F O R U M O N P H Y S I C S & S O C I E T Y
of The American Physical Society 
October 2005



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Introduction to a Series of Articles in Physics & Society on
Science Input to Government
W.K.H. Panofsky

An upcoming series of articles in this journal will be authored by, among others, senior individuals who held science advisory positions at a high level, primarily for the President of the United States. This article is to serve as background to those articles and is meant to illuminate the basic issues which affect the interaction of science and government in general, and science advice to government in particular.

Desire for understanding the working of nature has been part of all recorded civilizations, as have human activities designed to improve well being through technology based on science. To varying degrees, consequently, structures within governments have been moved to utilize science; conversely, governments have enacted measures affecting the well-being of science. But this interdependence should not obscure the basic differences between science and the political process.

Science is the quest for understanding the reality of nature, followed by the dissemination of the resultant knowledge. Science uses rational methods in arriving at its conclusions, preferably, but not always, using mathematics as a language. Science demands consistency among observation, experimentation and interpretation. The pursuit of science continues to uncover new questions. Therefore, gaps and limits in knowledge will continually be made manifest; this in no way is a defect of scientific method, but a consequence of the ever-expanding frontier which science creates. Pursuit of science can be curiosity driven, or it can be motivated by a search for applications. Yet while the dividing line between these motivations is clear, curiosity driven (usually called fundamental) research often results in application, while pursuit of applications can lead to basic insights.

When science and government interact, it is not surprising that the gaps and limits in scientific knowledge become prominent. Scientific issues of most relevance to government are areas where uncertainty is frequently apparent: forecasting future developments or future impacts of science on the human condition, and attempting to judge which areas of science should receive priority in the public interest can rarely be based on solidly established facts.

In contrast to the scientific endeavor, governmental policy is designed to lead to decisions based on a combination of inputs, stemming from experience, political association, and pre-conceived beliefs or even faith. Formulation of policy is often described as “the art of the possible” and there is no firm requirement of internal consistency or logical interconnectedness.

Notwithstanding their fundamental differences in method, science and governmental policy need each other. The pursuit of science is increasingly dependent on public support, and there are few governmental policy decisions today which do not depend to a significant extent on scientific realities. Thus the interaction between government and science can be differentiated between “government in science”, that is, support of science by government, and “science in government”, i.e., the processes through which scientific realities are being factored into governmental decisions.

The management of these interactions follows a large variety of practices worldwide. The United States is largely governed by individuals not expert in science; therefore, scientific input is generated either within the government from its lower levels or from outside the government. On the other extreme, for instance, essentially all the senior members of the governmental bodies of China have an engineering or scientific background; the direct expertise in science and technology of the senior leadership of other countries generally falls in between.

Historically, the realization of the importance of science to the United States government has grown over time. President Jefferson had a deep personal interest in science although he was not a trained scientist. John Quincy Adams made an heroic attempt to incorporate a comprehensive set of scientific institutions into the U.S. governmental structure. President Lincoln promoted the Congressional charter for the establishment of the National Academy of Sciences with the explicit mission to advise the government of the United States. Most of the early attempts to link science and government dealt with the practical missions of government, such as the establishment of weights and measures, or generating the tools for navigation and mapping the lands of the United States. In contrast, the pursuit of fundamental science was left to private institutions. The major universities of the United States progressively considered graduate education and science to be inseparable and established research programs in accordance with that principle. Industry created major research laboratories. In particular, those industries enjoying near-monopolies in their respective field could support research with a very long lead-time to application.

All this changed dramatically as a result of the role of science in the pursuit of the Allies’ victory in World War II. Academic scientists, when liberally supported, proved extremely productive in military activities such as the release of nuclear energy, in radar, rockets, undersea warfare and similar endeavors. After the war, the universities were induced to spend almost all of their resources on supporting education, particularly in view of the flood of students returning from military service. As a result of these factors, the support of research at the universities, as well as at the laboratories created during the war, largely became the responsibility of the federal government. In turn, the government was fully persuaded that such support served the economy and well being of the United States’ citizenry. As a result, government support of science proceeded well after the war, but this was not generally the case in respect to input of science to governmental policy.

The relationship between scientific advice to government policy changed after the Soviets successfully launched Sputnik into orbit, while the first attempt by the United States to do so failed. These events were publicly interpreted, probably over-interpreted, to be the result of a lag of the American scientific endeavor relative to that of the Soviets and resulted in a public outcry. In response, President Eisenhower elevated the science advisory structure in the Office of Defense Mobilization (ODM) to the Presidential level, renaming it the President Science Advisory Committee (PSAC). He also created the post of Special Assistant to the President (James Killian was its first incumbent, colloquially called the “Science Advisor.”) Neither PSAC nor the Science Advisor were accountable to the Congress. This changed through the creation of the statutory Office of Science and Technology, now renamed the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). In order to make the voice of science to the President unique, the Science Advisor chaired both PSAC and the Office of Science and Technology. Initially, the agenda of PSAC and that of the Science Advisor were largely pre-empted by issues of National Security, broadening later to other issues of “Science in Government.” This system worked at its best under Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, possibly because of the excellent personal “chemistry” between the Science Advisor and the President. Since that time, the relationship between science and government in regards to science advice to the government has significantly deteriorated, while support of science by government has generally proceeded well with some ups and downs. Accordingly, the articles to follow will address primarily science in government, rather than government in science.

It has often been suggested that the government should create a Department of Science, with its Secretary being a cabinet officer. This proposal has been rejected by most scientists and government officials. Science is an inherent component of almost all governmental activities, and thus creation of a Department of Science might be considered to be as inappropriate as creation of a Department of Politics.

