The Niels Bohr Archive's History of Science Seminar

held at the Niels Bohr Institute 19 November 1999:

"Copenhagen" and Beyond:

The Interconnections between Drama, Science, and History

Lectures and discussion

Apart from the lecture given by Robert Marc Friedman (who kindly provided his own manuscript), the following text is a transcription, from a sound recording, of what was said at the seminar. An effort has been made to be as true as possible to the spoken word; only in a few instances have sentences been completed and bad starts and unnecessary words and phrases omitted. Non-verbal responses are described within normal parentheses ( ); explanatory or additional words or phrases are entered in brackets [ ]. In the discussion, people asking questions are identified only to the extent that the organizers recognized their voices; the Niels Bohr Archive would appreciate feedback with regard to further identification of discussants. In addition to thanking the participants, the Archive is happy to express gratitude to the Niels Bohr Institute for providing facilities, including recording equipment, and to Professor Gordon Shepherd of Yale University, whose excellent draft transcription required only minimal editing. Finally, the speakers' permission to publish their contributions is greatly appreciated.

A. Lectures.

Finn Aaserud. I'm really thrilled to see so many of you here. This is somewhat unusual for the Niels Bohr Archive History of Science Seminar, I'm sorry to say, but I'm very happy that we have attracted all of you now. I will call it an expanded Niels Bohr Archive History of Science Seminar, and it's expanded in more ways than one. I consider this an opportunity for bringing people into discussion, hopefully to benefit all the three fields concerned here: drama, history, and science. I should mention in particular among the people who are here, that there are representatives of as many as four different productions of "Copenhagen": The Betty Nansen Theatre, The Danish Theatre (Det Danske Teater), Dramaten in Stockholm, and The National Theatre (Nationaltheatret) in Oslo. In addition to that I had a call from Niels Bohr yesterday, from Gothenburg, who told me they were unfortunately unable to come, because they start on the third of December. So I'm really ha ppy about this. And I welcome all the rest of you as well, needless to say.

This is also an event that is complementary to the Sunday events that you probably all, or most of you, know at the Betty Nansen Theatre. This, however, is not in the theatre, and not on stage (or perhaps this is a small one!), but in a physics institute and in an auditorium, in seminar form, and besides, it's in English. This location of course is especially appropriate since it is central, to say the least, to the events described in Michael Frayn's play.

So for that reason it seems right that a physicist from the Institute bids you welcome, and I will now give the word to Ben Mottelson, a prominent nuclear physicist, Nobel Prize winner in 1975, together with Aage Bohr and Leo James Rainwater, for work that I think we can safely say was continuing the tradition established by Niels Bohr. So I leave the floor to you. (applause)

Ben Mottelson. It's a great pleasure for me on behalf of the Niels Bohr Institute and the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics to welcome you to our Institute. I would like to say that the play "Copenhagen" has been experienced as wonderful and inspiring and thought-provoking in our circle. It's indeed a fascinating work of art that you [Michael Frayn] have made out of this historical event, that is so closely tied to the institute in which we work every day. That's a work of art, but some people might say that it's going too far that poets and actors should be giving lectures in these buildings that are committed to the study of physics. But that would be a big mistake, because, already from the beginning, Niels Bohr was firmly committed to the vision of this Institute as a meeting place where scientists from all over the world could come to discuss ideas all kinds of ideas even crazy ideas! And so this meeting today fits brilliantly into our tradition. (laughter)

I should also remind you that already in the 1930s this institute began establishing memorable connections with the world of the theatre, because in 1932 that wonderful year for physics, when both the neutron and the positron were discovered Niels Bohr organized a meeting in this institute to discuss these developments. On that occasion, on the last day of the discussions, a younger group of physicists from the Institute put on a play based on Goethe's "Faust," in which of course Niels Bohr was the Lord, and Pauli played Mephistopheles. This was a great success. But these younger people putting on this play perhaps felt that they needed a little protection. So they chose as a motto of the play a sentence that Bohr often quoted, "Nicht um zu kritisieren aber nur um zu lernen" ["Not to criticize, but just to learn"]. So maybe we can take that as our theme for the discussions today. We're of course looking forward very much to hearing your lectures. Thank you. (applause)

Aaserud. Thank you very much, Ben. I should say something about the format first. There will be three brief lectures to follow. They're all in the program. We will first have the man who made the current bringing-together of fields possible in the first place. Michael Frayn is long established in British journalism, literature, and drama. He is also the main translator into English of Chekhov's plays from Russian, which shows something of his breadth. He is presently in the news with the publication of his latest novel called "Headlong," which has also to do with his visit to Copenhagen because that book has just been translated into Danish, and he will present that book at the Book Fair tomorrow. But that is tomorrow; today there is a different matter. So without any further ado, I will give the floor to Michael Frayn. (applause)

Click here for Michael Frayn's lecture.

