play about the moral ramifications of decisions made within the supposedly "ethnical no-man's-land" of scientific discovery.

Other reviewers have talked about the life history of the scientists, so I'll just sketch out more details about the piece itself. First of all, what an important and revelatory decision Frayn made in including the character of Margrethe, Bohr's wife. In his play, she is the intellectual equal of the physicists, wryly commenting about how many versions of each position paper she spent time typing. Her character makes this play unlike so many science-based dramas before it, because she is a woman and an outsider. Her humor, her humanity and her anger towards Heisenberg's for his involvement with the Nazis...all these issues keep the play grounded in real life, make it palpable to modern audiences not necessarily schooled in the fundamentals of atomic theory. It also insures that the play isn't just the typical strutting, cocksure junk that movies like "Dr Strangelove" aptly mock.

I have a serious criticism of the *publication* of this play though: in order to keep it more streamlined (I imagine), they omitted the stage notes for the characters. This is a shame, and makes the reading of it all the more complicated for those who haven't seen the play in person. Having seen it on Broadway, one of the most striking things was the physicality of how this "talky" play was handled. The stage was set in the round, with a small percentage of audience members overlooking the stage as if at a lecture or a medical examination. The stage was completely circular, and the cast members would often take off in spirals, their bodies acting as electrons around the nucleus (most often Margrethe). They would interact, split off in other directions, speed up their rotations. It was a fascinating reenactment of molecular activity, and the dramaturge or editor who approved this edition should be taken to task for this decision. But don't let this dissuade you from picking up "Copenhagen": it's absolute thought-provoking perfection in every other way.
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36 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on April 21, 2000
Format: Paperback
Just saw Copenhagen on Broadway. I found it one of the most interesting evenings I have ever spent at the theater. Three people on the stage for 2.5 hours, discussing physics and personal issues sounds hard to take. Nevertheless, the experience was exhilarating, much like a Stoppard drama.
HOWEVER, the discussion can be difficult to follow at times, not just because of the science, of course, but also because the author covers a lot of the politics of 1920s physics and 1930s Europolitics. After a couple of hours. I wished that I had read the play before seeing it. I recommend that you consider doing the same. (Don't worry: You won't lose any of the "plot" line by reading ahead. In fact, a readahead may make the interchanges seems richer....)
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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
This book contains the text of Michael Frayn's Tony Award-winning play (94 pages), a fascinating 38-page Postscript, and a two-page word sketch of the scientific and historical background to the play.
The play itself is brilliant (see my review of the PBS production directed by Howard Davies, starring Stephen Rea, Daniel Craig, and Francesca Annis available on DVD) and is the kind of play that can be fully appreciated simply by reading it. There are no stage directions, no mention of props or stage business. There is simply Frayn's extraordinary dialogue. A photo from the cover suggests how the play might be staged on a round table with the three characters, Danish physicist Niels Bohr, his wife Margrethe, and German physicist Werner Heisenberg, going slowly round and round as in an atom. This symbolism is intrinsic to the ideas of the play with Bohr seen as the stolid proton at the center and the younger Heisenberg the flighty electron that "circles." Margrethe who brings both common sense and objectivity to the interactions between the ever circling physicists, might be thought of as a neutron, or perhaps she is the photon that illuminates (and deflects ever so slightly) what it touches.
At the center of the play (and at the center of our understanding of the world through quantum mechanics) is a fundamental uncertainty. While Heisenberg and Bohr demonstrated to the world through the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics that there will always be something we cannot in principle know regardless of how fine our measurements, Frayn's play suggests that there will always be some uncertainty about what went on between the two great architects of QM during Heisenberg's celebrated and fateful visit to the Bohr household in occupied Denmark in 1941. There is uncertainty at the heart of not only our historical tools but at the very heart of human memory (as Frayn explains in the Postscript).
"The great challenge facing the storyteller and the historian alike is to get inside people's heads... Even when all the external evidence has been mastered, the only way into the protagonists' heads is through the imagination. This indeed is the substance of the play." (p. 97)
The three characters appear as ghosts of their former selves, as it were, and begin immediately an attempt to unravel and understand what happened in 1941. The central question is Why did Heisenberg come to Copenhagen? Was it an attempt to enlist Bohr in a German atomic bomb project? Was it to get information from Bohr about an Allied project or to pick his brain for ideas on how to make fission work? Or was it, as Margrethe avers, to "show himself off"--the little boy grown up, the man who was once part of a defeated country, now triumphant?
The play leaves it for us to find an answer, because neither history nor the recorded words of the participants give us anything close to certainty. With the conflicting statements of the characters Frayn implies that the truth may be a matter of one's point of view, that is, it may be a question of relativity. Ultimately it may even be that Heisenberg himself did not know why he came to Copenhagen.