To give a background for the articles to follow, let me list here the tensions which beset the relationship of independent science advice to a high level governmental advisee, in particular the President.

[1] Conflict of Interest
A scientific advisor to government is presumed to be an “independent expert,” but the problem is that he may be neither sufficiently expert nor sufficiently independent. Decisions taken in response to the advice given may influence the future of the Advisor’s field, and sometimes even the career of the Advisor. Thus the advisors frequently have a direct interest in the outcome of the governmental decisions. These tensions can be minimized but never fully eliminated. Good practice strives to balance the backgrounds and interests of the members of advisory bodies, but the search for balance has its limits. It clearly makes no sense to attempt to strive for “balance” between geneticists and religious creationists; the former is a scientific discipline, the latter is not. Moreover, if highly extreme views are included among members of advisory bodies, consensus and agreed reports are difficult to achieve.

[2] Who Owns the Advisor?
In parallel with independent advice sought by the President, the Advisor may also be requested to furnish expert advice to other bodies, such as Congress. While the actual nature of the advice given to the President rightfully can and frequently should remain privileged, once an advisor testifies in other forums, it can become manifest that the decision taken by the President was taken in conflict with the advice received, leading to embarrassment.

[3] Accountability
Science advice to the President is fundamentally privileged, but broad science policy -- and even some narrower science-policy issues -- are of general public interest, and therefore also of Congressional concern. Thus Congress insisted on an accountable science advisory process, a demand which was met by creation of OSTP. In addition, Congress decided to establish a science advisory body of its own, called the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) with established safeguards to assure non-partisan advice. OTA was, however, abolished by the Republican majority dissatisfied with this non-partisan arrangement.

[4] Access
If science advice to the highest level is to be effective, the Advisor must have personal access to the target of the advice. The access of the President’s Science Advisor has been variable, depending on the President’s direct interest. Frequently, the “de facto” access has been largely limited to the Vice President or senior White House staff. Conversely, the Advisor must also have access to input from the scientific community and the relevant public or executive agencies. Thus, such agencies at a lower level of government must be free and encouraged to communicate to the Science Advisor. However, the Science Advisor must not be a line officer through whom decisions made by the Executive which have a bearing on science must first be cleared. The effectiveness of the Science Advisor depends on having access to the advisee in principle. It is the potential of that access which makes the Advisor’s communication with lower echelons effective.

[5] Science Advisor v. Spokesman for Science Policy.
The policymaker is free to accept or reject science advice as rendered. For that reason, tensions arise if the Science Advisor is used by the advisee to be an official spokesman to support the policy which is eventually decided upon. Therefore, it is best to avoid having the Science Advisor to be a spokesman in defense of governmental policy, unless the area in question is non-controversial, such as the support of selected scientific endeavors or general proclamations on the importance of science.

[6] Conflict of Advice with Preconceived Policy
Possibly the most serious tension between science advice and governmental functions arises if preconceived policy is in conflict with sound scientific advice. This has been the case in recent times in such sensitive areas as environmental policy, global warming, issues relating to reproductive health, and certain military issues where moves in the ostensible national security interest appear to be in violation of sound scientific criteria. While such conflicts are unavoidable, their very existence points to the value -- in fact, to the necessity -- of independent science advice. Under such circumstances, disregarding such advice or modifying for public consumption the advice rendered will result in grave danger to the nation.

The above listing gives only a very rudimentary description of both the essential character of science advice to the government and the benefits, but also the tensions, which result from such advice. The recital of the details of the advisory process in the articles to follow must be viewed with these generalities in mind.

Wolfgang K.H.Panofsky is an elementary particle and accelerator physicist. He has also served in numerous advisory capacities, principally relating to National Security. He was a member of the President's Science Advisory Committee from 1959-1964, and served on the General Advisory Committee on Arms Control to President Carter. He chaired the Committee on International Security and Arms Control of the National Academy of Sciences for several years and continues as Senior Advisor. He is a member of JASON, and served on many advisory committees to the Department of Energy and other government agencies.

Stanford Linear Accelerator Center
SLAC, PO Box 20450, Stanford CA 94309


Edwin E. Salpeter

Governments often receive scientific reports which evaluate some trend, such as global warming, or some proposed military project, such as Nuclear Bunker Busters or Ballistic Missile Defense. If the conclusion and recommendation of the report is opposite to government policy, the government may disregard the recommendation but, hopefully, will still quote the conclusion correctly. Over the last two years or so, however, the Union of Concerned Scientists has documented many cases where the Bush Administration has not only misquoted the conclusions, but also put pressure on the authors to falsify some parts of the report before publication. [See www.ucsusa.org/rsi for articles concerning scientific integrity.] Of course this directly undermines scientific integrity in government operations, but I mainly want to point out here some other, indirect, detrimental consequences connected with a certain dichotomy or tension in many industries: Some people in administration will lie and cheat if it helps the company’s profits, whereas most people doing the actual work are anxious to do an honest job (but are also influenced by outside forces). I will describe three episodes over the last 45 years of Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) preparations, where the deteriorating attitude of the federal government to scientific integrity is one of these forces:

