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the uncertainty principle

A play based on quantum physics may sound like a recipe for heady abstraction, but Michael Frayn's 'Copenhagen' - 'Kopenhagen' in the current rendition by Het Nationale Toneel - is anything but. Focusing on a pivotal moment in 20st century history, it creates a suspenseful debate between three people, which at the same time dramatically illustrates the uncertainty principle.

The backstory is a historical meeting between the physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in Copenhagen in 1941. In the 1920's Bohr had been Heisenberg's mentor and together they had produced a series of breakthroughs in quantum physics, including Bohr's principle of complementarity and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Since then, however, the outbreak of World War II had divided them: Bohr, who was half-Jewish, in occupied Denmark and Heisenberg in Nazi Germany (unlike many other scientists who fled to the U.S.).

By that time both were aware that their theoretical research could be applied to a new kind of weapon... the nuclear bomb. In fact, Heisenberg was leading a Nazi project to develop nuclear energy (and possibly a bomb). And Bohr would escape to the U.S. in 1943, where he worked on the Manhattan Project.

In this context Heisenberg suddenly showed up in Copenhagen to talk to Bohr. To avoid being monitored they went for a walk and had a ten minute conversation. No one knows what exactly they discussed, and their own post-war recollections differ. Heisenberg later wrote:

...it probably started with my question as to whether or not it was right for physicists to devote themselves in wartime to the uranium problem - as there was the possibility that progress in this sphere could lead to grave consequences in the technique of the war.

This is the moral dilemma at the heart of the play. Frayn adds the character of Margaretha, Bohr's wife, and has the three of them look back on the meeting in 1941. From a spirit-like perspective, in a minimalistic decor with a mushroom cloud-like canopy looming overhead, they try to reconstruct the conversation, and their own motives at the time.

Was Heisenberg developing a nuclear bomb for the Nazis, and did he try to get information from Bohr, either on the Allied nuclear program (about which Bohr knew nothing at that point) or about the practical problems of creating nuclear weapons? Or, on the contrary, was Heisenberg stalling the Nazi program by presenting false calculations? Or did he simply miscalculate? And what was Bohr's response, and how did it influence Heisenberg's decision?

They find that these questions can't be answered satisfactorily. In their speculation, the characters are like subatomic particles, bound to each other by powerful attraction, whose position in space can be located but not their momentum - in this case their motives. In dramatic terms, the uncertainty principle is like the Rashomon effect: there is no such thing as objective reality, merely an accumulation of subjective accounts of reality. Thus 'Copenhagen' has no real resolution, but as an exploration of the moral responsibilities of scientists it is a fascinating debate.

the flowering past

There is no poetry when you live there.
Those stones are yours, those noises are your mind,
The forging thunderous trams and streets that bind
You to the dreamed-of bar where sits despair
Are trams and streets: poetry is otherwhere.
The cinema fronts and shops once left behind
And mourned, are mourned no more. Strangely unkind
Seem all new landmarks of the now and here.

But move you toward New Zealand or the Pole,
Those stones will blossom and the noises sing,
And trams will wheedle to the sleeping child
That never rests, whose ship will always roll,
That never can come home, but yet must bring
Strange trophies back to Ilium, and wild!

- Malcolm Lowry

inanna's journey to hell

'Inanna's Journey to Hell', composed in Mesopotamia (what is now Iraq) in the third millennium BC, ranks among the oldest surviving stories of mankind. Inanna, the Lady of Heaven, was the Sumerian goddess of fertility, love and war, who served as the prototype for many later goddesses, including Ishtar, Isis, Aphrodite and Venus.

The story of Inanna's descent into the underworld has been the source of many later stories, among which the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is probably best-known. However, while in that version Orpheus' motives are clear – he descends into the underworld to save his beloved Eurydice – Inanna's story lacks any motivation. Why did she embark on her deathly journey...?

Continue reading the full post ยป


As a postscript to the previous post, did you know the word quark (the elementary particle) came from James Joyce's 'Finnegans Wake'?

American phycisist Murray Gell-Mann first named the discovered particle after the sound of a duck (no idea why), then came across this little poem in 'Finnegans Wake' about King Mark, which supplied the spelling.

Three quarks for Muster Mark!
Sure he has not got much of a bark
And sure any he has it's all beside the mark.

Weird how experimental literature is supplying the vocabulary for subatomic physics. Perhaps metaphors are taking over at the limits of our understanding...

iffr: aspect ratio

The 'Aspect Ratio' exhibition in Tent, part of the IFFR, takes as its point of departure the 1977 classic 'Powers of 10'. Inspired by the Dutch book 'Cosmic View' by Kees Boeke, the film remains a fascinating illustration of scale, "from outer galaxy to inner atom". It is also far more effective than any of the other works in the exhibition in showing how

The human eye has long since ceased to be the reference with which to observe the world. Our powers of imagination are continually being surpassed by scientific images of the imperceptible.

'Powers of 10' zooms out from a man in a park in Chicago by progressive powers of ten (i.e. adding a zero) every ten seconds, to reveal the city, the earth, the solar system, the milky way, etc., until the limits of observation at 1024 meters (100 million light-years). The film then zooms back in all the way to the man in the park, and through the skin of his hand to reveal cells, DNA, atoms, etc, until at 10-16 meters (0.1 fermis) the protons and neutrons inside a carbon nucleus form another limit of observation.

Quite vertiginous to ponder is how similar they look, the vast astronomical space and the tiny subatomic space. Both limits have been pushed back a bit further since the '70s, through dizzying concepts like the observable universe and quarks, and it seems to get more humanly inconceivable the further we probe...

Watch 'Powers of 10' here. For the same effect in printable form, see these logarithmic maps of the universe.