Science takes centre stage

September 15, 2000

Adapting science for the stage has become something of a trend. A recent success is Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, which has been running in London's West End for 18 months.

The play depicts the meeting, in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen, between the half-Jewish Danish physicist Niels Bohr and his German pupil and friend Werner Heisenberg at which they discuss nuclear fission. It addresses a series of historical questions raised by the meeting - what was its purpose? Did Heisenberg want to warn Bohr about German progress with nuclear fission or recruit him for the programme? Why could the men not agree about what had gone on? - as well as raising more generally the extent to which scientists are responsible for the consequences of their discoveries. Key to the play is Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, by which the act of observing something limits what we can know about it.

Copenhagen, a hit at the National Theatre in 1998, won several "best play of the year" awards.

Five years earlier, Tom Stoppard garnered similar acclaim for Arcadia. The play, which tackles the second law of thermodynamics, algorithms, determinism and chaos theory, is set in a country house in Derbyshire in 1809 and 1993.

In the earlier period, Septimus Hodge, a friend of Byron, teaches maths to the precocious daughter of the house. In the later period, the arrogant academic Bernard Nightingale argues a theory the audience knows to be incorrect, thanks to the play's flashbacks. The play, which deals with a host of literary, scientific and historical ideas, was most recently revived this summer at the Chichester Festival Theatre.

In 1998, Timberlake Wertenbaker's After Darwin charted Darwin's trip on HMS Beagle to South America in 1831. The play, which explored evolutionary theories, received reviews ranging from "wonderfully refreshing" to "intellectual gloup".

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