(1): In the 1960's there already was a proposal from industry for a BMD system called Nike-Zeus (replaced later by "Sentinel"), even though radars were very slow in those days. As a member of the Jason group, working for the Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) of the Defense Department, I was evaluating various industry claims for this proposal. In 1963 I was sent to Kwajulene Atoll in the Marshall Islands, where the radars looking at incoming simulated ICBMs from California were located. ARPA was interested in the likelihood of eventual success or failure of the Nike-Zeus BMD, rather than in promoting the deployment of the system, and they sent me to Kwajulene for a whole week. I was at first surprised why two or three days would not have been sufficient, but I soon found out why: For the first three days I was given briefings by the industry’s administration representatives, who claimed that the radars would acquire the incoming projectiles without any previous information. This claim was an outright lie, as I found out in the remaining four days which I spent with the industry’s radar experts as they were trying to lock in on an incoming missile: In fact, they had been given detailed flight information beforehand which they needed for the radar tracking. I worked on Nike-Zeus evaluations for a couple of years and am rather proud of a comprehensive report I wrote on the system (The system was never deployed.). However, I am even more proud of the indirect effect I had on the radar experts on Kwajulene. They were encouraged when they saw from my searching questions that the Defense Department was really interested in the technical facts rather than in boosting the industry administration claims. As mentioned, I personally only spent four days at the radars, but a number of people at Lincoln Laboratory (associated with M.I.T.) did similar evaluations to mine, intensively and over a long period. I found the Lincoln Lab staff most competent and conscientious at evaluations in those days. In addition they, as I, were also middlemen between the federal government and industry: The interest in technical honesty displayed by President Johnson and Secretary McNamarra rubbed off onto us evaluators and then from us onto industry. I will return to Lincoln Lab later.

(2): The situation for the "Directed Energy Weapons" system under President Reagan (the so-called "Star Wars" initiative) was intermediate between the 1960's and the present. The Reagan administration was not particularly interested in the truth, but at least they were not violently opposed. In 1985 a panel to evaluate the directed energy weapons potential was started, not by the Defense Department this time but by the American Physical Society, and I was a member. One feature of the panel was that each of us had security clearance for classified information, so the government could not play the present-day game of releasing data that it likes and classifying data that it doesn’t like. Political views varied enormously among the panel members, but it was gratifying that we were able to come out with a single objective report without any dissenting opinions. The conclusions of the report [Rev. Mod. Phys. 59, 51 (1987)] regarding technical feasibility were negative, and this BMD system also was not deployed. The social implications of our panel are described in an interesting report by B. W. Kubbig [PRIF Research Report January 2001, Leimenrode 29, D-60322 Frankfurt, Germany]. After the panel finished its work it offered to give a detailed briefing to Defense Department representatives. They attended the briefing diligently but were mostly antagonistic to the conclusions. During the panel deliberations we listened to a number of people from industry, somewhat as in the 60's, but I detected a bit more ambivalence this time about "the full truth" versus "pleasing both your own bosses and the government"

(3): The present Bush government started on yet another ambitious BMD concept, and the American Physical Society commissioned another Panel to evaluate at least one aspect of the scheme (dealing with the boost phase). The panel, co-chaired by Dan Kleppner and Fred Lamb, came out with a (somewhat negative) report and again offered a detailed briefing to the Defense Department. This time no one from the Department even showed up for the briefing!

The present BMD system is being deployed before it is fully designed, and TRW has been carrying out some of the relevant experiments and tests. Lincoln Lab, which is still supervised (nominally) by MIT, again had to evaluate these tests, somewhat as 42 years ago. But this time there is a difference: A Boston Globe editorial, "Unknowns at MIT", reprinted in the July 2005 issue of this publication, documents claims that some Lincoln Lab reports misrepresented facts and that the government has classified material to make it difficult for MIT to monitor the situation. Of course, any claim that Lincoln Lab deliberately and systematically portrayed the system as more successful than it really is has to be investigated. However, although I have no direct knowledge this time around, I have a different (and more murky) theory: I have a hunch that deliberate dishonesty at Lincoln Lab is less likely than loss of focus and accuracy, the latter loss stimulated by the government’s dishonesty. Accurate evaluation requires undivided devotion and is almost impossible when your ultimate paymaster, the federal government, does not want the truth. Work is particularly scary when Karl Rove might even do you (or your wife) damage if you tell the truth nevertheless, as happened to Ambassador Wilson. With such distractions, mistakes which inadvertently tip the scales in favor of the government’s position will predominate over preplanned lies. In either case do not expect reliable evaluations!

I have another hunch about industries building the components for the present-day BMD system (Boeing and others). While the system as a whole will almost certainly not work because of its complexity, the most basic components for it are standard. The industries are generally very competent, but now "on the same side" as the government regarding lies, with the following consequence: Tests of the basic components that should be quite routine and successful have resulted in a spectacularly large number of failures. General Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency, simply blames Boeing, but there is, in my view, a more general malaise: The fog of dishonesty during the deployment of a system that does not work must breed confusion and incompetence in the industry. You yourself start believing some of the lies you tell the public, and soon you can’t even tell the difference between centimeters and inches. This leads to technical goofs and failures which produce more lies; this will increase incompetence further, etc., etc.

(4): With an early-stage proposal such as "nuclear bunker busters" the lack of scientific integrity is in the form of ignoring basic facts. Using a low-yield nuclear warhead in an earth-penetrating weapon is supposed to give deeper penetration with "minimal collateral damage". In reality, basic physics shows that a nuclear warhead does not increase the penetration depth appreciably, so the explosion cannot be contained underground and the above-ground radio-active fallout is particularly deadly [see R. W. Nelson, Science and Global Security, 10, 1 (2002)]. Unfortunately, Congress does not seem to be aware of the danger of this proposal and may give it some funds. Congress generally has a low level of information where the physical sciences are involved (but do somewhat better on health-related issues).

We rank and file scientists have to ask ourselves what we can do to counteract the government trampling on scientific integrity. Most obviously we should vigorously support the Union of Concerned Scientists as they emphasize urgent issues and put out information intelligible to the public. In addition to such passive support, each of us must also get involved more directly and speak out. We first have to take the effort to get informed ourselves, technically and politically, and then speak to rotary clubs, etc. It is particularly important to speak to the Senate and Congress, even apart from scientific integrity issues.

