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Playing With Science: Djerassi’s Latest ‘Chemistry-Centric’ Play Debuts In London

Bubbleology in practice: Tim Dutton (left) plays Polish chemist Jerzy Krzyz with Walter van Dyk as chemistry chair Leo Hamble. Credit: Andy Jordan Productions

This post was written by Alex Scott, senior editor for C&EN’s business department, who is based in Europe.

Smudged diagrams of chemicals on a white board, a desk overflowing with research papers and scientific journals: This might be a typical chemist’s office you’ve just walked into. Except it isn’t—it’s the set of “Insufficiency,” a whodunnit with a chemistry-centric plot and the ninth play by Carl Djerassi, the Austrian-American chemist and playwright. The play just started a four-week run in London’s Riverside Theatre and is being well-received.

Djerassi, the inventor of the oral contraceptive pill, who is now 88, has set his play around the workings of a U.S. university chemistry department. The audience is a fly on the wall to the frustration and ambition of key players in the department and becomes the jury when Polish chemist Jerzy Krzyz is tried for a double murder.

In “Insufficiency,” Djerassi informs the audience about the process of science, topical issues such as funding, scientific objectivity, obsession with results, subsequent pressure to publish results, and how personalities and relationships can get in the way of everything scientific.

Bringing science into a play and presenting scientific concepts to the general public is an approach that Djerassi describes as his act of “intellectual smuggling.” And he does plenty of smuggling in “Insufficiency,” leading the audience through the development of a new field of science known as bubbleology. We even get to hear about the “fractal surface nature of bubbles” before the head of the chemistry department tells our Polish chemist and would-be murderer, “Enough about bubbles, I’ve got a department to run!”

It’s great to see science being made accessible to a wider audience. Djerassi’s play in London this week drew hoots of laughter and much applause and, undoubtedly, a greater understanding about how scientists go about their work. It’s a play well worth seeing even if science isn’t part of your daily diet. Okay, so C&EN wasn’t one of the scientific journals that appeared on stage strewn about the chemist’s desk, and there was a weird scene toward the end of the play involving a lot of flatulence, but you can’t have everything.

Following the London run of the play, there will be dramatic readings of “Insufficiency” next month at the University of Wisconsin, Kenyon College, in Gambier, Ohio, and at the Technical University of Berlin in December. For more details, go to www.djerassi.com/schedule.

2 Comments

  • Sep 28th 201214:09
    by Chemjobber

    I wonder what inspired the specific topic of bubbles. The sono/fusion/deuterated acetone thing at Purdue?

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