Notes on the film Copenhagen LBST120
The splitting of an atom produces tremendous energy, whether for power or for destruction.
The splitting of a friendship, a relationship, in similar manner can produce tremendous energy.
The film Copenhagen is set more than fifty years after the wreck of a friendship of two Nobel laureates in physics. It is based on a single unrecorded conversation that split their long and productive friendship, a split whose energy still reverberates in books, conversations, plays, and films. It is a matter of history, politics, and of art. It is all highly uncertain discussion and inquiry because we do not have a clear record. The playwright and screen writer, Michael Frayn, who both introduces and then reflects on the film at the end, has cast much of the action as the conversation of the ghosts of these two men, Heisenberg, Bohr, and Bohr’s wife, who like us are exploring past memory and motivation.
I think my students will like this movie the least of all the films in the rhetoric series I have presented. It lacks action. It lacks clear narrative. It’s characters are distance in time and place, and vitality. It does not have emotional touchstones for my students that is does for me and colleagues who grew up in the Cold War- we were raised on recent remembrances of World War II, Nazis, Einstein and relativity, science outside government, the Holocaust, the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And I am not sure that students will empathize with the loss of father-son, teacher-student, or collegial love. Perhaps they have lost friends to circumstances that will approximate. Nonetheless, I hope students trust me enough to watch the movie carefully as part of a Liberal Studies course of instruction that I have planned.
Great Advances in Science
Speaking of the course, these two men- Nils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg are giants of physics, as are Watson and Crick in the required reading Double Helix. And we have read Isaac Newton by Gleick. The film is clearly meant to give another portrait of how modern science has shaped our world, from its roots in Newton and basic laws of mass, movement, and energy including thermodynamics, to atomic energy and bombs, to human genetics. Two other great men we have neglected are Darwin and Einstein. Wise students will fill those pieces in the jig-saw. I suggest Darwin’s Origin of Species, and Einstein’s Relativity, but even reading about them in Wikipedia would be a good start As a psychologist, I am tempted to include Freud and Skinner, but Freud was not a scientist and Skinner’s work is largely rediscovery of a technological approach to behavior. I believe these are the major scientific advances that have had profound influences on our daily lives, our view of the universe as humans, and which more traditional arts and sciences- such as religion and philosophy- are still struggling to integrate into our culture.
The Information Age supercedes the Atomic Age
The 20th century ended with an explosion of electronic communication dubbed the Information Age. Only a tiny percentage of computers are used for computing. Computers are largely used for communicating, in all forms, across time and space. The Hebrew Old Testament is available on-line, as are emails from Australia, photos from outer space, and last week’s peer-reviewed Physics Review Letters. Until the Information Age fully began in the 1980s, we thought the century would be dubbed the Atomic Age.
Modern physics includes Einstein’s relativity, and Bohr’s remodeling of the atom, and Planck’s quantum mechanics, and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and Fermi’s first atomic reaction, and Oppenheimer’s leadership to develop the atomic bomb, and Edward Teller’s development of the fusion or thermonuclear or hydrogen bomb (and there are other great advances- easily reviewed at the Nobel Prize site, or an encyclopedia). It brought us understanding of the tiny bits of the atom- the subatomic parts (called particles, because the L ending makes a word mean smaller, hence a particle is a small part). And physics then tore the particles into smaller pieces called quarks, and is currently wrestling with whether a quark should be thought of as a string rather than a point. As the movie mentions briefly, the immutable elements (the100 or so named basic atoms in the universe seen on a periodic chart, the building blocks of nature) were able to be changed by atomic reactors or atomic bombs, releasing huge amounts of energy by converting mass into energy, Einstein has predicted this with his conceptual equation E=mc2. (See the David Bodanis book by that title. A small amount of mass becomes a huge amount of energy, as it is multiplied by the square of a very large number- the speed of light. Energy, according to Newton is mass times velocity squared: a car at 2 miles per hour has four times the energy as one going 1 mile per hour. Einstein’s leap beyond Newton is to use Newton’s basic idea to show that mass can be converted to energy and vice versa.)
Being able to split an atom from a large element to two smaller elements, releasing energy, not only made power and bombs possible, but it fulfilled the centuries-long hope of alchemist. It showed a way to actually change not just chemical, but atoms themselves. In theory, one COULD make gold from lead. Newton would have been thrilled. In fact, the production of valuable elements by atomic splitting is not easy, or cannot be done at all, and is certainly ridiculously expensive. Cheaper by far is to extract gold from sea-water (there is a bit there), and buy what you want. Splitting atoms for energy now produces about one third of electrical power in the world, and we love the lack of air pollution, but worry about what we will do with the radioactive waste that is produced. Splitting atoms for defense
As we come to the Bohr-Heisenberg conversation of 1941, we have the following important ideas dates which helped me put the movie in perspective in terms of both physics and politics.
