DRAMA: The Tobacco Pot – A Play in One Act (1996)

Two sepia side-by-side photographs of Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein.

[Author’s Note: I wrote this one act for the final dinner party closing the week-long 9th Annual Divisional Meeting of the Division of Particles and Fields of the American Physical Society August 1996, at the U. of MN. This piece, along with several bawdier skits, was performed very well by Dudley Riggs actors (Home – Brave New Workshop – Improv Theatre )Not that I know more than a speck of physics, but the challenge of writing a short piece to an audience of physics PhDs, including world famous specialists in particle physics appealed to me at the time. No, I’ve never had a problem with alcohol or drugs. The audience seemed to tolerate my ignorance, now and then laughed.  No one asked if the writer has completed his GED yet.]

The Tobacco Pot: A Play in One Act by Donald J. Moss (1966)

Cast of Characters

Albert Einstein: Man, 60s, in suit with vest, shabby as in many photographs, carries a pipe; heavy German accent

Neils Bohr: Taller man, mid-50s, receded hair, in dark suit with vest, diagonal tie, carries a pipe, gentle voice, heavy Danish accent.

Scene: In Einstein’s Princeton office; papers and books on all flat services; partly erased equations on messy chalkboard, large tobacco pot on desk.

Time: 1939.

Act 1, Scene 1

SETTING: Einstein’s office at Princeton, desk, with large tobacco pot, two chairs, stacks of books and papers everywhere, half erased equations on chalkboard, Lighting slightly dimmed.

AT RISE: The two men have been life-time theoretical competitors; this competitiveness shows in all their interactions, though good naturally, as if acting out how media sometimes pits them against each other. NEILS BOHR, lost in thought, stands in profile by the desk fumbling to fill his pipe. The pipe, unfilled, unlit, he moves toward back, toward the window of the large office, walking furiously left to right, his hands clasped behind his back.

BOHR: Einstein, Einstein. [BOHR’S hands fidget with the pipe. Einstein enters stage left on tiptoe. He pauses only an instant to watch BOHR and smiles. He heads silently for the tobacco pot] Gezukenakken, pond scum. That means “pond scum” in Danish. He’s always late. Oh, Einstein! [BOHR picks up chalk, announcing as he writes] E … = … m … C … squared. [Just as EINSTEIN’S fingers eagerly touch the tobacco pot, BOHR suddenly spins round. The two men pretend to glare at each other.] Stealing from my pot again, Herr Doc-tor Albert?

EINSTEIN: [quickly, neatly, packs his pipe full] My dear Herr Doc-tor Professor Bohr, you know my physician forbade me from buying my own. “For your health, Dr. Einstein,” he said, “do not purchase tobacco.”

BOHR: For your health he approves of your raiding my pot, Huh! He should have said, “Do not steal from your friends, dear Doc-tor.”

EINSTEIN: Doc-tor, BOHR, you are getting older too. Has not your doctor shut you off yet?

BOHR: I (a) have a different doc-tor with whom I (b) have come to an understanding about that. But, Herr Albert, has our “shared” science so separated us that all we have in common is my tobacco pot?

EINSTEIN: Is this not my office?

BOHR: It is, it is, and I shall be forever grateful; but you did say you prefer the minuscule assistant’s space.

EINSTEIN: That I do. It gives me a place to think without wearing myself out pacing a wide floor. By the way, do you recall that little clock-in-the-box experiment I once proposed to challenge Herr Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle?

BOHR: How I do. The Solvay meeting, 1930, struck dumb, didn’t know what to say until morning; I point out you hadn’t accounted for the weighing process, for it is amounting for, to observing the displacement of the box in a gravitational field. [BOHR looks toward audience] But who here doesn’t recall this? Albert, what has that to do with my tobacco pot?

EINSTEIN: Very little, if your mind isn’t as sharp as it was back then. Herr BOHR, I propose one more experiment to test your need for those uncertainties.

BOHR: Differing with you has always sharpened my wits, but hasn’t quantum proven itself to you some tiny amount, Herr Albert?

EINSTEIN: Of course it has, dear Neils, except for your confidence in uncertainties, its indifference to cause and effect, and what appears a fact that it fails to describe the real world.

BOHR: Those are its postulates you belittle so neatly. Albert, what do you propose?

EINSTEIN: Just this, that we close the door und da vin-dows, then, using your watch, which we might call Absolute Time, we crack the vin-dow, and at exactly 1400 hours, we let a little smoke escape, then we close it quickly, walk back to the desk, and sit down.

BOHR: [Excitedly] OH, this is sounding a lot like the clock-in-the-box, except you want us to actually perform the experiment. How many years since we’ve performed such a thing as an experiment! Won’t we need to weigh the room, and from the weight difference one can deduce the arbitrary accuracy of both the energy and the time.

EINSTEIN: [Interrupting] This time no weighing. This time we walk over here… [BOHR jumps up and paces] Dear, Neils, no pacing! This time we walk over here, we sit down…

BOHR: [Bohr, still excited, but becoming puzzled] And sit down? Albert, do we know how long?

EINSTEIN: It is certain we cannot know that.

BOHR: Certain we cannot… Then, Albert, what are we testing in or experiment?

EINSTEIN: That may not be disclosed to us.

BOHR: May not be disclosed to us? This English word ‘may,’ how do we mean that? But wait, what if someone simply enters the room, Abraham Pais, my assistant, for instance?

EINSTEN: Tell me, Neils, what if he did? [Lighting his pipe and sliding the pot toward BOHR and lights up]

BOHR: Or perhaps Heisenberg … He’d be intrigued by this idea, I think. [BOHR fills his pipe and lights up]

EINSTEIN: I am certain he would like this very much. I’ve forgotten, does he smoke a pipe?

BOHR: He does not.

EINSTEIN: All the better for us. Your pot will last longer by a third. [He gets up and closes the door]

BOHR: Are you saying we should begin the experiment, right here, now, Albert?

EINSTEIN: As good a time as any, in fact, with no particular reason either to begin or not to begin, let us by all means begin.

BOHR: [Smiling excitedly] By all means, let us begin this experiment. [Stands up and starts to pace]

EINSTEIN: [Shouting] Dear Neils, please be seated. [Softly] It is specified in the experiment: No pacing.

BOHR: [BOHR, moving back to his chair, containing himself, but is barely touching the chair] But after all these years, after all my arguments, why I … I don’t understand; I mean, what has finally changed your mind?

EINSTEIN: [Tending his pips] After all these years, Neils, I do this for physics. I could no longer stand in the way of progress.

[They sit quietly smoking, each in his own manner]



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