Contemporary “Science-in-theatre”: a raregenre**
By Carl Djerassi
Is“science-in-theatre” a special genre or is the phrase itself acontradiction in terms? To explain its use in my title, I shall start with mydefinition of “science-in-fiction”—a literary form that Ihave been exploring since the late 1980s and that eventually brought me to“science-in-theatre.” Having now published four“science-in-fiction” novels—all of them still inprint—I feel confident in offering a definition. For me, the most importantcharacteristic of “science-in-fiction” (in contrast to sciencefiction) is that all the science and behavior of scientists described in it isimpeccably accurate or at least plausible. Why should that be important? I wantto use fiction to smuggle scientific facts into the consciousness of ascientifically illiterate public—a pedagogic activity I considerintellectually and socially beneficial, because the majority of scientificallyuntrained persons are afraid of science. But for such pedagogic purposes,accuracy and plausibility are essential. The moment many scientificallyilliterate persons learn that some scientific facts are about to be sprung onthem, they raise a mental shield. It is those people—the ascientific oreven antiscientific—that I wanted to touch through the medium of fiction.Instead of starting with the aggressive preamble, “let me tell you aboutmy science,” I prefer to start with the more seductive “let me tellyou a story” and then incorporate real science and true-to-life scientistsinto the tale. And if such a tale is presented on the stage rather than on theprinted page, we are dealing with “science-in-theatre.”
Openadmission of a desire for pedagogic smuggling immediately raises the warningflag associated with the charged term “didactic.” The standarddictionary definition of “didactic—“designed or intendedto teach”—sounds harmlessenough, and especially to a scientist, who after all is primed to write nothingbut didactic prose. But listen to the literati say the word and the pejorativeovertone is clear. “Didactic” is the sharpest stiletto in anydismissive review of a work of fiction or drama. People do not pick up a novelor go to the theatre to be educated, the professionals tell us—people goto be entertained. But what Quintus Horatius Flaccus said some 2000 years agoin his Ars Poetica: “Lectoremdelectando pariterque monendo” [delightingthe reader at the same time as instructing him] is also true today as shown bythe second definition of the word “didactic” in Webster’sDictionary: “intended to convey instruction and information, as well as pleasure and entertainment.” So what is wrong with learning somethingwhile being entertained? Or from the playwright’s perspective, why notuse drama to smuggle important information generally not available on the stageinto the minds of a general public?
Thisbrings me to a further refinement of the term “science-in-theatre.”For my purpose, it is not sufficient to simply insert here or there somescience into a play or have some characters that are not just Frankensteins,Strangeloves or idiots savants. There are plays—admittedly few, butimportant ones, and written by famous playwrights—that have scientificthematic themes, yet I would not categorize them as pure “science-in-theatre.”Four examples should suffice: Brecht’s “Life of Galileo,” Dürrenmatt’s “ThePhysicists,” andStoppard’s “Hapgood”and “Arcadia.”
Brecht’sand Dürrenmatt’s motivation was primarily to express theirskepticism about science, the actual science playing a minimal role.Brecht’s politics made him question any science that was not devoted tothe service of the people, while Dürrenmatt in expressing his fear ofatomic and nuclear annihilation at the height of the Cold War put his Newton,Einstein and Möbius characters into an insane asylum, which became hismetaphor for the physicist’s world. Galileo, of course, illuminates also the conflict betweenreligion and science and the ultimately flawed natures of scientists and of menof the cloth—topics that for me make that play much timelier in the year2002 than The Physicists.