1914-1914 World War I ends with complete defeat of Germany by France, England, and USA.
1920s. The teacher and visual conceptualist Nils Bohr had a crew of great physicists working in Copenhagen after WWI, similar to the core of molecular biologists and physicist that Cavendish had assembled in England which led to DNA discovery. This is the 1920s.
Germany tried to redeem its pride twenty years after WWI, seeking revenge on Europe, invading almost everyone except England and Sweden in 1939 under Hitler and the Nazis. After about 1935, Jews in Germany largely saw the Holocaust coming and many fled to England and America. (Funny, England had expelled all Jews in about 1400, and Europe had taken them in.)
Bohr was “half” Jewish- his mother was Jewish, which by Jewish law makes him fully Jewish, which is determined by your mother. Denmark was under Nazi domination after 1939, but the Nazis could barely round up and kill the German and Polish Jews fast enough, so Danish Jews were left alone until 1942. As you known from reading Anne Frank, the Nazi eventually went looking for Jews in Holland, and Denmark was next. Bohr fled to Sweden, England, and then America in 1943. He worked on the already ongoing atomic bomb project already underway in Los Alamos, New Mexico. More on this later- it’s good history to know- much of it recounted in the short but brilliant book Hiroshima by John Hersey.
Heisenberg was a brilliant German physicist, having learned from the best Jewish and non-Jewish physicists in German. He went to study and collaborate with Bohr’s brilliant group in Copenhagen, and was famous as a perceptive and scintillating mathematician. Mathematics is the language of physics. Heisenberg was like a Shakespeare- able to both observe and express with precision and beauty. He is most famous for the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which is a major observation both for physics and for philosophers.
Bohr was his senior, his teacher and mentor in a way, and yet they were from the outset both operating at stratospheric levels of understanding the basic components of mass and energy that make up our material world. Bohr’s genius was visualization on that subatomic world. He changed the idea that electrons revolve in a cloud-like orbits around the nucleus of protons and neutrons in the center of atom into the idea that the electrons have discrete energy levels inside the cloud. His Nobel prize was for clarifying that sometimes a particle acts like a bit of mass, and sometimes like a wave of energy, confirming Einstein’s idea that mass and energy are both little packets, quanta, that can be converted to each other as they are the same at the subatomic level. His blackboard and chalk descriptions of the atom (as a theoretical physicist) were confirmed by experiments by experimental physicists in their laboratories.
Heisenberg had the ability to describe Bohr’s visualization in clear mathematic formulae that presented the subatomic world with precision, not simply metaphor. Sometimes it was Heisenberg’s math that caused Bohr to come up with a new visualization. Their talents complemented each other.
When career and politics called Heisenberg back to Germany, this synergy had to cease. No phones, not email. Even letters would have been watched as German authorities watched their physics departments empty out- a great many Gentiles followed the Jews to England and America- that’s where the new teams were assembling to split atoms and understand the nature of the universe. Heisenberg was no Nazi, but he loved his homeland. (Do you know anyone who loves their country, but abhors the war their country is waging???) And there is no evidence that Heisenberg was ever anti-Semitic.
The United States, slow to enter the war directly, was sending assistance to England as the rest of Europe and North Africa was occupied. Albert Einstein knew what Bohr and Heisenberg “claimed” they did not know. Einstein knew that the splitting of an atom would release energy, and also particles that would slam into other atoms, causing them to split. If these splits multiplied, under control, the energy could be used for power. Cadmium metal absorbs these particles and can be used as a brake to keep the reaction under control. If the splits are allowed to multiply out of control, a great deal of energy is released in milliseconds, and you have an atomic explosion.
To get the splitting started you need something to sling some particles at the atoms, and the magnetic sling shot that does this is called a cyclotron. As mentioned in the movie, the US had about 30 cyclotrons at universities, Denmark had one, and Germany none. The German scientists who would have built them had left.