Also being asked by Frayn's play is a moral question. Is it right for scientists to build weapons of mass destruction to be used on civilian targets? Heisenberg contends that this is the question he wanted to ask of Bohr. It is ironic that although Heisenberg was condemned by physicists around the world for his (presumed) unsuccessful attempt to build a fission bomb for Hitler, his work killed no one, while the universally beloved and admired Bohr had a hand in the Manhattan project that resulted in the bombs that were dropped on the Japanese cities.
As the electron is seen and then not seen, its speed measured and then not measured, but never both at the same time, so it is with Heisenberg's character in life and in this play. We are never sure where he is. Is he working for the Nazis or is he only pretending to? Is he working on a reactor or is he working on a bomb? Did he delay the German project intentionally (as he claimed), or was the failure due to incompetence, or even--as Frayn suggests--to an unconscious quirk of Heisenberg's mind?
In the Postscript Frayn recalls the historical evidence he used in constructing the play and cites his sources and gives us insights into what Bohr and Heisenberg were like. He quotes Max Born, describing Heisenberg as having an "unbelievable quickness and precision of understanding," while "the most characteristic property" of Bohr, as described by George Gamow, "was the slowness of his thinking and comprehension." One can see where Frayn got his metaphor of the atom with its heavy nucleus and its speedy electron. But Bohr was also thoughtful and thorough while Heisenberg was "careless with numbers." And of course these are relative terms since both men were Nobel Prize-winning physicists, brilliant men who reached the very pinnacle of their profession.
Bottom line: one the great plays of our time on an epochal subject, fascinating and cathartic as all great plays should be.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
You might not guess it from the title, but this is the play by Michael Frayn that for several years attracted full house at Broadway and at theaters in London. Background: The atomic bomb was built in Los Alamos during WW II by American scientists, and it signaled in 1945 the start of what we now call the Cold War. But it also ended WW II. Parallel to Los Alamos, German scientists in Leipzig worked on building a nuclear reactor, and the bright young Werner Heisenberg was an undisputed leader of the German fission project. However the science itself originated in Europe. The play has three characters, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, and Margrethe Bohr, and the location is the private home of the Bohrs. The book and the play paint a compelling picture of the three. When I went to the play in London, the audience sat in stitches for the whole two hours. I didn't see anyone dozing off, not even during the technical parts of the play. And they most certainly weren't just scientists. Much has been written about the other early atomic scientists, not directly part of the play, e.g., Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn, and Fritz Strassman, to mention just a few. During WW II, in the Fall of 1941, while Denmark was under Nazi occupation, Werner Heisenberg traveled from Leipzig to Copenhagen to see his mentor Niels Bohr. WH had just been 25 years old when he did the work for which he won the Nobel Prize, and in WH's early career, Bohr had become a father figure to the boyish and insecure Werner Heisenberg. The much younger WH was 40 when he visited the Bohrs. Michael Frayn imagines that the three, the Bohrs and Werner Heisenberg meet in after-life to re-live the fateful 1941 encounter, and to resolve WH's motives for his Copenhagen visit; a visit that clearly ended a long and deep friendship. The Bohrs viewed it as a hostile visit, and that never changed, even though Bohr never spoke about what was said in 1941; not then and not later. WH had chosen to stay in Germany after the War broke out in 1939. Why? Did, or did he not, work on the bomb for Hitler? While we may never know the answer, the play offers five possible answers, and we must choose for ourselves. The story really begins before 1941 with the foundation of quantum mechanics in the 1920ties. WH's first paper in Z Physik (1925) is a scientific and a historical mile stone, and it is thought to be the beginning of quantum theory. It is from there we have the ubiquitous notion of 'uncertainty' (of simultaneous quantum observations of position and momentum.) The papers of the three giants Heisenberg, Schrodinger, and Dirac in the 1920ties made precise the theory and the variables: states, observables, probabilities, the uncertainty principle, dual variables, and the equations of motion. This was also when the wave-particle question received a more precise mathematical formulation, and resolution. Perhaps best known are the equation of Schrodinger, giving the dynamics of systems of quantum mechanical particles, and Dirac's equation for the electron. All three of the pioneers won the Nobel Prize at a young age;-- Schrodinger was a little older than the other two (Heisenberg and Dirac were both born in 1902.) Many of the young physicists spent time in Copenhagen in the period between the wars, and Bohr was a mentor to them, and to WH he was perhaps even a father figure. Comment: In 1932, John von Neumann who had just settled in the US showed, surprisingly at the time, that Schrodinger's formulation is equivalent to Heisenbergs matrix mechanics, and von Neumann turned quantization into a field of mathematics. After WWII, Heisenberg resumed his work on the theoretical aspects of quantum fields and other areas of mathematical physics, and he was active as a scientific advisor to post war German government officials. He also wrote books of a more philosophical bent. However they do not settle the question from Copenhagen 1941.
