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Vol. 41, No. 2, April 2012
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History of Science on Stage: Experiences and Reflections

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Robert Marc Friedman, University of Oslo & Tromsø, Johns Hopkins University

Values and emotions are of course constitutive of the world of science. To explore such issues, I dramatize the history of science. Although my turn to theatre was highly personal, I learned quickly the value of such efforts for diffusing insight from research to various publics and for entering into dialogue with them.

In 1999, at the first of two seminars on Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen arranged by Dr. Finn Aaserud, Director of the Niels Bohr Archives, I thanked Frayn for reviving my belief in a theatre of ideas. Many decades earlier, I had abandoned thoughts of becoming a playwright when, as an impressionable drama student in New York, I heard during the intermission of a Harold Pinter play, the following: Wife: "Harry, what did that mean?" Harry: "I dunno, but at 20 bucks an hour for parking, let's get the hell out of here." This anecdote both reveals my earlier cowardice/prudence, which resulted in my turning to history of science, and reminds us that a play must be able to attract, and hold, an audience. What within the history of science might lend itself to creating a play that can draw a producer, money, director, and viewers? History and science are of course only part of the equation; any number of theatrical resources can help breathe life into historical episodes that might appear less than promising. Still, no matter how fascinating particular scientific episodes and personalities might be, these can induce snoring among theatre-goers if the craft of playwriting is not respected. Whereas the historian and the novelist can tell a story, the playwright must show it.

To use drama as a means to educate and entertain obviously requires adopting a bit of modesty towards the task. I decided to begin with one-act plays based on episodes analyzed in my book The Politics of Excellence: Behind the Nobel Prize in Science (2001). The Nobel medallion is etched with human frailties, but can the noble and ignoble efforts of committee members to fulfill their difficult task be transformed into theatre? Popularizing through drama should not mean trivializing history, but rather crafting narratives with different conventions than those used in scholarly texts. Writing a play serves as an extension of historical analysis, a process for examining riddles that even after many years of research remain unresolved.

One of the plays focused on why the Nobel committees refused to acknowledge physicist Lise Meitner's contributions to the discovery of nuclear fission. I had not come very far when Swedish actors who had performed Copenhagen invited me to write just such a play for the Gothenburg International Science Festival. I accepted.

Remembering Miss Meitner is set in the theatrical present. Using recent historical scholarship, the play brings Lise Meitner, Otto Hahn, and Manne Siegbahn back to life, where they confront the revelations portrayed in academic works such as Ruth Sime's excellent biography and my own study of the Nobels. In more recent productions, these characters are summoned to a staged reading of a full-length play, and, while waiting for others to arrive, they begin to discuss what Siegbahn and Hahn consider a scandalous play that absolutely must not be produced. Their increasingly heated exchanges about the intended play bring them into confrontation about the past.

Meitner devoted herself to physics. She understood that the world of science had its share of social imperfections, but that did not stop her from embarking on a memorable career. Nazi persecution stripped her of her possessions and employment; in 1938, she fled from Berlin to Sweden. Three injustices that followed brought further sorrow. Despite having led the team that included chemists Hahn and Fritz Strassmann and having secretly remained in contact with Hahn after fleeing Berlin, she was denied credit in the discovery of nuclear fission. After the war, Hahn refused to acknowledge her role during the crucial months after she had left. He also conveniently forgot his own confusion and misconceptions while 'discovering' fission. In Stockholm, as an internationally prominent nuclear physicist, Meitner was, to her mind, shabbily treated and hindered from continuing her research. Her reluctant host, Manne Siegbahn, guarded his authority and the resources of his Nobel institute for experimental physics jealously. The Nobel committees for both physics and chemistry subsequently chose to ignore Meitner's contributions to the discovery and explanation of fission. In 1945 Hahn—"the good German"—alone received the 1944 Nobel chemistry prize. He had been nominated and promoted largely by members of the Nobel chemistry committee themselves. The physicists refused to acknowledge fission with a prize. Siegbahn and others relied on the secrecy of Nobel proceedings to bury their biased and faulty evaluations. Meitner remained silent; history now suggests why and how these events happened.

In April 2002, after the first performance, the stage darkened to enthusiastic applause. Soon, however, other tones emerged. A discussion revealed that the play was capable of provoking debate. Defensiveness over the Nobel institution and Manne Siegbahn came to the fore. Subsequent events show that such plays offer opportunities for constructive dialogue among scientists, the general public, historians, and theatre artists. Wherever the play has been staged, it prompted lively discussion and raised both scientists' and non-scientists' awareness of discrimination in science as well as the importance of values other than lusting after prizes or personal and institutional self-promotion at any cost.

I am now preparing to publish the play along with historical background materials. Responses to my other plays, "Becoming Albert Einstein" (2005) and most recently "Amundsen vs Nansen" reinforce my belief that we historians should be more active in reclaiming terrain occupied in recent decades by popular science writers. We have much to contribute to the public understanding of science and to raising the consciousness of academics more generally. Historians of science should acquire skills that can allow us to use different media to reach new audiences. Of course, we need department chairs and deans to appreciate that such work is worthy of support.

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