A point of view: When historical fiction is more truthful than historical fact

National Theatre production of Copenhagen Image copyright Arenapal

Fiction has the power to fill in the imaginative gaps left by history, writes Lisa Jardine.

For some time I have been researching the lives of a group of scientists who worked on the development of the atomic bomb during World War Two. Although there are several impeccably researched non-fiction works on the subject and a number of biographies, none of these really conveyed to me the emotions and convictions that drove their work - I simply could not connect with the personal principles of the scientists who collaborated with such energy to produce the period's ultimate weapon of mass destruction.

In my search for understanding the motivation of those who joined the race to produce the bomb whose use at Hiroshima and Nagasaki appalled the world, I eventually decided to turn from fact to fiction. If historians could not fill the gaps in the record that made the knowledge I was after so elusive, perhaps storytellers less shackled by documented evidence might do so.

Eventually I found myself rereading the text of Michael Frayn's much-celebrated 1998 stage work, Copenhagen. It recreates a famous moment in the history of the race to develop the atomic bomb - a meeting in 1941, in Denmark, between German physicist Werner Heisenberg - best known for his "uncertainty principle", that the more accurately you know the position of a particle, the less accurately you know its velocity, and vice versa - and his former doctoral supervisor and mentor, the Danish quantum theorist Niels Bohr.

This was a strange meeting - as fraught with uncertainty, Frayn implies, as the scientific principle which carries Heisenberg's name. About all we know is that the two men met, and that this meeting has been the subject of a great deal of speculation ever since. Heisenberg was about to become head of the Nazi atomic bomb project, Bohr was Jewish, an enemy, and under surveillance in an occupied territory. He eventually fled via Sweden and Britain to the United States in 1943, where he played a significant role in the Manhattan Project.

Uncertainty principle

  • Important theory in physics about the limit to which quantum particles can be observed. The work of German scientist Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976)
  • "The more precisely the position [of a particle] is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known in this instant, and vice versa."
  • Sometimes confused with the "observer effect" which states that the act of observation affects the outcome of an event

What actually happened? We know that the meeting was cut short by an angry Bohr - but why? What did Heisenberg hope to achieve? Was he seeking advice from the esteemed nuclear physicist, or hoping to be exonerated from blame for working on the atomic bomb, or soliciting Bohr's participation in the German attempt to build one?

In Frayn's version, under the watchful eye of Bohr's wife, Margrethe, the two men relive their encounter, struggling unsuccessfully to reach any sort of agreement as to what took place. It is a matter of some urgency to do so, because the moral probity of both men's key role in unleashing nuclear weapons on the world seems somehow to depend on that conversation. As in life, no agreement is reached (after Bohr's death a letter to Heisenberg was found among his papers, vigorously denying Heisenberg's published account of what took place).

Unlike his non-fiction sources, Michael Frayn has dramatic licence to invent exchanges and even physical details which focus attention on the issues at stake here. He creates dialogue imaginatively that draws the audience into the debate, prompting it to make its own attempt at assessing the motives and beliefs of the two scientists. Frayn writes in his postscript to the published play:

"The great challenge is to get inside people's heads, to stand where they stood and see the world as they saw it, to make some informed estimate of their motives and intentions. The only way into the protagonists' heads is through the imagination."

Michael Frayn

Image copyright PA
  • Novelist, playwright and journalist, born 1933
  • Plays include Noises Off, Benefactors, Copenhagen - he is also an acclaimed translator of Chekhov's plays, and wrote screenplay for 1986 John Cleese film Clockwise
  • Novels include Spies, Headlong and Towards the End of the Morning and Skios
  • "Mathematics becomes very odd when you apply it to people. One plus one can add up to so many different sums" (Copenhagen)

Re-reading the play, I found myself handed a key to accessing the feelings and anxieties of the scientists I was writing about. In the end then, not fact but fiction, not certainty but the kind of uncertainty that encourages us all to struggle with our convictions to some point of moral balance, played its part in engaging me emotionally with the past.

Two weeks ago I was gripped in similar fashion by a BBC radio play about another enigmatic mentor-student relationship of some historical significance - that between crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin, who was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for her work on the structure of penicillin, and her Oxford undergraduate pupil Margaret Thatcher.

