“The Physicists” was first performed in 1962 Zürich,Switzerland and then translated into English in 1964. The play focuses on a mental asylum run by famed Physicist Mathilde von Zahnd. She is watching over three men in the asylum whom are all labeled as mentally ill. The first man Herbert Georg Beutler believes he is Isaac Newton. The second man Ernst Heinrich Ernest believes he is Albert Einstein. The third man Johann Wilhelm Möbius believes King Solomon is visiting him from the Old Testament. Over the course of the play we find out that three men are faking their insanity. It is revealed that mad Möbius made an incredible scientific discovery that would completely change humanity forever. However Möbius fears what Mankind would do with its tremendous power and decided to fake insanity to protect the human race. “Einstein” and “Newton” reveal themselves to be spies each from a different country. They infiltrated the asylum in order to find Möbius and gain his scientific knowledge. Both spies make pleads to Möbius, ultimately though Möbius convinces the two that his discovery is too dangerous for the human race and that he has already destroyed the all the documents relating to his scientific discovery. The three men decided to live out their lives in the asylum where mankind will be safe from their knowledge. However in the plays final scene Mathilde von Zahnd reveals that she has known about Möbius true identity for years and that she copied all of Möbius scientific documents for herself. She plans to use Möbius’s discovery to conquer the world. The play ends with each of the men making a plea to the audience.
The play shines as a Dark comedy with superb writing. However what makes the play stand out is the important issue it raises that issue being the problem of scientific advancement. As mentioned above the play was written in the early 1960’s. Much of the play’s message was influenced by the scientific and technological advancements made during and after World War 2. The play asks the question of whether or not scientists should be held responsible for what mankind does with their discoveries. Despite being a pacifist Albert Einstein’s scientific discoveries were used lead to the creation of the atomic bombs in World War 2, the same bombs that killed over 200 000 Japanese when it ended the second world war. The Soviet Union quickly developed their own bomb, a hydrogen bomb in 1952 creating the arms race. In 1958 the Book “Brighter than a thousand suns: A personal history of the atomic scientists” was published. The book contained many interviews with scientists who worked on the atomic project. The book displayed many of the scientists as people obsessed with furthering their scientific research with little to re regard of the human or environmental sacrifices. To this day that same book remains the subject of controversies.
Since its inception in 1962 “The Physicists” It has been adapted into many different kinds of formats. These include films, television movies and radio plays with the latest one appearing on BBC radio in 2013.
Part of what has kept “The Physicists” so popular is it’s questioning of the role scientists play when their scientific discoveries. Are they to be held responsible for what their discoveries lead to whether that be good or bad. This is a question that is as relevant today as it was when the play was first conceived. An example of this would be the question in today’s modern world would be the debate over Stem cell research. Many scientists wish to research the possibilities behind Stem cells. The problem being that to obtain stem cells a human embryo must be destroyed, the embryo that would’ve been a human in 9 months. Dr. James Thomson, the man who created the process stated in 2007 “If human-embryonic-stem-cell research does not make you at least a little bit uncomfortable, you have not thought about it enough.”
Its not just scientist who have to deal with this problem. Creators of all kinds are forced to face the consequences for their creations. John Sylvan the creator of the Keurig coffee cup regrets creating the K-cup due to the huge environmental problems it has created.
Very few shows or movies from modern day pop culture address the issue on whether or not the scientist is responsible for their discoveries. The most well known example would be Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein.” The classic book/movie where the brilliant scientist Frankenstein is forced to deal with the horrible creature he has created.
Another example of this issue can be seen in the original “Godzilla” movie. It is important to note that I am referring to the original Japanese version of the film, not the 1956 “Americanized” version of the film with actor Raymond Burr. The original version of the film tells the story of the monster Godzilla being awakened by the Hydrogen bombs being tested in the ocean by the Japanese government. Godzilla is angered by this and attacks the country mirroring the tragedy of the 1945 atomic bombings. One of the movies protagonists Dr. Daisuke Serizawa creates a device that is capable of destroying Godzilla. However Serizawa like Möbius fears what mankind will do with his discovery after Godzilla is killed. He fears that his new weapon would be more powerful than the atomic bombs. Eventually Dr. Serizawa decides to use his weapon but not before destroying all the documents, again this is very similar to Möbius. The movie ends with Dr. Serizawa activating the device to kill Godzilla and himself so that the world will never have access to his invention. Its very surprising in hindsight just how similar “Godzilla” is to “The Physicists”. The original “Godzilla” movie is ranked 31 in Empire magazines “The Best films of world cinema” with Godzilla becoming a worldwide icon with his movie last year and sequel set to hit theatres in 2018
With shows like “The Big Bang Theory” and “Cosmos” science has entered the mainstream with very few shows or movies addressing this problem or shows asking the question on how far science should go. Which makes “The Physicists” and its message all the more important.
“The release of atomic power has changed everything except our way of thinking … the solution to this problem lies in the heart of mankind. If only I had known, I should have become a watchmaker.” -Albert Einstein 1945