Skepticismof contemporary science does not happen to be Stoppard’s motivation forintroducing scientific gems into a few of his plays. He has always shown ahealthy curiosity for the intellectual qualities of science and like othernon-scientist playwrights has used science for metaphorical purposes. I ratherdoubt that his motivation in writing “Hapgood” was to illustrate Einstein’sphotoelectric effect or Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, both of whichare described at length by a physicist-turned spy, named Kerner. Here is abrief excerpt from one of Kerner’s speeches:
“The particle world is the dream world of theintelligence officer. An electron can be here or there at the same moment. Youcan choose; it can go from here to there without going in between; it can passthrough two doors at the same time, or from one door to another by a path whichis there for all to see until someone looks, and then the act of looking has madeit take a different path. Its movements cannot be anticipated because it has noreasons. It defeats surveillance because when you know what it’s doingyou can’t be certain where it is, and when you know where it is youcan’t be certain what it’s doing: Heisenberg’s uncertaintyprinciple; and this is not because you’re not looking carefully enough,it is because there is no such thing as an electron with a definite positionand a definite momentum…”
Stoppardwas writing a fiendishly clever whodunit—not an explication of 20thcentury physics—and he was neither the first nor the last to useHeisenberg’s physics as metaphor, although using Einstein’sphotoelectric effect (which I will not quote) was more unusual.
Thatleaves Arcadia. I am an enormousfan of Stoppard’s plays, with Arcadia a close second to my personal favorite, Travesties. But is Arcadia “science-in-theatre”? Of course it has didactic sequencesdealing with science—some rather long. A description of Fermat’slast theorem appears within the first few minutes of the play, right after along and hilarious definition of “carnal embrace.” Septimus Hodge,the tutor, has this to say:
“Carnal embrace is sexual congress, which isthe insertion of the male genital organ into the female genital organ for thepurposes of procreation and pleasure. Fermat’s last theorem, by contrast,asserts that when x, y and z are whole numbers each raised to power of n, thesum of the first two can never equal the third when n is greater than 2.”
Butwhile Fermat reappears here and there for brief moments, it is iteratedalgorithms and chaos theory that occupy the better part of a scene in Arcadia, with one monologue covering almost an entire page oftext. Some of it is quite straightforward:
“Youhave some x- and y-equation. Any value for x gives you a value for y. So youput a dot where it’s right for both x and y. Then you take the next valuefor x which gives you another value for y, and when you’ve done that afew times you join up the dots and that’s your graph of whatever theequation is…. [But] what she’s doing is, every time she works out avalue for y, she’s using that as her next value for x. And so on. Like afeedback. She’s feeding the solution back into the equation, and thensolving it again. Iteration, you see.”
Latersequences become more complicated as they explain the use of such approaches tocontemporary population biology. I suspect that Stoppard’s realmotivation for many of his didactic forays was not to teach his theatreaudience about iterated algorithms. Rather, Arcadia had to do with nature and how we humans handle andmishandle, or understand and misunderstand it. Listen to this sequence from thesame scene:
“People were talking about the end ofphysics. Relativity and quantum looked as if they were going to clean out thewhole problem between them. A theory of everything. But they only explained thevery big and the very small. The universe, the elementary particles. Theordinary-sized stuff which is our lives, the things people write poetry about—clouds—daffodils—waterfalls—andwhat happens in a cup of coffee when the cream goes in—these things arefull of mystery, as mysterious to us as the heavens were for the Greeks.We’re better at predicting events at the edge of the galaxy or inside thenucleus of an atom than whether it’ll rain on auntie’s garden partythree Sundays from now.”
Afew lines later appeared the punch line, “It’s the best possibletime to be alive, when almost everything you thought you knew is wrong.” Somehow, coming from the pen of anon-scientist of Stoppard’s renown, it has a more authentic and lessself-serving ring than if a professional scientist had written those words.Still, I believe that the science in Stoppard’s plays—even the mostdidactic sequences—are there because Stoppard decided to write a play forwhich scientific concepts are useful and intellectually attractive metaphors.But they are not intrinsic to the story. Arcadia could have been written without Fermat’s lasttheorem or even without chaos theory as a literary lark around Lord Byron. Itwould not have been the same play, but it still would have been performed andmost likely also acclaimed as a successful play.
