Playing With Science: Djerassi’s Latest ‘Chemistry-Centric’ Play Debuts In London
Sep28

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

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...

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Syntex Made It Possible, Sic Manebimus in Pace, Or Sexy Man Invents Pill: An Evening With Carl Djerassi
Mar11

Syntex Made It Possible, Sic Manebimus in Pace, Or Sexy Man Invents Pill: An Evening With Carl Djerassi

The toughest part of blogging about a chemist like Carl Djerassi has been figuring out where among C&EN's blogs the post fits. He's ended up in The Haystack this time, my reasoning being "this is the inventor of the Pill, for Pete's sake", but I could just as easily imagine David musing about the pill's natural product connections (Mexican yams!) at Terra Sigillata, or myself posting in Newscripts about Djerassi's announcement on a work-in-progress: a new play called "Insufficiency" about a chemist who is denied tenure. (That's all I know so far!) It was pouring in DC last night as I sloshed four blocks north of ACS's headquarters to the Carnegie Insitution for Science, to meet Djerassi and take in a screening of "Carl Djerassi- My Life", an homage that follows Djerassi to Vienna, Stanford, and SoHo theaters. After the film, Djerassi and ACS Executive Director Madeleine Jacobs had an "Inside the Actors' Studio"-style chat. Matt of Sciencegeist couldn't make it for the evening, and I promised him via Twitter that I'd post if Djerassi said anything interesting. That's when Chemjobber jumped in: Chemjobber: @carmendrahl @sciencegeist If? Touché, CJ. Clearly, as Matt then noted, I'd have to post WHEN Djerassi said interesting stuff, not if. So behold: choice Djerassi quotes from the evening. From the film: "I'm ambitious. This ambition, it's a drive, but it's also poisonous." On the name for his expansive ranch, originally named SMIP for Syntex made it possible, and dubbed Sic Manebimus in Pace (Thus we'll remain in peace) after a conversation with Stanford physicist and Nobelist Felix Bloch: Djerassi says friends and visiting artists have played around with other possibilities- "See me in private, sexy man invents Pill". On receiving the National Medal of Science from Richard Nixon: "I swore to myself I wouldn't laugh when he handed it to me." Djerassi hadn't voted for Nixon and opposed the Vietnam War. But Nixon said something funny about football when shaking his hand, which made him laugh. "And that's the photo the White House took." Because Djerassi ended up on an 'enemies list' for his Vietnam opposition, his Stanford students eventually captioned the photo in the lab: 'Support your local enemy'. On marrying his second wife when she became pregnant: "That's actually funny for someone who worked so intently on the Pill." On the Pill's social impact: "People think technology causes change." But sometimes, the social landscape changes in such a way that "it creates the right conditions to introduce new technology". From the discussion afterward: On public outreach through literature and plays: "I'd like to touch the people that didn't come here" (to a...

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