Science and the federal legislature should now have a particularly close bond for two reasons: With the executive branch distorting scientific results, the legislature should be first at receiving the correct results. The other reason relates to the loss of democracy and science: After the demise of the Hitler regime, German industry and economics recovered remarkably quickly, but German science has still not fully returned to its former glory. The Bush/Cheney administration is systematically pushing this country towards a totalitarian regime, and this by itself threatens science. The House and the Senate should be sensitive to this threat to freedom and science, but they need input from the public. With diligence and preparation, we rank and file scientists can give not only technical information to the legislature but also coherent input on political and moral issues.

Edwin E. Salpeter has been at Cornell University since 1949 and is now the J.G. White Distinguished Professor of Physical Sciences Emeritus. He lived in Austria as a child and then fled to Australia with his parents after the Nazi takeover. He went to graduate school in England.


Physics in Theater

Harry Lustig

I have a little list of "science plays" (1). Actually it is not so little; it consists of 114 titles, the names of their authors, publication and/or performance data, and thumbnail descriptions. Although there have been plays in which scientists and science play a role since antiquity - the first, in 423 BC, having been Aristhophanes' Clouds (which ridicules the work of all varieties of "rank pedants, those palefaced vagabonds in the academy ") - the bulk of science plays have appeared in the past twenty years. There is no agreed upon definition of what constitutes a science play. Some would restrict the category to works for the stage in which there actually is a presentation of scientific ideas or where the fact that the protagonist is a scientist is important. Others would admit any play that deals with the consequences of scientific research or technological invention, or even when the hero‚ or, more frequently, anti-hero‚ being a scientist is irrelevant. The compilers of the list have tended to adapt the latter view.

I will be less inclusive in this article. Of the plays (and, yes, musicals and operas) on the list some forty can be reliably and narrowly identified as "physics plays". I will briefly describe and critique a small subset of them, making use in several cases of an outstanding essay by M. A. Orthoffer in the journal "Interdisciplinary Science Reviews" (2). . Then I shall examine the reasons for the current flood, give various opinion of what liberties a playwright may legitimately take and not take with the science, with historical fact, and with the lives and character of real people, and, inevitably, ask about the boom, " but is it good for the scientists?"

An attribute of historical science plays is that they reflect the views of their time about science or scientists. That is by no means always the case for contemporary plays in which scientists appear as characters; they often serve only as props for the examination of mundane psychological problems or as mindless entertainment. Yet there are some that illuminate science as theater has never done before.

After Aristophanes, there was essentially no science on the stage for two millennia. The work of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Francis Bacon was barely acknowledged in the dramas of their times. The few exceptions included plays featuring an alchemist (Ben Jonson) and the Faust figure (Christopher Marlowe.) In them the protagonists , as Orthoffer says (3), "are presented as seekers of higher truths [ . . . but] the natural sciences were not yet considered a viable sphere in which they might find them". Even two centuries later, Goethe who himself engaged in scientific work, chose to return to the old Faust legend, rather than focus on contemporary science or scientists. "When Faust has exhausted the possibilities of academic learning, instead of thinking of research and, especially, experimentation, which "are not seen as viable means of attaining more wisdom, or understanding. Instead Faust resorts to "Magic art"‚ and famously overreaches with his ambition" (3).

Thomas Shadwell's 1676 play The Virtuoso was the first drama in which a major character is finally clearly recognizable as a scientist. The protagonist, Sir Nicholas Gimcrack, is devastatingly portrayed as "a scientific dabbler and dilettante" (3), and a figure of ridicule. He claims to be interested in pure research for its own sake - pure disinterested research being a notion that the author presents as risible - but when Gimcrack's discoveries and inventions do have practical applications, Shadwell attacks them as having dangerous and deleterious economic, political, and moral consequences.

Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo (1938 - 1956) is the first science drama that deals with real persons and events and remains the prototypical modern science drama. It addresses significant issues: the responsibility of the scientist to society, the importance of the scientific enterprise, and science (and scientists) in relation to the authority of church and state. "Though Brecht's play is set in the seventeenth century, his Galileo is a modern scientist and Brecht frames the conflict in the play in ways that evoke contemporary issues"(3). There are three distinct versions of the play, the changes corresponding to the evolution of Brecht's politics, as well as to the unfolding events in the world. The most important event was the use of the atomic bomb and the roles of scientists in its development, Brecht noting that "with Hiroshima, overnight the biography of the founder of the new system of physics, reads differently". (I find this exercise in time-reversal problematic.). From science and its practices, initially celebrated as a great good, and the failure to stand up for it denounced as cowardice and worse, Brecht came to see a failure in science to consider the interests of humanity as a fatal flaw. In the revised version "Science for science‚s sake . . .[becomes] the worst outcome [ . . . ] Galileo can imagine, bringing with it little more than the potential to be abused by the authorities" (3).

The most important and best known physics play after Galileo and before Copenhagen is arguably Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Physicists, which was first performed in 1962. It is set in a private sanatorium for the insane and the three inmates are physicists, calling themselves Einstein, Newton and Möbius. (The real Möbius was a mathematician and astronomer.) Möbius sought refuge in the madhouse in order to escape from the profound implications and danger to mankind of the scientific work he was doing. The other two, who are intelligence agents, have gotten themselves locked up with Möbius to get him to reveal his secrets for the benefit of the countries they serve. Each kills his nurse out of fear that the nurses suspect one of the physicists to be really sane. Möbius convinces the others to act responsibly by keeping the secrets he has discovered out of the hands of mankind, at the cost of remaining locked up for the rest of their lives . But only then does he discover that the woman who runs the sanitarium is really a madwoman who has appropriated his work and has already set in motion the destruction of the world. The author's portrayal of the scientists is a mixed one; they are neither entirely to blame for nor to be absolved of the tragedies that have ensued.

