If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough!

Hana Kim-Türk talks to Derrick Jenkins about NEAT’s production of “Copenhagen”

Confession: Math and science were never my strong suit. That’s not a brave thing to say; nowadays it seems cool to say TL;DR to STEM-related issues. Average people like me don’t really think about the algorithms that gave rise to the Instarich and famous. We just scroll and scroll and take duck face selfies while thousands of scientists march on Washington to show the president that intelligent inquiry is essential to the great human experiment.

Really?! A world leader who thinks global warming is a corporate conspiracy? What have we come to? Good questions, but rather than add your voice to the echo chamber of people who think —

of course science is important!
of course you should get your kids vaccinated! of course climate change is killing polar bears!

— perhaps we ought to reach out to people who are left out of the closed feedback loop. I’m not saying there needs to be a PSA campaign or that US Magazine should do a spread, “Mathematicians, they’re just like us!” I mean we should all take a step back from certainty and ask each other the questions we need to thwart our own extinction.

That is what Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen attempts to do. The play centers on three characters who discuss the big bang-type questions our society so desperately needs to hear. Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg discuss their hand in the creation of the atomic bomb. Through it all, Bohr’s wife Margrethe acts almost as an extension of the audience. Bohr consistently returns to her, reminds Heisenberg that they need to speak in plain language so that Margrethe can understand, so that she can provide the real world commentary that these physicists so desperately need to hear.

A quote quite often attributed to another physicist, namely Einstein, goes like this: If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough. In the case of Derrick Jenkins, who stars as Niels Bohr, this quote expresses itself in the effortless way he describes the play.

“This is a play about guilt, regret, responsibility, and above all, love,” he said, between sips of cappuccino at the Akademie der Schönsten Künste this past Sunday. “Of the three characters, Margrethe is the one with the most emotional intelligence. She’s the most sympathetic character. She’s the strongest of the three. She understands Bohr’s pain. She cannot forgive Heisenberg.”

That a woman figures as the nucleus in a play about physics might be unanticipated, but when you know a little bit about the director, it comes as no surprise.

“I’ve seen the play but I never would have thought to put this on for an audience which is not an all- native speaker audience. But [the director] Sara [Conway] understood the material and how to bring it to life. She knew the historical background and could explain the science … The in-depth treatment definitely helped us as performers to get into it much more. To understand the context.”

To that end, Conway and her cast even made a trip to the Atomkeller in Haigerloch. Jenkins said he was shocked by just how primitive the early reactors were. “It was basically a hole in the ground. They didn’t realize how dangerous it could be.”

Past visits to Copenhagen informed his performance as well. As the former head of international sales at Klett Verlag, he knew how important it was to speak someone’s language in order to truly understand the person. I asked him about critiques of the play regarding its cerebral dialogue. He assured me that you don’t need to know anything about physics to enjoy the performance. “The richness of the language makes it accessible. Anyone who comes to this play will leave enriched by it.”

I wanted to make a joke, “Like uranium?” but I didn’t think of it in time so I’m putting it here.

“This play works on so many different levels,” said Jenkins. “It’s almost like a crime thriller. Why did Heisenberg work with Hitler? Was he a Nazi? Was Bohr guilty for contributing to the science? It’s an intellectually stimulating conversation. The recollection of the individual is changed by the other person’s perception. You wonder if there is an objective truth.”

The truth is, I don’t know if I will understand it either. But Copenhagen will play for perhaps the last time in Stuttgart this Thursday. Unless you’re one of those physicists who know how to use a wormhole for time travel, you better go see it while you can.

Directed by Sara Conway

Showtime: Thursday, April 27, 8PM @ Theater am Olgaeck

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