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To the Editor: Gerald Holton (Book Review, Jan. 21...

February 11, 2001

To the Editor:

Gerald Holton (Book Review, Jan. 21) now seems to have shifted his ground and abandoned his original, demonstrably ludicrous, assertion (that in the earlier edition of "Copenhagen" I accepted Thomas Powers' argument, in his book "Heisenberg's War," that Heisenberg had calculated the right critical mass for a bomb and "cooked up" a false one to conceal it). He has now fallen back on the vaguer suggestion that my Heisenberg is "a character right out of Powers' book" and that he fails to condemn himself in a way that Holton thinks would be suitable. His use of quotation, both from the play and from my original Postscript, comes as quite an eye-opener to me about academic methods. Impossible, of course, to unpick it all stitch by stitch without putting a large part of the population of Los Angeles to sleep, but perhaps I could make one simple, central point.

Characters in novels and plays speak for themselves, just as real people do. They argue their case, they present their differing points of view--just as Holton does, just as Powers does, just as I am doing here. Holton has not seen fit to acknowledge his original mistake, and if I wrote a play about our exchange, I think he would be surprised to hear his fictitious counterpart confess the error of his ways and apologize. My Heisenberg's claims about his intentions are derived from what the historical Heisenberg himself said, and they are strongly contested by another character in the play, Margrethe Bohr. Neither Heisenberg nor Margrethe Bohr is presented as winning the argument. It's perfectly fair for Holton, or anybody else, to reject the arguments of either the real or the fictitious Heisenberg. But I don't see why Heisenberg shouldn't put his case, and put it as forcefully as possible. Our inability to escape from particular viewpoints, both in our observation of the physical world and the mental, is a central part of the play's argument.

Professor Holton says that my play was "evidently based in large part on Heisenberg's published claim that for him an impeding moral compunction may have existed about working on atomic energy." This is magisterially misleading. What Heisenberg claimed was something quite different, and much more elusive: that the moral question didn't arise, because there was no practical possibility of making atomic weapons. Not, at any rate, until they realized that a reactor would produce fissile material. At this point, Heisenberg claims in his memoirs, the moral question was raised (it's what he claims he wanted to discuss with Bohr)--but at no point, so far as I know, did he claim to have answered it.

Arnold Kramish's explanation of Heisenberg's trip to Copenhagen as an attempt to find out whether there was an Allied nuclear project is fully explored in the play, and indeed my Heisenberg entirely accepts that this was one of his objectives. This seems to me to be common sense; the real Heisenberg would have had to be insanely incurious not to seize any chance he could to find out whether the Allies might drop atomic bombs on his country.

Michael Frayn


To the Editor:

I enjoyed the intellectual crossfire that peppered the letters section (Book Review, Jan. 21). What a great irony that there could be so much uncertainty and disputation over the exact intentions of Werner Heisenberg, the physicist who coined the term "the principle of uncertainty."

In all of these letters regarding Michael Frayn's play "Copenhagen," everyone appears to get precisely what they observe for--whether they be Thomas Powers, the author whose book "Heisenberg's War" prompted the playwright's imagination; Arnold Kramish, the U.S. military intelligence insider who's been keeping tabs on the scientists of Pennemunde since D-Day; Gerald Holton, the historian of science who reviewed the play and seems to hold the franchise on Niels Bohr's legacy; Malick Ghachem, the observant, compassionate playgoer from Stanford or Frayn, the beleaguered British writer himself, gamely holding his own in the midst of a heady smackdown brought on by a group of territorial historians. No one seems to have the big picture. It makes it tempting to try to conjure one up for the occasion.

I haven't had a chance to see a production of "Copenhagen" yet. From past experience, I know Frayn specializes in portraying the moral muddle we humans create out of our jumbled, fragmentary views. Sounds like he may have got to the heart of the matter in this new fictionalized portrait. Now, I can look forward to a deep dramatic inquiry into Heisenberg's visit with his former mentor Bohr in Denmark on the eve of Europe's second suicide attempt, known as World War II. Hopefully, Gordon Davidson will bring this work in for a landing at the Mark Taper Forum. Who knows, perhaps more sound and fury here may just be the ticket to persuade him.

Eric Vollmer

Los Angeles

Gerald Holton replies:

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