Aaserud. Thank you very much for those illuminating remarks. I had a definite hope when I had read your book, Copenhagen. I had the impression that you wrote the epilogue because you were not satisfied with people only watching the play, but that you were also happy to discuss about the play, and I'm very happy that you do that.

Now we will take a somewhat different perspective of the play, and that is the perspective of the director of the play here in Denmark. I need hardly introduce Peter Langdal to a Danish audience. He is of course the co-leader of the Betty Nansen Theatre since six years ago, and director of many plays, including "Copenhagen." I'm very happy to have gained personal contact with you in connection with this play and I'm pleased for once to be able to direct the director to take the stage here usually it's the other way around. (chuckles)

Click here for Peter Langdal's lecture.

Aaserud. Thank you very much. And now the historical perspective, which is after all what the Niels Bohr Archive is mostly about. I will now introduce I'm very happy to introduce my friend since many lives ago, I feel, and in a way my personal nemesis, if you allow me to say that. He was personally responsible for getting me into the business of the history of science in the first place. But that's another story, so I won't get into that.

He's a Johns Hopkins product like me or I like him rather. He's been professor of the history of science at the University of California at San Diego. He's currently professor of the history of science at the University of Oslo. And he's at work on a monograph on the history of the Nobel prizes in the natural sciences. Previously he was responsible for a biography of the Norwegian meteorologist Vilhelm Bjerknes that's how we met. He's also written a television drama on the same topic, and he has a continuing interest in dramatization.

So he represents a rare combination of the history of science and drama, which is the main reason I have invited him here today. So the floor is yours. Robert Friedman. (applause)

Click here for Robert Friedman's lecture

Aaserud. Thank you very much, Robert, and thank you all. This gives us quite a lot to think about. I think that in the end what you all have said converges, but it's not obvious. I think it's very exciting to look at how the dramatist enters the history of science, and how the historian of science enters drama; how different these ways are, and how possibly these things can be combined. And of course, Peter, you have experience with both, possibly, so you may see it from a different perspective altogether.

I would think that the best format now is that each of you would say something about what you have gained or learned, or are opposed to, or whatever, from the other side, so that we can begin to converge these very very different ways of looking at it. Now, that is quite a demand, I realize, and I'm wondering whether we need a break. I'm a little afraid of that because there are so many of you and it's very hard to get you seated again on a Friday afternoon. So, should we have a break?

Many voices. No!

Mottelson. The show must go on.

Aaserud. Good! That is what I hoped. But in order just to break it up a little bit anyway, I will present each of you with a gift. And it is actually a gift that relates to what Ben Mottelson said. It is a specimen from less complicated times, perhaps, than even at the time of Frayn's play (although you get into that earlier time too) when the physicists needed neither an external director nor an external dramatist to make a play. They did it themselves. And this is what you mentioned, Ben, this is the "Faust." It is the original manuscript of the "Faust" made by the physicists. I think it's equally appropriate for each of you, so I have given you all the same gift. It is actually from 1932, the hundredth anniversary of Goethe's death. So the physicists, you know, they were quite broadly inclined not to indicate that you are not. (laughter)

So Michael Frayn, Robert Marc Friedman, and Peter Langdal. (applause)

B. Discussion.

Aaserud. So that was the break. (laughter) Now we have to get back to business. And now I think we should remain seated; we should not be as formal as to stand at this lectern, which I think I will put down here, so that everybody can look you right in the eye. We should perhaps do the same order as we started. Perhaps Michael Frayn should give whatever reflections you might have on what the others have said.

Click here for the Discussion transcript.

Aaserud. So we've reached convergence ?

Friedman. Yes (laughter)

Aaserud. That's wonderful. So, well, I think we'll leave it at that I think that's a wonderful place to end it. It is getting late on a Friday afternoon, and we might have other things to do. I think it's wonderful that we have been able to keep the audience for such a while, and you have made a wonderful contribution. I think this has been very good, and I'm very glad that you all came here too. And I thank you for participating, and thank you for starting it all. (long applause)

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