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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on October 2, 2000
Format: Paperback
In September, 1941, Werner Heisenberg, then leading Nazi Germany's war-time effort to exploit the uses of nuclear fission, made a trip to Copenhagen to visit his former mentor, the brillant Danish physicist Niels Bohr. Together, in the 1920s, Bohr and Heisenberg had been instrumental in the development of quantum mechanics, complementarity and the uncertainty principle, concepts which provided the theoretical underpinning for modern nuclear physics and, ultimately, the atomic bomb. Hence, the reason for Heisenberg's visit to Bohr, and what Heisenberg and Bohr discussed during that visit, has been the subject of much historical speculation. It is this event which forms the basis for Michael Frayn's thought-provoking play of ideas, "Copenhagen".
Heisenberg's role in Germany's effort to develop atomic weapons has been the topic of much speculation, historians tending to place him on one side or the other of the moral dividing line. There are those who paint him as an evil tool of the Nazis, someone who willingly devoted himself to Germany's scientific efforts to develop an atomic weapon. From their perspective, there has been a tendency to read Heisenberg's 1941 visit to Bohr as an effort to recruit Bohr to the German scientific fold. There are others who see the visit as more enigmatic, who do not ascribe such clear intentions to Heisenberg, and who see in the historical record evidence that Heisenberg was a passive opponent of the Nazis' objectives, a scientist who quietly undermined the German scientific effort while ostenbibly remaining a "good" German.
Frayn brilliantly depicts the uncertainty of Heisenberg's motivations, as well as the uncertainty of what occurred at the meeting between the two scientists, using the theory of these physicists to illumine not the physical world, but the psychological world of human motives. "Uncertainty" thus describes not merely the behavior of the atom, but also the behavior of individuals living in ethically difficult historical circumstances. As Frayn notes in his Postscript to the text of this play, "thoughts and intentions, even one's own-perhaps one's own most of all-remain shifting and elusive. There is not one single thought or intention of any sort that can ever be precisely established."
"Copenhagen" is lucidly and sparely written, a play of dialogue among only three characters-Heisenberg, Bohr and Bohr's wife, Margrethe. There are, of course, numerous references to the esoteric world of theoretical physics, particularly as it developed in the 1920s, and the Postscript to the text is therefore especially helpful in understanding both the scientific and historical frames of reference for the play.
Read this little play-better yet, see it if you can-because "Copenhagen" is a dramatic work that truly deserves to be recognized as one of outstanding plays of recent years.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
Michael Frayn, Copenhagen (Anchor, 1998)

Copenhagen 2000 Tony Award winner for best play, turns on a rather simple premise: Niels Bohr, his wife Margrethe, and Werner Heisenberg, who were all together at a brief meeting in 1941 which has confused historians ever since, are back together after death. They are trying to piece out what actually happened that night; it seems they don't remember what happened that night any more than do those who have written so many pages about it over the years. In the process, they also dissect quantum physics, argue the viability of the atomic bomb (and why Heisenberg didn't think it was possible, while Bohr ended up being a small, but instrumental, player on Oppenheimer's team), and in general behave like old friends who have grown old and crotchety.

Frayn is obviously coming from the Waiting for Godot school of drama here, as the play is absent any action whatsoever; all the events are described by the three players. This has been expressed by a large number of the play's critics as a weakness. Whether or not you see it as one is, well, pretty much up to you; in all honesty, it never really occurred to me to consider it a weakness while I was actually reading the play, which I take as a positive thing.

The real reason to pick this up, though, is in Frayn's rather long afterword. (One wonders if anyone considered having one of the actors come out and relate it after each performance.) While the play itself does a decent job at demystifying the physics and mechanics of the various details about which Bohr and Heisenberg spent most of their lives niggling, the play's afterword both puts these details, and the nigglers, into the larger picture of their culture and time and elucidates a few things that someone simply seeing the play is likely to still not understand (such as how much of Frayn's various ideas as to what happened in the mysterious conversation he pulled out from under his arm, and how much has actually been posited by scholars). While the play itself is interesting, the afterword is fascinating, and the two together make for a good read. *** ½
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on April 1, 2003
Format: Paperback
Yes, as someone who really doesn't get the Uncertainty Principle,and never paid much attention to scientific theories, I did blink at the page in confusion a couple of times reading this. And nobody wants to read a play that is exclusively about two men arguing about mathematical formulas.
However, that is all just the backdrop to the haunting story of a failed friendship, about lack of understanding, and about the obscure and about the inability of humans to ever truly understand each other's motives.
