- Operation Epsilon:Science, History, and Theatrical Narrative
In 1945, shortly after VE day, the Anglo-American forces rounded up ten renowned nuclear scientists and interned them at Farm Hall, an estate near Cambridge, England. All the rooms on the estate had been bugged. The conversations of the scientists were recorded on wax discs and translated. Information regarding both the scientists' research and anything else that might be of interest to the Anglo-American military was sent to Washington and London. The internship lasted from July to January. During that time, America dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery of fission. The men's responses to those events are a part of the transcript. The entire operation had the code name Operation Epsilon. The full transcripts were declassified only in 1993. They were published in England under the title Operation Epsilon: The Farm Hall Transcripts and in the states as Hitler's Uranium Club, superbly edited by Jeremy Bernstein. Besides Hahn, the other scientists were Werner Heisenberg, Max Von Laue, Karl Friederich Von Weizsacker, Paul Harteck, Karl Wirtz, Kurt Diebner Horst Korsching, and Erich Bagge. Bagge and Diebner were the only members of the Nazi party.
There is a brief allusion to these events in Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, but I had first heard of it elsewhere. Over the past six years at MIT a group of scientists and area playwrights, all interested in the recent trend of plays about science, have been meeting informally over wine and cheese. There is no set agenda for any of these meetings—except for the wine and cheese—but every session turns out to be a lively discussion, sometimes about developments in science, sometimes about theater, most often, ultimately, about both. We call it Science on Stage, but informally, we call it our "salon." Out of these sessions came a number of theater pieces, including a new adaptation of Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams, Frontier Theory, which was a collaboration between playwright and actress Rebekkah Maggore and Astrophysicist [End Page 253] James Battat, as well as both of my own plays, Small Infinities (about Sir Isaac Newton) and Operation Epsilon (2008).
The transcripts themselves are rough going for a layman, partly because of the density of the nuclear science, even more because the translations themselves are fairly wooden. Still, the events were there, the situation itself compelling and potentially very rich. Bernstein's notes were helpful with the science; so were my scientist colleagues. I had the history, if not yet the story. I had the people, if not yet the characters. There were some internal conflicts running through some sections of the transcripts. I also had some potential set pieces, the news of the bomb and the men's responses to it, the celebration honoring Hahn's Nobel Prize, and the creation of a public memorandum describing the work of the German nuclear scientists who wanted to affirm that they had only been developing a nuclear reactor and never a bomb. The memorandum was especially important. It was a vehicle for salvaging many of the scientists' reputations after having pursued their research under the Third Reich.
Working with history like this, you find yourself with a lot of givens. What I didn't yet have was a story. Once I found that, I would be faced with the most crucial question of all for any playwright. How do I tell it?
In order to find the story, I explored what this small bit of history meant to me. What was its significance? Why had I been so immediately attracted to the material? I had been haunted by a particular session of Science on Stage when we invited a recent Nobel laureate to join the group that already included at least one other Nobel laureate. Our new guest was a very nice guy and—like all the rest of us—passionate about his work. Someone raised the question of whether there was a moral dimension to pure research. Did the search for knowledge have primacy over every other consideration? Were there circumstances, either in the research itself or...