Penn Reading Project: Copenhagen

The Council of Undergraduate Deans has chosen Michael Frayn's Copenhagen as the text for this year's Penn Reading Project, the ninth in which entering freshmen read a common work during the summer, then take part in small-group discussions with faculty on arrival at Penn.

Copenhagen--which follows such selections as Frankenstein, Lincoln at Gettysburg, and The Woman Warrior--opened in May 1998 at London's Royal National, and is now playing in the West End. A Broadway production is planned for Spring 2000.

The 1999 selection committee, chaired by the College's Dean Richard Beeman chose it from hundreds of nominations by faculty and students, citing "the multidisciplinary nature of the text, the timeliness of the theme, and the great possibilities for supporting events." Currently in the planning stages are a number of performances and readings, a film series, and various exhibits and discussions on related themes.

As summarized by Project Director David Fox, "In Copenhagen, a study of the morals and history of the atomic bomb, playwright Frayn takes as his point of reference a particular historical event: in the autumn of 1941, two great physicists--the Dane, Niels Bohr, and the German, Werner Heisenberg--met in Copenhagen. In earlier times Heisenberg had been Bohr's student, his friend, even a kind of surrogate son. But this meeting occurred during Europe's darkest days in World War II, and the two men-whose collaborative work had revolutionized atomic physics--were now political enemies. Not much is known about the substance of their encounter, which ended badly. Frayn brings together the three key players--Bohr, Heisenberg, and Bohr's wife, Margarethe--in a series of imagined conversations and reminiscences.

"Their discussions reveal a dazzling and terrifying international race to harness nuclear physics in the service of war, and force us to consider some elemental questions. What are the moral responsibilities of scientists whose intellectual discoveries hold the potential for everlasting harm? What should we do when defense of a country--and its innocent citizens--also means defense of an intolerable political principle? And is the pursuit of knowledge ever 'innocent'?"

This year's discussions with students will be held on the afternoon of Tuesday, September 7 1999. Faculty interested in leading discussion sections (and those seeking more information) should contact: David Fox, Director, Penn Reading Project, or 573-5636.

Almanac, Vol. 45, No. 32, May 11, 1999


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