Whilenone of the above-mentioned plays falls into my definition of pure“science-in-theatre,” two recent ones (written by two first-classplaywrights lacking any sort of formal scientific credentials) do so, becausethe very plot and rationale for those plays rest on scientists and theirscience. Without them, there would be no play. Coincidentally, both firstopened at the Cottesloe Theatre of the NRT. Both contain healthy doses ofdidacticism and in the process convincingly demonstrate that theatre withdidactic scientific elements is not invariably doomed to failure; that not allaudiences (as the New York Times criticBruce Weber once wrote) are so conditioned by low-brow entertainment that theyare only prepared to have their senses tickled, but not their brains massaged.
Ishall start with Stephen Poliakoff’s “Blinded by the Sun” (1996) in which he attempted to illuminate some of theidiosyncratic aspects of a scientist’s drive for name recognition as wellas the competitive aspects of a collegial enterprise through a theatricalversion of the chemical “cold fusion” fiasco of the early 1990s. Asone of the characters states: “Water contains hydrogen. But how to getit out? … Hydrogen, which will run planes, cars, anything you want. Andwhen you burn it, it will turn back into water. Polluting nothing.”
That’swhy the initial claims by Pons and Fleischmann in 1989 to having discoveredcold fusion had caused such a sensation among chemists and physicists and eventhe general press. But on the following page in the play’s text,scientific didacticism raised its ugly head:
ELINOR: Is it anatase or rutile? You haven’t usedan adsorbed dye to shift the Lambda-max, clearly—
CHRISTOPHER: The particles have an electrodepositedcoating. It’s only a few nanometers thick so refractive index matchingmakes it—
ELINOR: Yes, it certainly seems to have a highquantum yield. Maybe there’s an added sulfonated surfactant to enhancemass transport at the surface?
CHRISTOPHER: No. Think more of a catalyticsystem—
To an audience equipped with more curiosity thanknowledge about science, such words constitute meaningless gobbledygook. DidPoliakoff have his scientists speak these lines because he felt that a theatreaudience would not have understood the real chemistry? Or is the playwright,dealing with serious science, faced by an intrinsic barrier unrelated to thetheatre?
Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen”(1998) suggests that such pessimism is not always warranted. Or to put itanother way, that it depends on the science one wishes to illuminate. Chemistrymay be tougher than physics or astronomy or math because of its heavydependence on chemical structural formulae. Frayn displayed true courage byrefusing to concede to scientific illiteracy. He draws upon quantum mechanicsand the uncertainty principle for much of the scintillating interplay betweentwo Nobelists, Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr with Margrethe Bohr playing therole of the non-scientists at whose level the didactic passages had to bepitched—a point made openly clear in the following comment of Bohr toHeisenberg:
“You know how strongly I believe that wedon’t do science for ourselves, that we do it so we can explain it toothers… in plain language. Not your view I know—you’d behappy to describe what you were up to purely in differential equations if youcould—but for Margrethe’s sake…”
Though enormously pleased for what the success of Copenhagen—a smash hit both in the West End and onBroadway—has done for “science-in-theatre” and the suddenattention that genre is now receiving, I am still surprised at the play’swide acceptance by commercial theatres to whom science is usually anathema.That the author was an established playwright, known for his humor, undoubtedlyhelped, although Copenhagen didnot contain a single line intended for a chuckle, let alone a belly laugh a la“Noises Off.” I am absolutely convinced that if theidentical script were sent over the transom to London or Manhattan theatres byan unknown playwright, it would not even have been read, let alone produced.Pages of didactic exposition by two characters, where uncertainty in perceptionand memory rather than dramatic excitement reigns, is not the stuff out whichhits are usually generated. I have to admit that I loved the play—andseen it twice—at the Cottesloe and in the West End. But what about thebulk of the audiences—the non-scientists? Do they accept such material inthe same spirit of snob appeal that made several million people buy copies ofStephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time for display—mostly unread—on coffeetables? And how would the average literary manager of a theatre respond if hehad happened on the following page of a script by an unknown playwright?
Heisenberg:Max Born and Pascual Jordan in Göttingen.
