Nuclear Warfare and the Arts

Postscript – Nuclear Warfare and the Arts

Following our meeting last month on nuclear weapons (see review here), SELHuG committee member Tony Brewer shares some further thoughts below….

It is sometimes claimed that the Arts can shed light on situations that are otherwise obscure or even totally opaque. One example is Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen, which David Leal, the speaker at November’s meeting, mentioned when describing the history of nuclear weapons.

The play, which premiered at the National Theatre in 1998, is concerned with a meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, which we know took place over several days in Copenhagen in 1941. But no one really knows what they talked about. 

These two names will be familiar to anyone with a scientific background but may  be less familiar to others. Niels Bohr (1885-1962) was a Danish physicist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1922 for his work on elaborating the structure of the atom. Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976) was a German physicist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1932 for his work on Quantum Mechanics. He carried out post-graduate research at Bohr’s Institute of Theoretical Physics in Copenhagen and became Bohr’s personal assistant. During WWII he was principal scientist in the Nazi nuclear weapons programme. He is best known for formulating his Uncertainty Principle, which states that the more that is known about the position of a quantum particle the less that is known about its momentum, and vice versa. (Yes, weird, but imagine being in the Library in New Cross waiting for Hester to arrive from Catford. Perhaps you know that she’s on a bus in Lewisham, even that it’s a 171, and that she’s sitting upstairs on the front seat. But you don’t know whether the bus is moving or caught in a traffic jam or even in which direction it is travelling.)

I saw the play at the NT and I was so intrigued that I immediately booked to see it again. What fascinated me was that the structure of the play seemed to be based on the Uncertainly Principle. The more we discovered about what they did during their meeting the less we seem to know about what they actually discussed and why Heisenberg was there. Was he acting as a German spy trying to find something essential to his weapons programme, or was he a traitor trying to undermine that programme with Bohr’s assistance? Or was he just acting as Bohr’s friend, warning him that the Nazi forces occupying Denmark would accuse him of being a Jew and arrest him? (Bohr subsequently escaped to Sweden and spent the rest of the war in Britain helping with the Allied war effort.) Well worth seeing if you get the chance.

A second example is Dr Atomic, an opera by the contemporary American composer John Adams (b. 1947) with libretto by Peter Sellars (b. 1957). It centres on the moral anxiety and confusion experienced by Robert J Oppenheimer, the head of the Los Alamos Laboratory and leader of the Manhattan Project that developed the first nuclear weapons. Although triumphant when the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Oppenheimer subsequently expressed his revulsion about the bombing of Nagasaki and wrote to President Truman proposing that nuclear weapons should be banned. David Leal suggested that the Manhattan Project was originally conceived as developing a weapon to use against the Nazis and this was strongly supported by the scientists, many of whom were Jewish refugees. But after Germany surrendered they felt that there was no longer any justification for developing nuclear weapons so turned against it.

The action of the opera takes place at Los Alamos a month before the so-called Trinity test of the first bomb and subsequently during the test itself. It is a powerful piece and, like Copenhagen, it reveals much about the personalities and ethics of those most involved with the development of nuclear weapons.

See clip below from the end of Act One, with Oppenheimer quoting/singing Donne’s sonnet ‘Batter My Heart’