Also, for fission (splitting) you need the kind of atoms that will split when hit. Uranium is the best candidate. With two kinds of Uranium, U235 and U238, with the same electrons and protons, but differing number of neutrons in their nucleus, two things became clear from the theoretical mathematics and the cyclotron experiments. If you have enough U235, it is naturally radioactive- splits itself. Natural radioactivity. It glows in the dark. If you have enough of it concentrated, you can generate power, or even get an explosion. About 100 pounds of U235 will make a bomb. The stuff is dense, so 100 pounds is not much biggest than a softball- you can actually make a bomb small enough to shoot out of a cannon, or fit in a briefcase.
The problem is that U235 is only 1% of the uranium found in the earth’s crust- it has had three billion years to decay, gently warming the earth’s core. To separate it from the U238 takes a lot of expensive chemistry. Germany would have been good at that, except, guess what, most of Germany best chemists had left.
Getting back to Einstein, Albert Einstein saw the potential for a bomb, and wrote a famous letter to President Franklin D Roosevelt. The letter led to the US development of an atomic bomb, and to the US military sending strike groups to stop German development of this technology- notably the production of heavy water in Norway. Heavy water is another moderator of neutron flux, and is a good way to develop the second kind of fission bomb. (Fission= splitting the atom. Fusion= combining atomic nuclei, which also produces energy, and if out of control is call a hydrogen bomb which depends on pairs of hydrogen atoms being fused into helium, with the lose of mass creating more energy than fission of uranium or plutonium.) A second kind of fission bomb can be produced from the common (99%) U238 uranium if you can convert that kind of uranium into plutonium. How do you do that? You do it in an atomic reactor like the ones we use to make electricity all over the world. You can make a reactor, but not a bomb with U238. The U238 is radioactive enough to get a chain reaction going, but like the cadmium it absorbs enough of what it creates to keep from exploding. However, U238 splits itself into plutonium. If you gather up and concentrate the plutonium, you can either make it chain-react under control, or you can make a bomb with it.
In theory it is easier to make a bomb with plutonium than with U235. Enrico Fermi had shown that a controlled reaction of U238 was possible, in a lab under the football stands at Stagg Field in Chicago, 100 yards from where I lived in college. My physics teacher at Chicago was a student/colleague of Fermi.). Based on Einstein’s letter, supported by the work of Fermi (who had fled Mussolini’s Italy) the US started developing both kinds of atomic fission bombs. The concentration of U235 was done in Tennessee where the TennesseeValley Authority (TVA) had built massive hydroelectric projects, and had the huge amount of electricity to run the centrifuges which separate U235 from U238. (These are the same centrifuges which the UN and US sought in Iraq as evidence of weapons of mass destruction.) Reactors to make plutonium from U238 were built in Hanover, Washington, and near Idaho Falls, Idaho the remote Northwest US, commonly called The Site. The actually bomb building was done under Robert Oppenheimer’s direction at Los Alamos.
The plutonium bomb required special triggering- many pieces slammed together from the outside instead of a two pieces of U235 slammed together. This complicated bombs was tested in New Mexico is the famous Trinity explosion, a week before Hiroshima. The war with Germany was over in May, 1945, when the U235 bomb (Thin Boy) was dropped on Hiroshima in July, 1945. A few days after Hiroshima, a plutonium bomb ( the second Fat Man) was dropped on Nagaski, with hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties. That’s all we had- those three bombs. Making more U235 and plutonium would have taken at least a year. The Japanese were losing the war anyway, but the two bombs caused an immediate surrender.
Atomic science was now part of political history. Knowledge IS power. Understanding the basics of physics is not just idol pursuit of nature’s mysteries. The use of atomic bombs has raised questions of ethics of politicians and scientists. It may be unethical to start a war. But is it ethical to end a war by unethical means. The surrender of Germany was in large part due to the firebombing nightly of German civilians. The destruction in London by Germany planes and V2 rockets was tiny compared to what WE inflicted on German. Both were horrific. If the movie Copenhagen- a conversation between two scientists in 1941- seems a tiny subject, please try to understand the context. It is two of the most brilliant minds, talking- we don’t know how, but not talking directly about what they know and don’t know about the Atomic Age. Do they both really know a bomb is possible? Perhaps a bomb that will destroy civilization, and destroy the planet. The earth flung into pieces into the heavens? Or are they simply worried about it? How are their own personal tragedies- working without colleagues in a political climate you abhor, or working under a coming antiSemitic siege- clouding their thinking and calculating? Could the mathematical genius Heisenberg really have miscalculated the amount of material need for a bomb, and therefore the ability both make and deliver it, by a factor of twenty? I make mistakes and neglects all the time. But I am not a genius.
How shall we judge genius? It is so important to the advance of civilization, that we must seek to understand it?