Bohr: Yes,but Schrödinger in Zürich, Fermi in Rome.
Heisenberg:Chadwick and Dirac in England.
Bohr: Joliotand de Broglie in Paris.
Heisenberg:Gamow and Landau in Russia.
Bohr: Youremember when Goudsmit and Uhlenbeck did spin?
Heisenberg:There’s this one last variable in the quantum state of the atom thatno one can make sense of. The last hurdle—
Bohr: Pauliand Stern are waiting on the platform to ask me what I think about spin.
Heisenberg:Then the train pulls into Leiden.
Bohr: AndI’m met at the barrier by Einstein and Ehrenfest.
I readily admit that it is unfair to quote any passagefrom a play out of context, but the above may well represent a world record forthe number of different surnames—sixteen in all—appearing within asingle page of a play. Frayn’s presumed justification—which Iapplaud—was didactic realism rather than the euphony created by thispotpourri of European surnames, many of them familiar only to physicists. To myknowledge, Copenhagen receiveduniformly complimentary reviews and commentary with one exception: a seriouscritique by an American historian, Paul L. Rose, the author of a recent bookentitled “Heisenberg and the Nazi Atomic Bomb Project.” In his lengthy piece in the Chronicle ofHigher Education, Rose complimentsFrayn on the theatrical aspects of Copenhagen, but chastises him severely on a major didacticpoint. Not on quantum physics and complimentarity, but on the revisionistnature of Frayn’s interpretation of Heisenberg’s role in theputative German atomic fission project. This is a serious point, because it wasthis historic aspect of Copenhagenthat represented the dramatic focus of the play. I will not further dwell onRose’s criticism other than to mention that for didacticism to work in aplay or a piece of fiction, it ought to be accurate. Of course, scientific andhistorical accuracy are two different things. Frayn anticipated this argument,which is also the reason why the published text of the play contains a denselywritten authorial postscript defending his interpretation of the historicalrecord. The very recent unsealing of some of Bohr’s papers onlycomplicates the issue further.
Whether “pure” science-in-theatre”plays will become more common fare among serious theatres or be limited tooccasional forays by famous playwrights remains to be seen. Jean-NoëlFenwick’s play, Les Palmes de M. Schutz—antedating Poliakoff’s and Frayn’splays by several years—deals with Marie and Pierre Curie’sdiscovery of radium. It is staged in its entirety in a realistic replica of alaboratory and went way beyond a success d’estime in France to be turned eventually into a film. TheItalian title of the play, Amore e Chimica, though kitschy, even dared to bring the word “chemistry”into the title. Yet to my knowledge, the play has not yet been presented inEnglish even though more than a decade has passed since its French premiere.
Thisbrings me to an American example, “QED,” a theatrical attempt by Peter Parnell to depict onstage Richard Feynman, one of the greatest 20th century physicists.“QED” opened to greatacclaim in 2001 in Los Angeles and proved equally successful upon its transferto Lincoln Center in New York. Parnell and his director Gordon Davidson surelywould consider “QED”—very professionally played by AlanAlda—pure “science-in-theatre,” but to me it was at best anentertaining farce—an example par excellence of anon-scientist author parodying for a dumbed-down audience his view of thespeech and behavior of scientists. While in real life, Feynman did play bongodrums and did enjoy women, his enduring fame as an inspired teacher and NobelPrize winning physicist rested on other qualities. As stated succinctly byHorace Freeland Judson in his review of the play in NATURE (410, 634 (2001)), “Actor, playwright,director—in this piece of theatre they have conspired to keep us fromFeynman’s intelligence. We get 40 seconds of a Feynman diagram scrawledon that blackboard as a gee-whiz illustration…. Instead ofFeynman’s speed of comprehension we get frenetic, fussy movement.” The playwright’s and director’s fear ofeven a whiff of didacticism as the price for scientific realism and accuracymay have produced commercially successful theatre, but not“science-in-theatre” as defined by me.