Carl Zuckmayer's 1955 drama Das kalte Licht is more of a historical drama, because it is loosely based on the story of the physicist Klaus Fuchs who, while working at Los Alamos, was a spy for the Soviet Union. It was a timely and successful work - there were more than thirty productions during the 1955-56 season in West Germany alone - but it has not endured. That is a pity because it is one of the few plays that examines the practice of science closely. Even so, "Zuckmayer is more concerned with the political and nationalist pressures exerted on the characters than with the science" (3).

Heinar Kipphardt's In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, first staged in 1964, is a very different work from the ones that preceded it, and remains one of the most significant plays dealing with science. In contrast to the approach of many of the earlier plays portraying scientists, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer is a quasi-documentary. Almost all of the text is taken verbatim from the transcript of the 1954 hearing that was convened by the US Atomic Energy Commission to review Oppenheimer's security clearance. Kipphardt does "allow himself certain liberties, including cutting a great deal of material, reducing the number of witnesses and occasionally shifting who said what" (3). But the most notable, in fact the only, significant violation of the play's documentary character are the closing remarks that Kipphardt has Oppenheimer make. The speech is a summing up and considers the role of the scientist in modern society, much like Galileo does in Brecht's play. Clearly Kipphardt did not feel that Oppenheimer said what needed to be said, so he put the appropriate words, his own, into Oppenheimer's mouth instead.

In Tom Stoppard's Hapgood (1988) science and theater are integrated as they never had been before, with science determining both form and content of the drama. It is a spy play in which experiments are constantly set up on the basis of working hypotheses. Mostly accurate, intricate presentations of quantum mechanics are given. But when Hapgood initially did not meet with much success, Stoppard decided to revise it. Although he maintained that it was not the physics that was the problem, but the plot, the narrative, and the timing, the science was heavily cut and presented in a grossly simplified manner for the 1994 New York production. The physics is now mostly window dressing.

Ten years later, in 1998, Michael Frayn's Copenhagen opened in London. It is not only, in my opinion, the finest science play ever written and staged, but it enjoyed an enthusiastic reception by critics and the much of the public. After Copenhagen the steady flow of science plays became a rushing stream. What are the reasons for this eruption? The causes undoubtedly include an even stronger reaction than during the preceding five decades to the cataclysmic invention and use of the atomic bomb, and the fears that it would be used again. This probably also helps account for the fact that the majority of science plays have physicists as protagonists, usually as anti-heroes, or just plain villains. The ever growing dominance of our lives by technology, both for good and for bad, is a very much related reason. Playwrights often have strong, if not always well-informed opinions and (often messianic) political goals, with which to influence and imbue the public. And it should not be glossed over that theater is by and large a commercial venture. The success of Copenhagen certainly aroused hopes that other science plays would find a ready market. Finally, to encourage the writing and production of science plays, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, whose mission it is to propagate knowledge and appreciation of technology and science among the general public, has instituted a program of grants to playwrights and to a theater company, the Ensemble Studio Theater, in order to achieve that goal. To-date some thirty science plays and musicals have been written and produced under Sloan sponsorship. Most of them present science and scientists in an unfavorable, and, sometimes, ridiculing light. Clearly the Foundation has imposed, or enforced, no restrictions or guidelines on its authors or producers. This is a good thing for freedom of speech, but it does not encourage a favorable or even a balanced appreciation of science.

Among the science plays, and especially the physics plays, there are some in which the protagonist, or several protagonists, are real characters; some in which the scientists are fictional characters; some in which science is presented well; some in which it is presented poorly; and some in which it doesn't really figure at all and in which science and the fact that the protagonist is a scientist are completely irrelevant. There are plays in which history is rendered reasonably truthfully and some in which it is either cavalierly or mischievously distorted. There are plays with greater and lesser theatrical values. Another cut that can be made is between plays that are serious (or think they are serious) and those that admit and even celebrate that they are not. There are some that are slapstick and some that aspire to offer satire.

An attempt at the latter is Picasso at the Lapin Agile, first staged in 1996. The "nimble rabbit" is a bar in Montmartre. The conceit is that Picasso and Einstein hung out there, presumably in the 1920's, holding forth from time to time on their work, ideas, and achievements, and spending much of the time going after the available women in the establishment. Picasso is portrayed as a suave ladies man and Einstein as a nerdy one. One problem is that the dialogue is not all that sparkling and hardly satirical. Picasso at the Lapin Agile was written by the sitcom writer and actor Steve Allen, who is no Tom Lehrer. But then perhaps the play was meant to be profound after all. Shortly before the end a third important character makes his appearance. He is Elvis Presley and the author makes the convincing if depressing point that Presley was every bit as important to the twentieth century as were Einstein and Picasso.

