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EMBL/EMBO Joint Conference 2000

Carl Djerassi, Stanford University, USA


Carl Djerassi, Professor of Chemistry at Stanford University, is one of the few American scientists to have been awarded both the National Medal of Science (for the first synthesis of a steroid oral contraceptive - ëthe Pill1) and the National Medal of Technology (for promoting new approaches to insect control).

A member of the US National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as well as many foreign academies, Djerassi has received 18 honorary doctorates together with numerous other honors, such as the first Wolf Prize in Chemistry, the first Award for the Industrial Application of Science from the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Chemical Society1s highest award, the Priestley Medal.

For the past decade, he has turned to fiction writing, mostly in the genre of ëscience-in-fiction,1 whereby he illustrates, in the guise of realistic fiction, the human side of scientists and the personal conflicts faced by scientists in their quest for scientific knowledge, personal recognition, and financial rewards. In addition to 5 novels (Cantor1s Dilemma; The Bourbaki Gambit; Marx, deceased; Menachem1s Seed; NO), short stories (The Futurist and Other Stories), and autobiography (The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas1 Horse), he has recently embarked on a series of plays, which he describes in his web site as ëscience-in-theatre. ëAn Immaculate Misconception,1 first performed at the 1998 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and subsequently (1999) in London, San Francisco and Vienna (under the title Unbefleckt), was broadcast by BBC Radio on its World Service in May 2000 as ëPlay of the Week.1 His second play, ëOxygen1 (co-authored with Roald Hoffmann) will open in 2001. A radio play adaptation of his novel, ëThe Bourbaki Gambit,1 was broadcast by the West German Radio (WDR, Radio-5) in June 2000.

He is also the founder of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program near Woodside, California, which provides residencies and studio space for artists in the visual arts, literature, choreography and performing arts, and music. Over 1000 artists have passed through that program since its inception in 1982.


Science in theatre

Science is inherently dramatic – at least in the opinion of scientists because it deals with the new and unexpected. But does it follow that scientists are dramatic personae? Or that science can become the stuff of drama? Until now, "science-in-theater" has proved to be a rare genre, although play-wrights of the caliber of Brecht, DŽrrenmatt, Whitemore, and Stoppard have on occasion chosen scientists or scientific themes as components for the plots of major plays.

A more recent phenomenon of the London theater scene is the appearance of "pure" science-in-theater plays by prominent playwrights who are not scientists. Steven Poliakoff1s Blinded by the Sun attempted to illuminate some of the idio-syncratic aspects of a scientist1s drive for name recognition as well as the competitive aspects of a collegial enterprise through a theatrical version of the chemical "cold fusion" debacle of the early 1990s. Michael Frayn1s Copenhagen calls upon quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle for much of the scintillating interplay during a war-time encounter in Copenhagen between two physicists, Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, under the skeptical eye of Bohr1s wife. Although Frayn made no concession to scientific illiteracy, the play still became a major West End theatrical success.

But can "science-in-theater" also fulfill an effective pedagogic function on the stage or are pedagogy and drama antithetical? Must pedagogic motivation be an automatic kiss of death when writing for the commercial theater? "Didactic," other than "boring," is usually the most damning term used by a reviewer to drive a prospective audience from a given play. Is that because the dictionary definition of the term is "designed or intended to teach" and that common wisdom tells us that a theater-going public abhors being taught?

However, Webster1s dictionary contains also an expanded definition of "didactic," namely "intended to convey instruction and information, as well as pleasure and entertainment" (emphasis added) – a modern version of Horace1s famous line from Ars Poetica: "Lectorem delectando pariterque monendo" (delighting the reader at the same time as instructing him). Carl Djerassi has attempted to accomplish both aims in a "science-in-theater" play ("An Immaculate Misconception") in which information about an important aspect of assisted reproductive technology is presented together with some of its ethical dimensions.

There is one other point worth mentioning about "science-in-theater.". Written scientific discourse is invariably monologist, so that even a lecture based on such a text lacks any dialog. Yet dialog is the most human form of communication and the defining characteristic element of theater. 3An Immaculate Misconception2, though dealing entirely with science, is pure dialog.