Myundisguised irritation with “QED” is associated with my personal belief that scientists operatewithin a tribal culture whose rules, mores and idiosyncrasies are generally notcommunicated through specific lectures or books, but through a form ofintellectual osmosis via a mentor-disciple relationship. As we learn to copewith the constant jockeying with colleagues and competitors over position andpriorities, the order of the authors, the choice of the journal, the quest forthe grail of academic tenure—even Nobel lust, that most exalted failingof the great—we learn how the game is played by people in white coats,speaking an impenetrable jargon, but people all the same. To me it is importantthat the public does not look at scientists primarily as nerds or Strangelovesor—as in “QED”—asa special species of clown. And because true “science-in-theatre”deals not only with real science but also with real scientists, I feel that aclansman can best describe a scientist’s tribal culture and idiosyncraticbehavior. But while science is inherently dramatic, dealing as it does with thenew and unexpected, are scientists dramatic personae—an indispensablecriterion for a successful play? Or do our idiosyncratic traits as scientistsappear so queer or dull to the rest of the world that we will never appear insuccessful plays unless represented in the extreme as was the case with QED? Is it here that a scientist-turned-author can play aconstructive role?
Towrite “science-in-theatre” does not require that the author be ascientist. All the plays I have mentioned so far were written byinternationally recognized playwrights, who had gained their scientificknowledge second- or perhaps even third-hand. Still, why is it that so few“hard” scientists—and no chemists at all, as far as I amaware—have become recognized playwrights, whereas some physicians have mademajor contributions? Consider Anton Chekov or Arthur Schnitzler, for instance.Is it because chemists find it difficult to communicate without recourse toblackboard or slides or some other kind of pictogram? Or is it because chemistsdeal primarily with abstractions at the molecular level, whereas physiciansspend their days listening to the stories of other human beings? Even the mostscientifically-invested plays succeed, if they do, because they work at thehuman level. Or is it that all formal written discourse of scientists is alwaysmonologist, whereas the theatre is the realm of dialogue?
Perhapsnone of those generalizations is the reason, yet it is that last one thattempts me the most, especially when I consider my own forays on the stage.Having talked at length about some of the masters of science-in-theatre, let meend with a long established scientist but only recently produced playwright,Carl Djerassi. In contrast to the professional playwrights l have cited so far,who mostly want to use science for their theatrical aims, I started from theopposite side, using the stage for my scientific missionary purpose. But eventhough we start at opposite ends, for any play to work, we must meet in themiddle: on the stage facing a live audience that did not come to be educated,but rather entertained. The topic I picked first was a biological one: thefuture of human reproduction. And to make my point, I turned to some recent,cutting-edge research in reproductive biology. Everyone can personallyassociate in one way or another with reproduction and sex; everyone hasopinions about the subject; and most people of theatre-going age are convincedthat they know the facts of reproductive life. To show how wrong they can be, Ipresent below an excerpt from my first play, An Immaculate Misconception, whose sub-title was “Sex in an Age ofMechanical Reproduction”—anallusion to Walter Benjamin’s famous essay of 1936 on “Art in anAge of Mechanical Reproduction.”I chose it because I consider the impending separation of sex (in bed) andfertilization (under the microscope) one of the fundamental issues facinghumanity during the coming century. I picked Benjamin’s phrase for asecond reason as well: in our preoccupation to conceive, we often forget theproduct of all the technologies we utilize, namely the resulting child.Benjamin argues, “The technique of reproduction detaches thereproduced object from the domain of tradition.” All the reader has to do is to substitute“child” for “reproducedobject” in order to land rightin the middle of the ethical thicket that reproductive technologists invariablyface: they support heroic efforts by many couples to overcome certainbiological hurdles that may very well harm rather than benefit the“reproduced object.”
