Sunday, November 12, 2006

Copenhagen, by Michael Frayn

On my last day as a substitute teacher in December 2005, I got to show, to an honors chemistry class, one of my favorite "films." Actually, it is a 2002 BBC television adaptation of Michael Frayn's stage play "Copenhagen", published in book format by Anchor in 2000 (check Amazon, ISBN 0385720793). The television show starts with a twenty-minute prologue with the playwright talking about the fabled meeting between physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in 1941. (Stephen Rea and Daniel Craig play the parts in the TV docudrama, directed and adapted by Howard Davies).

The play is important because it presents a serious ethical problem. Heisenberg had made an "intellectual discovery" that could give the owner of the knowledge the ability to make an atomic bomb. If he gave it to Hitler, then Hitler could win the war. Now, the moral problem, and the reason science teachers like to show this film to more advanced students, is that, while we "own" our discoveries in an intellectual property sense, there sometimes can be consequences for "publishing" the discovery.

I my circumstances, there were extra reasons why this was an ironic duty on the last day of teaching.

More background is here.

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