What do I know about quantum mechanics?

Emma Newcombe

This weekend I went to see ‘Copenhagen’, by Michael Frayn. It was a production put on by ElevenOne and staged in the newly built Mathematics department.

For those who have never seen the play, it is about two atomic physicists who began a collaboration in quantum mechanics in the 1920s. By the Second World War, one researcher, Werner Heisenberg, headed Germany’s nuclear reactor programme. The second, Niels Bohr, Heisenberg’s senior, was living in German-occupied Denmark and continuing to work under very difficult conditions. The play centres around the ghosts of these two and Bohr’s wife Margrethe, who come back to debate the work and in particular the reasons why Heisenberg chose to travel to Copenhagen during the war to meet with Bohr.

By now you are probably wondering where I am going with this blog post. Where’s the migration angle? Well, I have to admit the migration relevance is limited.

Instead this play made me think about the capacity of theatre to convey complex theoretical principles and arguments and the international exchange of knowledge that underpinned the research.

Theatre as a medium

It would be fair to say Physics wasn’t my strongest subject at school. Which might, in part, have been down to the way that it was taught. ‘Copenhagen’s script however, and ElevenOne’s staging, managed to explain hugely complicated theoretical concepts that even I managed to understand.

For instance, the play explained Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.

Wikipedia’s entry starts with this: In quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle, is any of a variety of mathematical inequalities asserting a fundamental limit to the precision with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle known as complementary variables, such as position x and momentum p, can be known simultaneously.”

Sorry, I still don’t get it.

Photo by Simon Vail. Heisenberg in ElevenOne Theatre's "Copenhagen"
Photo by Simon Vail. Heisenberg in ElevenOne Theatre’s “Copenhagen”

For me the actor explaining the principle made much more sense.  He used the analogy of himself walking down the street at night and a telescope catching glimpses of him lit by streetlights in regular intervals. He explained, by placing whiskey glasses in a row, that those glimpses give only a partial explanation of the journey. Apparently the trajectory of an atomic particle is the same. We can only see a series of snapshots and so can never be certain of the whole journey because of the fixed nature of the telescope.

Just goes to show how powerful a medium theatre can be.

Theatre is just one of the ways the Global Exchange is using to set up dialogue and communicate about evidence on migration and diversity.

COMPAS is lucky enough to have the multi-talented Ida Persson on its staff. She can act, teach, produce, direct and these are all skills she is using in ‘Exploring Migration: Research and Drama in schools’, together with project partner Vanessa Hughes.

The project’s first production, led by a group of year 6s from Thame showed how powerful it can be to speak and imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes. After a brilliant performance based on testimonies collected during COMPAS research, the performers themselves answered the audience’s questions, just as eloquently as the researchers.

Different audiences, different languages

‘Copenhagen’ is based on highly complex, esoteric physics theorems and research concerning atomic energy and nuclear fission. The work that the play explains was conducted during a time when academia was very different. Knowledge exchange wasn’t in vogue and nor would it have been appropriate given the ongoing war.

Photo by Simon Vail. Heisenberg, Margarethe and Niels Bohr in ElevenOne Theatre's "Copenhagen"
Photo by Simon Vail. Heisenberg, Margarethe and Niels Bohr in ElevenOne Theatre’s “Copenhagen”

Nevertheless knowledge exchange of a kind was crucial. The play showed how the development of theories and technologies depended on bouncing ideas of one another and boiling the technical language down into plain speech.

It showed that there must be a relationship between the collation of evidence, analysis and theoretical interpretation and the ‘real world’.

The two physicists, Heisenberg and Bohr, were very much aware of the national and political ramifications of their work and benefitted from distilling their ideas in to simple terms that could be understood by anyone.

On stage this was done by the physicists wanting to include Margarethe Bohr in their conversation. So they spoke in ‘plain language’ in her presence. (Margarethe, by the way, was presented as an intelligent, perceptive woman whose reflections were highly respected by the two men.)

exchange_logo_concept2_r1This is what I would argue knowledge exchange is all about – the reciprocal sharing of ideas, experiences and viewpoints. The Global Exchange, at COMPAS, aims to facilitate and maximise the benefits of this type of dialogue.

For example, we have already run a number of knowledge exchange events and roundtable meetings that have brought researchers together with groups of health professionals, city leaders and government officials.

We are also planning exciting new initiatives that include organising 3 European City Forums on education, homelessness and city branding and a summer school on migration and diversity in cities. Please visit the Global Exchange website for more information on the full programme of activities.

Is it worthwhile exchanging knowledge?

In any of the activities I have described knowledge flows between real experience, analytical interpretation, presentation by different voices and audiences. It seems to me that everyone benefits along the way by the questions asked and interpretations made.

Discovering innovative and interesting ways of bringing different groups together is what The Global Exchange on Migration and Diversity is all about.