Let mine switch attention away from the physics and politics, and talk about the playwright, Michael Frayn. He talks to you before the movie, and afterward as well. He and the producers are so worried that you are going to miss the point- you young people- that they whack you on the head with the writer and some documentary material. And then I come along a whack you with pages of notes with the same intent. We are desperately worried that you will not learn this lesson from history. AND we are desperately worried that you will no see the metaphors from the world of atomic physics- which seem light years away from your understanding- as they apply to human relations.
A split produces a great deal of energy. A human split, or an atomic one. (Note- a split, not a gradual separation- personal or atomic.)
Bohr says, “We put Man back in the center of the Universe”. We have created this accurate vision of the essence of nature, and we are able to control it- perhaps to bring light, perhaps destruction to the world. We now face a similar threat with global warming and pollution of ecosystems.
Heisenberg, show that you cannot measure without affecting, tells us that “Measurement is a human act.” One of the most famous studies in applied psychology is called the Hawthorne Effect. Originally we thought that it showed that employees worked harder for a caring employer. Now we know a broader explanation, people act differently if they know they are being watched. As we fill the world with security cameras, and are able to process everyone’s minute to minute movements, we may change fundamentally who we are. Jay Leno jokes about being such a celebrity that he is videotaped 24/7. That is no joke, as great jokes never are. Jay is pointing out that his media is spreading, and as Marshall McLuhan said, The Medium is the message. (I can’t wait to read his new book, due out in 2007.)
Aside from the politics and bombs, there is a human element to this story of the 1941 Bohr-Heisenberg meeting. Bohr’s wife Margrethe helps moderate this human element, just as she did in real life. Clearly Frayn has written her in as a highly intelligent observer of both the physics and the personalities, and she is her own person as well. Hence, she, like us, changes the story by observing it. Since most of us cannot identify with Bohr and Heisenberg, many of us identify with Margrethe- watching and contributing what we can to some unknown maelstrom which is taking place. This film is unsatisfying, as is much of life, because we want to enter in with our opinion, with our point of view, with our emotion, and yet we know we are both powerless against the march of history, and not as qualified at the geniuses on whose backs we ride. This is the art of Frayn’s work- the portrayal of the human condition and its complexity, without offering falsely simple answers. It is the kind of art that hates Hollywood endings and religious assurance that faith alone will find the Kingdom of Heaven.
Frayn wrote Noises Off, a play about a comedy being staged. The movie version will have your ribs sore from laughter. Christopher Reeve, Michael Keaton, Marilou Henner (from my college English class), Carol Burnett, Denholm Elliot- a stellar cast brought together for the best verbal and physical slapstick you can imagine. Is this the same Michael Frayn? He also wrote a novel about two small boys hiding in the bushes outside their houses in England during World War II and imagining that one of the mothers is a spy. How does an English intellectual get into the mind of eight- year old boys, and make us wonder how our humanity and perceptions change when there is an Enemy among us? Sound familiar? My favorite book of Frayn’s is a bout a young couple who think they have discovered a missing Brueghel masterpiece on the wall of their stupid but rich neighbor’s house. They finagle their whole lives to lay hands on the fame and fortune they will gain if they can grab it. Frayn’s work is always about the hidden core of human desire and anxiety.
With that Brief Introduction, here are some notes on the film.
The seven liberal arts and sciences include the trivium (three ways) of rhetoric, grammar, and logic, and the quadrivium (four ways) music, geometry, arithmetic, and astronomy. Copenhagen clearly is taking us beyond rhetoric and logic, though they are of course present, along with Frayn’s lovely grammar. Traditionally, what is different between geometry and arithmetic? Both use symbols to represent in a pure way some aspects of the real world, so it is not theory versus applied science, both can be either. Geometry insists on cleaner clearer grammar of a symbolic nature in its proofs, and some may not have advanced as far as the sloppier but more flexible arithmetic. This is worth far more discussion, but for our purposes you might think of Bohr the great visualizer as a geometrician, the relation of a limited number of symbols in time and space according to a set of rules. Heisenberg does the math- his forte is arithmetic, not geometry. His precision may appear less, but his range of tools is formidable so that his proofs are less pure but more convincing. Are we talking theoretical physics or rhetoric? Perhaps both.
Astronomy is the modern and scientific form of the old word astrology. The word roots for astrology mean study of stars, while astronomy means naming (nomy) the stars., Funny how the newer name seems less scientific. The field of psychology had a split thirty years ago and some people called themselves scientists in the field of psychonomy. There is still an American Psychnomic Society. Alchemy, like astrology, is no longer considered by many people as a science. But of course chemistry and atomic physics are.
