What We See

Excerpts of dialogue spoken by the Werner Heisenberg character in Michael Frayn’s Tony award winning play, Copenhagen:

How difficult it is to see even what’s in front of one’s eyes. All we possess is the present, and the present endlessly dissolves into the past…And yet how much more difficult still it is to catch the slightest glimpse of what’s behind one’s eyes.

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Werner Heisenberg, 1965 BBC interview And that’s when I did uncertainty. Walking round Faelled Park on my own one horrible raw February night. It’s very late, and as soon as I’ve turned off into the park I’m completely alone in the darkness. I start to think about what you’d see, if you could train a telescope on me from the mountains of Norway.

You’d see me by the street lamps on the Blegdamsvej, then nothing as I vanished into the darkness, then another glimpse of me as I passed the lamp-post in front of the bandstand. And that’s what we see in the cloud chamber. Not a continuous track but a series of glimpses — a series of collisions between the passing electron and various molecules of water vapour…

Or think of you, on your great papal progress to Leiden in 1925. What did Margrethe see of that, at home here in Copenhagen? A picture postcard from Hamburg, perhaps. Then one from Leiden. One from Göttingen. One from Berlin. Because what we see in the cloud chamber are not even the collisions themselves, but the water-droplets that condense around them, as big as cities around a traveler — no, vastly bigger still, relatively — complete countries — Germany…Holland…Germany again. There is no track, there are no precise addresses; only a vague list of countries visited. I don’t know why we hadn’t thought of it before, except that we were too busy arguing to think at all.