Chemistry and Copenhagen

This semester, I am taking a class called Case Studies in Chemistry. The class is a non-lab chemistry course for non-science majors- for those of us that are looking to learn the basics of chemistry through our own research into various “case studies.”

To supplement the course material, my professor assigned Michael Frayn’s play, Copenhagen. This famous play speculates on what occurred during a secret meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, two influential scientists in the mid-twentieth century. As our class had looked at the development of atomic theory and key chemistry and physics discoveries, the lives of these two scientists were particularly relevant to the class material.

While the play was relevant because it referenced scientific theories and discoveries we had learned about, the class in which we discussed the play stood out to me for a number of reasons. As a History major, reading a play that placed incredible scientific discoveries in the historical and personal context of the scientist’s lives made concepts, such as atomic theory, come to life for me. Our class discussion around these ideas and their impact on society was lively, as everyone brought their perspectives from different majors and classes to think critically about science. My classmate even shared several of her ideas for her senior thesis on cultural memory as we discussed how Bohr and Heisenberg’s discoveries and inventions are remembered today.

One of the most striking elements of the discussion, however, was the number of ethical issues surrounding science. Looking at chemistry and physics in the context of World War II opened up a debate that each of us could participate in, even with varying levels of expertise in the sciences. This assignment and discussion was one of the highlights of the class for me because we broke outside the boundaries of a traditional chemistry class. Not only did we look at why these scientific issues are so important today, but also had the opportunity to hear different opinions from each other.