In contrast, Paul Mullin's Louis Slotin Sonata is an important and serious, if flawed, play. Regrettably, it is little known. The play depicts a real event: on May 21, 1946. Louis Slotin, a Canadian physicist at Los Alamos repeated a "criticality test" that he had done many (perhaps too many) times before. He moved the pieces of a plutonium bomb closer together and farther apart, "flirting" (as Dennis Overbye wrote in a review in the New York Times (4) ) with the moment when the assembly would be on the verge of achieving critical mass. The two plutonium hemispheres were encased in thin shells of beryllium to serve as the neutron reflector. Wooden spacers between the two halves of the shell normally kept it from closing all the way and bringing on criticality. On this occasion Slotin had removed the spacers and was using the blade of a screwdriver to keep the halves separated. This time Slotin's screwdriver slipped and the assembly clicked together. Slotin pulled the bomb apart but it was too late. In the millisecond after the blade had slipped and the shell was closed, he received more than 2100 rems of radiation, more than three times the lethal dose. Smaller doses were received by the seven men who were standing behind Slotin and thus were partially shielded by him. They survived and most lived long, healthy lives. Louis Slotin died after nine days of increasing agony at the Los Alamos hospital.

The playwright uses Slotin's death and his journey to the grave to examine and pronounce on troubling questions of personal behavior and national policy. The device for doing that is the pretense that Slotin in the days before his death suffered hallucinations; this allows Mullin to bring on real people and one imaginary character in didactic sequences, somewhat reminiscent of Brecht. J. Robert Oppenheimer is there repeating his line from the Bhagavad-Gita "I am become death, shatterer of worlds". Einstein appears - yes - playing dice, and God himself shows up, dressed in a period pinstripe suit and a fedora, the very image of Harry S. Truman, the American President who made the decision to drop the two atomic bombs on Japan. But, so also does Josef Mengele, the sadistic Nazi death camp doctor, who in one of the dream sequences arrives in Hiroshima to watch "what took us years to do in stinking, filth filled camps" performed in milliseconds. The purpose is of course to compare Mengele's experiments to the Los Alamos scientists' work on the bomb and its use as a weapon of mass destruction.

The trouble, as the theater critic Bruce Weber pointed out (5), is that the argument is rendered thinly and in a show-offy manner. "It feels motivated more by theatricality than drama, especially when Mengele leads the show's weirdest sequence, a parody of a vaudeville chorus line, with scientists singing doggerel about thermodynamics. Like a lot of the elements in the play, the scene is ornamental and distracting, presented by the playwright not because he should but because he can. In stage terms, that‚s playing dice with the universe." For many of the Manhattan project veterans who came to a symposium on the play after a special reading at Los Alamos, Louis Slotin Sonata was anti-science and impugned the honor of the bomb-builders. In an interview with Dennis Overbye, the author, Paul Mullin, said that it would make him sad if the play were interpreted as anti-science. "I'm asking different questions than science would ask, not how it happened but why it happened, what it means that it happened. There are certain questions science can't ask because it can't answer them."

What then makes for a good science play? There is no agreement between literary and drama scholars, writers and producers, historians, and scientists - and sometimes among them - what is acceptable and desirable. To my mind a good science play should be, not necessarily in this order, 1) a gripping drama or an entertaining comedy about an important subject; 2) an accessible, but reasonably accurate presentation of the science in it; and 3) when it is or purports to be historical, be fundamentally truthful. In asserting the last requirement I am at odds with the practitioners of one of C. P. Snow's two cultures, the humanistic one. As Kirsten Shepherd-Barr has written (6) , " the. . consensus among literary scholars[. . . is] that there is no problem appropriating historical for fictional purposes; the author is under no obligation to "get it right" since it's a work of fiction."

There are problems with my - what may strike some readers as an unrealistic and even puritanical - demand for a fundamentally truthful account. After all, not only the goals of drama and history writing, not to mention those of science, but the rules for getting at truth and even the meaning of the word are different. As the historian of science Robert Marc Friedman has said (7),, "history and drama are not necessarily compatible with respect to end and means." Historians, even though they may write with the present and future in mind, still seek understanding of the people and period they write about, using categories, issues, and norms from that particular time and place. Historical plays, whether or not scientists figure in them, probe not the milieu, social relations or political processes that held sway at the time of the protagonist, but those that of the time of the dramatist. "Schiller's Don Carlos belongs to the late 18th century rather than to the 16th; Shakespeare's histories address the political realities of the 16th century and not those of previous eras;[. . .] Brecht's Galileo[. . .] is definitely not about the actual life and times of the play's namesake". Friedman also poses the question "Why use the [actual] names and events of history when the dramatist's purpose is to illuminate a thesis or provoke discussion" (7) ? And I say "why indeed?"

As for means, Luigi Pirandello is said to have claimed, that truth doesn't have to be plausible, but drama and other fiction does. Friedman goes on: "Historians must accept the chaotic and the contingent, the randomness and even the meaninglessness of events and actions. Playwrights normally work with a structured logic grounded in dramatic requirements and conventions" (7). They therefore sometimes reject historical truth for reasons of implausibility. Is it acceptable do so out of ignorance or to impose their social, or political Weltanschauung on their audiences, or to épater le bourgeois?

Conceding then that some facts must be neglected and some truths modified, what are the limits? What do the dramatists have to get right and what is it that may or even must be fudged? A good play must have dramatic tension and interesting characters. To achieve these characteristics, it must sometimes oversimplify, disregard intellectual or historical subtleties, and even invent events that did not actually occur. But what if the scientist - protagonists are made out to be either buffoons or incarnations of evil, so as to entertain or frighten the audience? What if history is rewritten to serve an author's political goals or world view? What if, not only scientific content and results are mischaracterized, but the spirit, goals, and methodology of science are misrepresented? What if the play is a weapon in the deconstructionist campaign to strip science of its claims to reality and truth? Then, I firmly believe that the retort "it's after all, a play" or, worse, "it's only a play" does not provide exoneration..

