When two physicists met…

Why did Werner Heisenberg, the Nobel laureate who was head of the German atomic bomb project, visit Neils Bohr, his mentor and also a Nobel prize winner, in the fall of 1941? This is the subject of the play, Copenhagen, running until Feb. 22 at the Winter Garden Theatre, 189 Yonge St., Toronto.

The mysterious visit of Heisenberg, who was later spirited out of Denmark to work on the Manhattan Project, intrigues more than one-time play audiences. It has piqued the interest of York Professor Scott Menary, who works in the Department of Physics & Astronomy, Faculty of Pure & Applied Science. He has been asked to take part in a panel discussion about Copenhagen on Sunday, Feb. 8, immediately following the 2pm matinee performance.

Right: Scott Menary

“I saw the play on opening night here in Toronto and read it several years ago,” said Menary. “I have been following the fate of Copenhagen with shock and admiration since its inception. I mean, when I read that there was a play that consisted of a discussion involving two famous physicists and one of their wives, I thought, ‘Well, how about a recipe for a very short run!’ The astounding popularity of the play just shows why Michael Frayn is a renowned playwright – and I’m not! It really is a fine piece of theatre.”

Menary, an experimental particle physicist, was first asked to take part in a panel discussion about Copenhagen by Jim Ruxton, who organizes the annual Subtle Technologies conferences. Several years ago Menary presented a paper on antimatter at the unusual conference, where scientists and artists came together “to try and make connections between what we do. I found it fascinating and great fun,” he said. “Knowing of my interest in the play and my expertise – my undergraduate degree is in nuclear engineering – Jim asked if I would like to be a panelist.”

The Copenhagen storyline that Menary will be commenting about appears on the Web site of Subtle Technologies (the not-for-profit organization sponsoring the panel discussion), as follows: “They were old friends and their work together had opened the way toward nuclear fission. But now they were on opposite sides in a world war and the race to build the atomic bomb was on. Scientists and historians have argued ever since, about why Heisenberg made his visit, and what the two men said.”

“We haven’t finalized the format of the discussion, but I hope we don’t get bogged down on ‘what is science?’ or what rats we scientists are,” said Menary jokingly. “I will bring to the table what I know of the science discussed in the play and, in particular, what Heisenberg knew or should have known about nuclear fission and the making of an atomic bomb.”

Check here to learn more about the play and the historical issues. Information on the panel discussion and the panelists can be found at Subtle Technologies.

More about Menary

Before coming to York, Menary was a Fellow of CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics in Geneva, Switzerland, a research associate at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and a staff scientist at Fermilab, the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory near Chicago.