Currently running at Chichester, in the Minerva Theatre is a three-hander play by Michael Frayn, premiered in 1998, based on events from some 75 years ago, when two giants of theoretical physics, Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. Patricia Hodge as Margrethe Bohr, Charles Edwards as Werner Heisenberg and Paul Jesson as Neils Bohr kept the narrative tight, as was demanded from the script, ensuring that the audience was kept in thrall.
It was challenging, as much because it referenced many historical events and key people, so could be hard to keep up.
It was fascinating because it showed how ideas were being shared, formally through published works and meetings among this eminent group, where publication and talks were seen as opportunities to share current insights and to allow others to question and challenge.
In so doing, other individuals, such as Rudolf Peierls, Lise Meitner, Erwin Schrodinger and Max Born, to work on specific details and to take credit for each of their articulations. All of them were detailing parts of a whole that many actually feared; the potential for, and the impact of, splitting atoms. On their own, each part was benign.
Frighteningly, as some had postulated, combined as they ultimately were, with a number of expatriate nationalities, at Los Alamos, under Robert Oppenheimer, they created the atomic bomb.
The play demonstrated that the younger German scientist was mentored in his early career by Bohr, seeing him as a father figure and pre-eminent in their field. Heisenberg returned to Germany at the start of WW2 and oversaw elements of uranium enrichment, with the ultimate aim of securing a nuclear warhead. He knew the worth of Bohr and resulted in an abortive visit, in 1941, to see Bohr in Denmark, to try to elicit some information or his help in his project. Rebuffed, it isn’t clear if he was helpful in Bohr’s escape to the USA in 1942.
It was a play that brought the protagonists together in death, to reminisce about the earlier meeting and to seek to elicit the truth behind Heisenberg’s visit. Bohr adopted his mentor role and encouraged a number or iterations of the sequence of events, to help Heisenberg to clearly articulate his reasoning. This was interesting, as it demonstrated the potential of one person to help another to clarify their thinking, simply through encouraging them to talk through inconsistencies, or areas that are less clear.
This approach allowed Heisenberg to propose the Uncertainty Principle; asserting a fundamental limit to the precision with which certain pairs of physical properties of a particle, known as complementary variables can be known. Historically, the uncertainty principle has been confused with a somewhat similar effect in physics, called the observer effect, which notes that measurements of certain systems cannot be made without affecting the systems, that is, without changing something in a system. Heisenberg and Bohr undertook “thought experiments”, where they sought to visualise the effect of what they were seeking to capture in mathematical formulae, often resorting to long walks in order to do so uninterrupted.
One key message that I took that would have resonance in education would be the importance of a “talk partner”, not just for the children, as can often be seen in day to day practice, but also for teachers at every stage. Coaching and mentoring, if sensitively handled, allows for clarity of thought and articulation, the process ultimately leading to increased understanding and sometimes new areas for consideration.
The second key message would be that collegiate thinking or thought experiment, enables expertise in specific areas to ultimately be combined to enhance the whole. Each of us sees the world in slightly different ways. We learn from and through each other; the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.
Education is not about creating the atomic bomb.
It is about one generation helping a new generation to learn to take in information, to think, to articulate their current thinking, enabling an engaged other to reflect back or question this thinking, to seek to help each child to continue on their journey, their own “thought experiments”, which ultimately is a contributor to how each of us develops as learners in our own right.