The closer to the present time the scientists and the history being depicted are, the stricter the standard of truthfulness needs to be. Although there is even now a group of people working to rehabilitate Richard III from Shakespeare's scathing portrayal, it makes little difference to our understanding of the history of England, much less to the social and political issues of today, whether Richard actually had the Princes in the Tower murdered or not. In historical dramas set in the past, the audience already has a knowledge of the people and the events that are depicted. In contrast, when a scientist who lived recently is portrayed on stage, most members of the audience will have only this one characterization from which to form an opinion. Friedman concludes from this that dramatists should "think twice before transforming people who have lived recently into dramatis personae" (7). My view is that they need to think only once, provided they resolve to portray the person's life, actions, and character with reasonable accuracy.

Friedman ends his symposium remarks: "If we choose theater, we must accept a basic truth: Theater cannot depict comprehensive narrative history [emphasis added] and ought not to try[. . .Still] significant chapters in science history have a right to enter our cultural heritage and not merely remain the property of historians and scientists. A play such as Michael Frayn's Copenhagen[ . . ] has clearly brought significant chapters in the history of modern physics to the attention of many non-specialists. Is Frayn's accomplishment a unique event in contemporary theater or might we see this play as an indication that[[ . . . ] a well-crafted, intelligent drama can win an audience?" (7) .

After the New York premiere of Copenhagen in April 2000, the New York Times critic Ben Brantley asked, in his unreservedly enthusiastic review, "who would have ever thought that three dead, long-winded people talking about atomic physics would be such electrifying companions? (8).

As many readers will know, the play reenacts the 1941 visit of Werner Heisenberg to Niels Bohr in Nazi-occupied Denmark. Bohr had been Heisenberg's mentor, friend, and collaborator in creating quantum mechanics‚ foundations or consequences, complementarity, and the uncertainty principle. From 1939 until Germany's defeat in 1945, Heisenberg was the most important figure in his country's "uranium project", whose goal was both to produce an atomic bomb and to build a nuclear reactor. The third "long-winded" character in the play is Bohr's wife Margrethe. "Reenacts" is not really the right word, for no one now alive knows with any certainty what actually took place during the visit and it is becoming more and more unlikely that anyone ever will. And Frayn does not pretend to solve the mystery. Instead what he does is to use the device of having the three characters meet after their deaths and review the 1941 encounter three times, each time with different memories, opinions, emotions, and answers.

As the historian of science Klaus Hentschel has pointed out (9), "Frayn‚s use of "historical polyphony‚ does not do violence to the rarely attained goal of historical truthfulness." Instead of advocating one amongst a multitude of widely different reconstructions of what "really‚ happened . .. Frayn's piece enacts three somewhat plausible and partly documented versions one after another". The break is not so much with historical historiography, but with "tenets of classical dramaturgy such as "uniqueness" and "separability". Whereas in a conventional piece "with one coherent plot followed through from beginning to end" the playwright and the actors force their vision of an often uncertain and sometimes false and propagandistic reality on an audience, in Copenhagen it falls "to the audience to judge who was most convincing[ . . .] the simple, superimposed coordination between drama and reality is broken" (9).

The controversy about what really happened in Copenhagen and in the German atomic program, - why did the Germans, under Heisenberg's leadership, not achieve an atomic bomb? - and how accurately and responsibly Frayn's play deals with the history of the time, has given rise to numerous books, articles and letters by scientists, historians and journalists, as well as talks and debates at a number of symposia that followed the production of the play in the United States and in other countries.

While most of the physicists, historians, and critics who have seen the play consider Copenhagen a masterpiece theatrically and for its rendering of the science, reaction to what they see as Frayn's portrayal of Heisenberg's character and his behavior under the Nazi regime has been mixed, with some denouncing the play as a historical fiction. Most of these critics at the same time concede that Copenhagen is a gripping piece of theater. (How could they do otherwise?) They see no contradiction between these two findings, because, they claim or infer, it is perfectly all right that theater, including plays about recent events and real, living or barely deceased people, be wholly fictitious, and that there are no limits to how far a playwright may depart from historical fact. As Bohr's biographer, Abraham Pais, put it in an article(10) in which he labels Copenhagen as fictitious : "As theater calls for the suspension of belief, a playwright is at liberty to modify reality as he sees fit." And as Gerald Holton wrote in a letter to the New York Times, responding to another writer who "seems upset" that Holton derided Copenhagen for what he sees as historical untruths : "[. . .] though it is a gripping drama, it is still a work of fiction. That is why it got a Tony, not a medal of science" . Because of my rejection of the thesis that in a play anything goes and that essential historical truth need not be respected, I find this assertion of an exclusion principle acting between drama and truth wrongheaded . If Copenhagen misrepresented history and its protagonists in any fundamental way, I would give it neither a Tony, nor an award for history or for science writing.

What has grated on critics of Copenhagen and brought out their resentment is, I believe, what they see as a soft treatment of Heisenberg and an implied moral equivalence between the Germans and the Allies. What these critics would have liked Frayn to take note of and condemn is that, although Heisenberg never built a bomb, he did work under and for the Nazi regime, aware of its repressive and aggressive character, of the full extent of the atrocities committed, and yet to be committed by it. What some of them would have wanted Frayn not to mention, is the firebombing of German cities by the Allies and the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan. In America, contemplation of these actions and an examination of the morality (or the necessity) of these bombings has been all but taboo and is still confined to a small minority.

Of course Frayn takes liberties with details. He puts words into the mouths of his characters many of which they probably never spoke. How else could he show what they thought and what emotions they felt? The mode of expression of the protagonists was not exactly as portrayed: Bohr is too articulate and lucid, Margrethe too contentious and belligerent, and Heisenberg perhaps too brash and boisterous (11). The frequency and the locations of the 1941 encounter are, based on Bohr's later recollection, inaccurately rendered in the play. At least so it was thought until June of 2003, when a letter that Heisenberg wrote to his wife from Copenhagen came to light.