Aside from making plutonium for energy and bombs the predominant practical use of atomic physics has been to make radioactive isotopes used in medicine. We use these man-made rare isotopes largely for biological research and cancer treatment. Modern “alchemy” is practical for healing, where the large expense is acceptable.
Frayn says his play asks the fundamental question, “ Can we ever have absolute knowledge of anyone’s intentions?” The Heisenberg Uncertainly Principle changed our perception of the nature of nature as radically as Einstein’s relativity. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle states essentially that when you observe something, you change it as a matter of physics, you can’t sense it with impinging some energy on it, and you cannot be certain what your effect is, therefore you can be certain what is happening to what you observed. All of Newton’s laws of physics still apply to large objects and amounts of energy. Bu at its smallest most fundamental level, we have to admit that the universe is not Newtonian, This bothered Einstein, who until he died sought a different explanation and failed. He said, “I do not choose to belief God plays dice with the universe.” Heisenberg has been proven correct repeatedly. But baseballs still curve reliably when spun, and being correct is not the same as the Truth. With every advance is Science we exclaim. A Ha even the greatest geniuses did not notice that Mother Nature was hiding from us, always right under our nose. We must be proud, and humble. We must have confidence AND be skeptic. We must have faith, and we must doubt.
Frayn’s question applies to science. It applies to friendship and romance. It applies to the legal system, where judgment is passed on intentions. Politics. You same it. We seek certainty, and it escapes us. How shall we live in such a rolling vessel?
Note that Heisenberg is an accomplished musician. Music is often viewed as a parallel to verbal rhetoric, logic, and knowledge. Science is about relations between variables. Music about relations between tones. Both are complex, both- it can be argued- are invented by humans. Both have rational and emotional aspects. If you do not think that science is emotional, I remind you that science is not a body of knowledge. Science is the name for a kind of behavior, it is what scientists do.
There are a number of metaphors between atomic physics and human relations. Some of them a also paradoxical. For your written exercise, I would like you to write about two or more of these. They include :
1 the metaphor of doubling and doubling and doubling in a diffusion equation, and how human possibilities also grow exponentially, complicating life
2 the idea of bluffing yourself about scientific ideas just as you might bluff others in a card game in order to win by one set of rules, when there are more than one “set of rules”,
3 the release of energy when anything is split, the conversion of one entity to another- mass to energy, love to hate
4 the act of observation affects what you are observing
5 Humanity is pushed aside by the product of our own reason.
6 Genius works alone; genius works in a social setting
7 We are all dust, from whence we came and return
8 Other I have missed that you find.
Last points: Shakepeare’s great play is set in Denmark. “Most interesting.” is their way of saying, “Seems totally unlikely.” Just like we now say “Bad!” when we mean “good”. Bohr joined the American bomb project and was called the “ father confessor” because of his lingering doubts that scientists were being ethical in creating the bombs, but he was also instrumental in practical suggestions for how to make the plutonium bomb go off correctly. Do individuals ever shape history, or are they simple notable characters in the crush of historical movements? Or course we live with contradictions, the question is how.
I had a dear friend, a psychology student, an artist, a sensitive and brilliant mind. We were friends, close friends for about five years. I valued what I perceived as a close friendship. I thought this friendship would be a long lasting one, as it was based on everything I believed was important to a friendship- personal and intellectual honesty, similarity and complementary of interest and skills, and trust. Then in a single weekend, which for twenty years has been a great mystery in my life, that friendship fell apart. Utter wreckage. Every five years or so since, we have had a phone conversation. Each time I think we both desperately try to recapture the trust and friendship. It always fails. Like Bohr, I have many unsent letters which attempted salvation. If you cannot stomach the physics and politics of Copenhagen, try to perceive the thin glass brittleness that you might expect in a cooperative but angry couple of divorced parents, trying to raise their children over their seething anger at the failed marriage, or in teammates who feel the championship was lost because they feel the other made an error- or because each feels they are the cause of the lost gold medal. How can something so strong be so weak in the face of conflict? How can we protect what we love- ourselves, our families, our traditions, our country, our world? Does Bohr blame Heisenberg? Does Heisenberg blame himself? Would Heisenberg wanted Bohr to help the Germans, and for what purpose- perhaps to keep German from a second humiliating utter defeat which would lead to World War Three just as One led to Two? It can be political. It can be person. All politics is local. How local do we get? You ought to know some physics for you political and personal well-being. Rick Rayfield