Wednesday, October 04, 2006

“Quantum Physics Meets Quantum Ethics"

The political philosopher Eduardo Velásquez last appeared here on the blog answering the question, "Is Fight Club philosophy masquerading as a thrill ride?"

I'm delighted to run another essay by him:
From “Quantum Physics Meets Quantum Ethics: Knowledge, Ignorance and Socratic Wisdom in Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen,” Perspectives on Political Science (summer 2006) -- a paper presented at various venues and thus in the public domain in various forms.

A recent post broaches the question of what a playwright does -- I adapted a small section from my article on Michael Frayn's Copenhagen that examines this question -- revealing just how slippery Frayn is, and how astute is his understanding of the relationship between fact and fiction.

Frayn’s play is not history. We should not read is as such. But the play is based on historical evidence, some of which informs the play and sheds light on Frayn’s intentions. A provisional overview is useful. Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg collaborations begin in Copenhagen in the mid 1920s. At that time, Bohr was Director of the Institute for Theoretical Physics and Heisenberg a freshly minted Ph.D. from University of Munich who just accepted a lectureship at Bohr’s Institute. It is during Heisenberg’s tenure at the Institute that the principal ideas that inform the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics surface. In March 1927 Heisenberg submits his paper on the Uncertainty Principle. In September of the same year Bohr delivers a conference paper on the Complimentarity Principle. The Uncertainty Principle expresses the indeterminacy of measurement at the sub-atomic level. The more I know of a particle’s position, the less I know of its momentum, and vice versa. The Complimentarity Principle states that knowledge of sub-atomic phenomena requires a description of both its wave and particle-like properties. Depending on the experimental arrangements (these are the work of human ingenuity, choice and judgment), particles are “seen” in either their wave or particle-like properties, not both simultaneously. Together, Uncertainty and Complimentarity become the essence of the Copenhagen Interpretation.

In October 1927 Heisenberg accepts a professorship in theoretical physics at the University of Leipzig, Germany. His decision to remain in Germany under National Socialism and his willingness to accept a role in the Nazi atomic program make Heisenberg’s 1941 meeting with Bohr in Copenhagen all the more vexed. Lest we forget, at that time the Nazis occupied Denmark. Thomas Powers’ Heisenberg’s War: The Secret History of the German Bomb provides Frayn with an historical context. According to Powers, Heisenberg certainly had opportunities to leave Germany and good reasons for doing so. But not “even an ominous attack on Heisenberg, labeled as a ‘white Jew’ for his defense of ‘Jewish physics,’ could shake his determination to remain in Germany, come what may. Friends all but begged him to take a job in America in 1939. He refused. He said he felt an obligation to protect his students, share his country’s fate and help rebuild German science when the war was over” (pp. ix-x). Powers ponders, as must we: “Did Heisenberg’s commitment to his country extend to Hitler and Hitler’s war? Would Heisenberg contribute his brain power to the German war effort? Would Heisenberg do what so many of his friends among the allies were doing – work flat out to build an atomic bomb?” (p. x). As Powers notes, such fears were not unreasonable: nuclear fission had been discovered in Germany; Germany housed Europe’s only uranium mines; and in May 1940 German soldiers seized the world’s only heavy-water plant in Norway. In meeting with Bohr, was Heisenberg seeking intelligence about the Allied effort to build the Bomb? Or is the visit less ominous, an attempt by Heisenberg to allay Bohr’s fears about the Nazi bomb program? To re-establish their friendship over and above patriotic sentiments and allegiances? To seek Bohr’s counsel about the use of nuclear weaponry? To the Uncertainty principle we add uncertain events.

Frayn’s play is not history. But neither is it a mere fantasy. What then is Copenhagen? Turns out that Frayn’s play is itself an illustration of the gap and the connections between fact and fiction. In his “Postscript” to Copenhagen, the playwright draws us to Heisenberg’s memories, in order to show “’that science is rooted in conversations.’” Science is more than the application of a method, more than series of experiments. Science proceeds through all of the vagaries, limitations, possibilities, and complications of common speech. As the play goes on to explore, this is a problem that mathematics tries to alleviate, but never entirely overcomes. According to Frayn’s Heisenberg, the German Nobel laureate acknowledges “conversations, even real conversations, cannot be reconstructed literally several decades later” (p. 96). The facts are filtered through the mind, and memory is not an entirely reliable depository. Heisenberg therefore gives himself the license to recreate those conversations upon which Quantum Mechanics is based. Son of a classics professor, and himself an accomplished classicist, Heisenberg endorses the recreation of the past by appealing to the authority of Thucydides. So does Frayn, who blurs the differences between himself and Heisenberg.

In the Preface to the Peloponnesian War, says Frayn, Thucydides tells his readers that he “avoided all ‘storytelling,’ when it came to the speeches.” Yet the Greek historian, as we are told, admits that it was “’impossible to remember their exact wording.” As a consequence, Thucydides says that he “made the author speak as, in my opinion, he would have done in the circumstances, but keeping as close as I could to the train of thought that guided the speech.’” Frayn follows suit. “Some of the dialogue in my play represents speeches that must have been made in one form or another; some of it speeches that were certainly never made at all” (my emphasis). Frayn appeals to “the Thucydidean principle . . . that speeches (and indeed actions) follow in so far as possible the original protagonists’ train of thought” (p. 97). We can identify with what most likely did transpire, without knowing what actually transpired, by reference to the logic of speech and action. This curious turn to necessity Frayn justifies by the power of the imagination.

The great challenge facing the storyteller and the historian alike is to get inside people’s heads, to stand where they stood and see the world as they saw it, to make some informed estimate of their motives and intentions – and this is precisely where the recorded and recordable history cannot reach. Even when all the external evidence has been mastered, the only way into the protagonist’ head is through the imagination. This is indeed the substance of the play (p. 97).

We get a glimpse at just what a vexed, ironic or perhaps paradoxical play Copenhagen is. The play is neither understood nor judged by its fidelity to the so-called facts. The play goes right to the heart of the perennial tension between experience, that which we call by the name of fact, and our account of experience, that which we call by the name of fiction. We are creatures of the Word, of speech, as much as we are creatures of Flesh, or experience. The incapacity to provide a complete and final account of experience is as much a problem for the storyteller as it is for the scientist, even when the uncertainties of experience are given the appearance of permanence by the veneer of mathematics. Frayn’s play recovers for us the centrality of the storyteller, weaving metaphors, in their nature ambiguous and indirect, yet providing us with imaginative resources to fill the gaps between the myself and “other,” between “I” and Nature.
Many thanks to Eduardo for sharing his essay here.

--Marshal Zeringue