Frayn, in one of his remarkable postscripts to the play, argues that everyone knows how evil the Nazis were, and that there was therefore no need to make a big point of it. But he also quotes the dictum of the nineteenth-century German playwright Friedrich Hebbel: "In a good play everyone is right." Therefore he had to offer the possibility that Heisenberg, like Bohr, was a good man. What, in their vexation, some critics refuse to acknowledge is the Rashomon-like portrayal of events and motivations in Copenhagen. Or at least they contend that Frayn gives too much uncritical exposure to a picture they vehemently object to.

Copenhagen is a deep and subtle play about history and about many of the most important scientists of the twentieth century - Bohr and Heisenberg in the main, but also dozens of other physicists, to whose work and contributions reference is made. Does this amount to name dropping? If engaged in by a lesser and less conscientious writer, perhaps. In Frayn's hands the references are not only accurate and to the point, but they contribute brilliantly to an understanding of how physics progresses through the interactions, scientific and personal, of many contributors. Copenhagen is, after all, not only about science and history but a drama about human interactions .

Its special virtue, however, is that it is genuinely, unapologetically, and accurately also about science itself. Frayn has done prodigious research and has understood, assimilated, and accurately and accessibly presented the (together with relativity) most important findings of modern physics. He delivers mini-courses in Quantum Mechanics and in Nuclear Physics, which include admirable expositions and explanations of the uncertainly principle and of complementarity, as well as of nuclear fission and its applications

I do need to voice a slight discomfort and reservation about Frayn's drawing of parallels between quantum mechanics and human behavior (12). Frayn, or rather his characters, seem to say that we must also forever be uncertain what is in a person's mind and that we have complementary motives for our actions. If that statement were equivalent to the assertion that the principles of quantum mechanics produce these human limitations, that would be deplorable indeed. A reductionism which were to assert that there is a line from quantum mechanics through biochemistry to psychology is, at least, premature. Frayn denies in his postscript that he asserts such a causal connection in the play, or that he believes in it.

Is the stream of physics plays good for physicists and its practitioners? After all, many of us believe and are acting on the conviction that informal and non-traditional ways of communicating with the public have become essential for arousing interest in, understanding of, and support for our science, not to mention or course, and for us. If most plays were like Copenhagen, my answer to the question would be an unqualified "yes". But a number of physics plays contain bad or no science and many show it and its practitioners in an unfavorable light: as for Shadwell, the goals of science are ludicrous, and often inhumane, and scientists are usually amoral, or downright immoral, if not mad. The question, therefore, requires a nuanced answer. Some cynics, who may be right, hold that any publicity, even bad publicity, is good. Whether they are correct or not, science plays have become a significant medium for exposing the public to physics and physicists. Some have suggested that in order to avoid and counteract indecent exposure, scientists should write science plays themselves and one or two have done so with non-negligible success. One thing is certain: http://web.gc.cuny.edu/sciart/StagingScience/staging_science.htm#list good physics plays are not only a boon for the public, but they (and even bad ones) can show us how humanists think about us and our science and they can make us more aware than we are of the consequences of our work. That is a good thing


1. Harry Lustig, Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, and Brian Schwartz "Science Plays 423 BC ˆ 2005 AD. http://web.gc.cuny.edu/sciart/StagingScience/staging_science.htm#list
2. M. A. Orthoffer, "The Scientist on the Stage", Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 27, (Autumn 2002).
3. Ibid.
4. Dennis Overbye. "Theatrical Elegy Recalls a Victim of Nuclear Age", The New York Times, April 3, 2001, F-4, from which I have taken much of this synopsis.
5. Bruce Weber, "ŒLouis Slotin Sonata‚ - A Scientist's Tragic Hubris Attains Critical Mass Onstage", The New York Times, April 9, 2001, E-1.
6. Harry Lustig and Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, "Science as Theater" American Scientist 90, 550- 555, November-December 2003. The two authors agreed to express some divergent views in their joint article.
7. Robert Marc Friedman "Reflections of a Historian of Science", lecture delivered at The Niels Bohr Archive's History of Science Seminar, 19 November 1999, http://www.nbi.dk/NBA/files/sem/copfried.html.
8. Ben Brantley, "Copenhagen‚: A Fiery Power in the Behavior of Particles and Humans", The New York Times, 12 April 2000.
9. Klaus Hentschel "What History of Science Can Learn From Michael Frayn's Copenhagen‚" Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 27 (3), 211-216, Autumn 2002.
10. Abraham Pais and Michael Frayn, "What happened in Copenhagen? A physicist's view and the playwright's response", Hudson Review 53 (2), 2000.
11. As has been noted by several targets of Bohr's lectures, they were often difficult to follow, and not only for aural - oral reasons. Everyone who knew Margrethe Bohr reports that she was regal but polite, pleasant, and soft spoken - a perfect hostess. Heisenberg, certainly during and after the Nazi rule, was more of a trimmer than a provocateur.
12. The Israeli philosopher and historian of science Mara Beller has pointed out ( Mara Beller "The Sokal Hoax: At Whom Are We Laughing? - The philosophical pronouncements of Bohr, Born, Heisenberg, and Pauli deserve some of the blame for the excesses of the postmodernist critique of science", Physics Today, September 1998), that Bohr and other prominent physicists helped to propagate this reckless extrapolation from physics.

Harry Lustig is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the City College of the City University of New York. In his dotage he has turned , amateurishly, to the History of Physics and is now at work on a reexamination of why Germany did not achieve an atomic bomb in World War II.
E-mail: < h_lustig@yahoo.com>.