The action of Copenhagen concerns a visit made by the German physicist Werner Heisenberg to the Copenhagen home of Niels Bohr in September, 1941. The play is actually several retellings of the same event, with variations in each telling. As the play opens, Bohr and his wife Margrethe are inside their house discussing the reasons for Heisenberg’s visit. Exposition makes it immediately clear that all three characters in the play have long been dead, and that they are reliving the events of the visit. World War II is raging, and the Germans are occupying Denmark. Heisenberg had once been an associate at Bohr’s famous Institute for Theoretical Physics. Heisenberg’s great achievement was the discovery of quantum mechanics, featuring the uncertainty principle. Together Bohr and Heisenberg worked out the famous Copenhagen interpretation, which argues that all things can only be understood within the context of a human measuring process. Bohr won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922. Heisenberg received the same honor in 1932.
As Bohr and his wife discuss the possible reasons for Heisenberg’s journey to Denmark, Heisenberg chats with the audience as he walks toward the house, noting that there has been constant speculation over the past six decades about why he visited Bohr. Margrethe argues with her husband that Heisenberg is coming to get information about how to construct an atomic bomb because Bohr is one of the world’s great experts in the field of atomic fission. Bohr postulates that no one can develop a weapon based on atomic fission because no one yet understands the mathematics. When Heisenberg enters the Bohr residence, the talk is polite and nostalgic. The three chat about their children and their love of skiing. Heisenberg asks Bohr if he might come to Germany to ski; Bohr reminds him that he is half-Jewish and would not be...
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