Frayn's play was the most actively thought-provoking work I'd read in quite a while, and it is a masterful piece of witing.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon December 19, 2002
Format: Paperback
This play is an unusually clever and perceptive study of the nature of human memory and the ambiguity of human communication, touches on the social responsibility of scientists, and explores the nature of knowledge in general. Frayn centers the play around the 1941 visit of Werner Heisenberg, then Professor of Physics at Leipzig and head of the German effort to develop nuclear weapons, and his former mentor, the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr. What happened during that visit remains unknown, though there is apparently documentation about the visit in the Bohr archives that will be released someday in the future. Did Heisenberg ask or want to ask Bohr about joining the German war effort? Did he want to enlist Bohr's help in derailing everyone's efforts to develop nuclear weapons? What did Bohr say? What were the consequences of the visit? Did Heisenberg deliberately impede the German effort to develop nuclear weapons? There are no answers to these interesting questions and probably never will be. Frayn's brilliant conceit is to structure the play, which contains only three characters - Heisenberg, Bohr, and Bohr's wife, in form that mimics many aspects of quantum physics. Heisenberg's and Bohr's movements and verbal encounters mirror particle interactions, the whole play is permeated by the metaphor of uncertainty, and quantum entanglment is an implicit metaphor for the relationship of Heisenberg and Bohr. The play is only 2 acts but is intellectually rich and repays careful reading. It would be easy to use the scientific metaphors in a superficial manner but Frayn has done an excellent job of integrating science and history. A nice addition is a thorough afterward by Frayn in which he discusses the history and historical literature on Heisenberg's visit to Bohr and the Heisenberg's role in the German nuclear weapons program.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on May 9, 2002
Format: Paperback
'Copenhagen' is a history play - it charts those first, exciting decades of the 20th century, when the arcane sphere of theoretical physics reorganised the way perception was perceived, and focuses on two of its totemic figures - the half-Jewish Dane Nils Bohr, originator of quantum theory, and his protege, the German Werner Heisenberg, formulator of the uncertainty principle - and the relation of their work to the literally earth-shattering events around them: the fall-out of the Great War; the rise of Nazism; World War Two and Hitler's occupation of Europe, including Bohr's Denmark; the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It is a story about what it was like to live in occupied Europe, to work for a fascist regime, to watch your beloved country bombed to smithereens, to be aware of death camps as you cavil over mathematics.
'Copenhagan' is a mystery play - the central narrative is a labyrinthine enquiry into what exactly happened on that night in September, 1941, when Heisenberg, now head of the German nuclear programme, paid a mysterious visit to the Bohrs, just before the race laws were about to be enforced. Did he want Bohr's help? His approval? Information on the Allied atomic project? But it is also a perverted mystery play in the old medieval sense, a dark, emblematic representation of biblical events for an age in which religion has died, civilisation teeters on the brink, and scientists become Gods and popes.
'Copenhagan' is a philosophical play - it asks how a theoretical physics flagged as restoring humanism (by returning individual perception/point-of-view - relativity - to a conception of the universe) could lead to the atomic bomb and the mass murder of millions. About how the rarefied abstractions of physics had such devastating effects in practice. About who should share more guilt - the ambitious man who collaborated with the Nazis but technically had no blood on his fingers, or the decent humanist who spiritually guided the Los Alamos project.
'Copenhagan' is a play about three human beings puzzling over the past and their relations to one another - as you might expect from a work set in Denmark by an English writer, the shade of Hamlet hovers, in the story of a young man agonising over whether or not to act, his fraught relationship with his 'parents', and his acknowledgement of the darkness residing in the human soul. Like 'Hamlet', 'Copenhagan' is a ghost story, in this case crossed with Sartre's 'Huis Clos', with three phantoms condemned to each other's company and uncertainty as to what exactly did happen on that September night in 1941.
But mostly, 'Copenhagan' is a play about science, and fearlessly showcases the most abstruse theories and theorems ever conjured. A boffin friend assures me that the play's structure, the way characters move around the stage, the patterning of their actions, the set itself, the shaping of the narrative (an endless circling through time and space around an elusive mystery) are all masterly transpositions (and undercutting) of both men's theories to the form of drama. Works about ideas and science can be dry, deadly things in the hands o a Shaw or Wells, but here science becomes poetry, with an integrity of meaning of its own, but also a fluid, ever-shifting fund of figurative language and ideas, taking theoretical physics a third step, having undergone theory and practice. Science here is no longer the elitist jargon of sinister power-players, but a bleakly eloquent interpretation of our own lives, our relation to the past, family, work, history, responsibility.
Like a dull amateur scientist, I have separated some of the elements that go into making Michael Frayn's 'Copenhagan' such an exhausting but exhilirating play, but it is in their interplay, their elision, their interconnectedness that its beauty and resonance lies.
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