The play, The Chemistry Between Them by Adam Ganz, recreates a meeting between the two distinguished women at Chequers in 1983, at a time of heightened tension in the Cold War, when cruise missiles were being stationed across Europe. Margaret Thatcher was prime minister, while Dorothy Hodgkin - then in her 70s, and passionate about scientific responsibility - was president of the Pugwash Conference, the international lobbying body of scientists against nuclear weapons.

Here is a meeting which, again, we know little about, apart from the fact that Hodgkin was determined to use her influence with Thatcher to urge her to embrace the idea of nuclear disarmament, and enter into a dialogue with the Soviet Union.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The young research chemist and future PM, Margaret Thatcher

The dramatist's interest was clearly taken by the extraordinary idea that Hodgkin - who held strong left-wing views throughout her life - should have been a role model for Britain's first female prime minister. Politically the two could not have stood further apart, yet Thatcher had Hodgkin's picture on her wall at 10 Downing Street. And on the occasion of Hodgkin's visit to Chequers we know that Thatcher took serious amounts of time to prepare for it by brushing up on her chemistry.

In the imagined conversation between the two women in the play - and in the flashbacks to their tutorials in Oxford, and a Sunday lunch at the Hodgkin family home - I was entirely persuaded by the idea that the scientific example set by the crystallographer might have shaped the political judgment of the future prime minister. More, that Thatcher's limitations as a chemist (Hodgkin gently tells her young student that she will never succeed in winning a PhD place at Oxford) might also have foreshadowed comparable blind-spots in her political decision-making.

Ganz also captures the special nature of the woman student's admiration for a woman teacher of distinction. Female mentors are scarce. We tend to invest heavily in those we have had the good fortune to encounter, and to hold on to them.

But shortly after the play was broadcast, Dorothy Hodgkin's granddaughter Katharine Hodgkin complained in a newspaper article that the play had been "an inaccurate portrayal of one of Britain's leading women scientists".

Three Nobel laureates

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption (l-r) Werner Heisenberg, Dorothy Hodgkin, Niels Bohr
  • Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994) - British chemist, awarded the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1964 for "her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances"
  • Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976) - German theoretical physicist and one of the creators of quantum mechanics, won the Nobel prize for physics in 1932, attracted controversy for his part in German atomic research during WW2

"I have to say," she wrote, "that I was dismayed by this play not only for personal reasons, but also because it seemed to me that its representation of Dorothy [Hodgkin] was politically as well as humanly misguided, and that this has implications for how one understands the broader relation between politics and science in her life.

"Dorothy did not have a very high opinion of Thatcher," she went on. "As a chemist she thought her average; as a politician she deeply disapproved of her."

Of course Katharine Hodgkin is right. In response to similar criticism of his version of Niels and Margrethe Bohr, Michael Frayn conceded, "It is impossible to catch the exact tone of voice of people one never knew." But neither of these two plays is a memoir or a personal recollection. They are both, in my view, successful attempts at a kind of bridging between fact and fiction that captures the feelings behind the ideas.

Image caption Heisenberg (Daniel Craig) and Bohr (Stephen Rea) in the TV adaptation of Copenhagen

In 1999 I took my mother, then in her early 80s, to see Frayn's Copenhagen at the Duchess Theatre in London's West End. She and my father had met the Bohrs, and they had moved in similar circles after the war. During the interval she explained to us, a little tetchily, which parts of the dialogue had sounded implausible to her, and where there had been small inaccuracies. Her insights were telling.

As the curtain came down on the final act, and the lights came up, I turned to my mother to ask her how she now felt about the play. She was sitting, hands folded in her lap, tears coursing down her face. Only later could she tell us it was like being there all over again.

Sometimes it takes something other than perfect fidelity to sharpen our senses, to focus our attention sympathetically, in order to give us emotional access to the past. Silence comes between the historian and the truth he or she looks to the sources to reveal. Thank goodness for the creative imagination of fiction writers, who can reconnect us with the historical feelings, as well as the facts.

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