For the didactic componentof that play, I chose the most ethically charged reproductive technology ofthem all, ICSI. But to appreciate the impetus for this newtechnology—only 11 years old, but already responsible for the birth ofclose to 100,000 babies—the public must understand the facts ofreproductive life. But do they really? I would offer odds that few in anaverage theatre audience could answer correctly the following question: Whileit takes only a single sperm to fertilize an egg, how many sperm must a manejaculate in order to be fertile? Answer: a fertile man ejaculates on the orderof 100 million sperm during intercourse; a man ejaculating 1 – 3 millionsperm—seemingly still a huge number—is functionally infertile. Tenyears ago, there was no hope for such men. But now, many can become fathersbecause of ICSI. Yet how many members of the theatre audience I wish to attracthave heard of ICSI or know that it is an acronym standing for“intracytoplasmic sperm injection” whatever that phrase may mean tothem?
Soassume that you have innocently purchased a theatre ticket for “AnImmaculate Misconception”—perhapsbecause of the catchy title—without having any idea that the playwrightwants to instruct as well as entertain. The ICSI procedure, though conductedunder the microscope, is usually watched in real life in the laboratory on avideo monitor connected to the microscope. In my Immaculate Misconception, the scene excerpted below is played out in front ofthe audience by projecting a real ICSI procedure on a large rear screenaccompanied by the following dialog between the biologist, Dr. Melanie Laidlaw(conducting the first ICSI procedure in history) and Dr. Felix Frankenthaler,her clinical colleague, who will eventually transfer the fertilized egg backinto the woman’s uterus.
MELANIE (Putson rubber gloves): Would you startthe VCR?
FELIX: Sure. (Pushes the button and turns toward themonitor so that only part of his face is seen. Both are completely silent asthe screen lights up. MELANIE is hunched over the microscope, both handsmanipulating the joysticks on each side of the microscope. She sits so as to beable to coordinate her words to action on the screen). Ah…here we are.
MELANIE (As single active sperm appears at bottom ofimage, excitedly interrupts): Okay…let’s see whether I can catch it with this capillary, one-tenth as thickas a human hair. But first I’ve got to crush its tail so the spermcan’t get away…. (Quickly moves pipette toward sperm and soundsjubilant as the injection pipette crushes the sperm’s tail) Gotcha!
FELIX:Not bad. Not bad at all.
MELANIE: Now comes the tricky part. I’ve got toaspirate it tail first…. As soon as I get close enough, just a littlesuction will do the trick…. Hah! Gotcha! (Screen image displays the sperm, tail first, being suckedinto the pipette. Image now shows MELANIE “playing” thesperm’s head by moving it back and forward to demonstrate that she canmanipulate it easily).
FELIX:Quit playing with him!
MELANIE: I’m not playing with it. I just want to besure that I can manipulate it at will. And why do you always call sperm “him”?Is it because the sex of a baby is always determined by the sperm? (Silencefor a few seconds.) Here we are. (Imageof egg appears). Isn’t shea beauty? Just look at her… here you are my precious baby… now staystill while I arrange you a bit… while I clasp you on my suctionpipette… polar body on top…. like a little head. I want it in the 12 o’clock position. (Eggon screen is now immobilized in precisely the desired position for the penetration).Felix, now cross your fingers. (Heleans forward, clearly fascinated. Injection pipette containing sperm appearson image but pipette remains immobile.)
FELIX (Points to pipette on extreme right of image): What’s the problem? It isn’t usuallythat difficult.
MELANIE: No … (Pause, while image on screen showsinjection pipette now aligned exactly in 3 o’clock position with respectto egg) but to do it with thissperm into… this…(does not finish the sentence as pipettepenetrates the egg. MELANIE lets out audible gasp of relief).
FELIX (Makessudden start, as if he had been pricked):My God! You did it! Beautiful penetration! (Image shows pipette restingwithin egg). Now shoot him out! (Pointsto sperm head in pipette)
MELANIE: Here we go. (Image shows sperm head at the veryend of the injection pipette. She aspirates it back and gives it a secondpush). Ah, that’s a good boy. (Carefullywithdraws pipette without apparent damage to the egg).
FELIX: You did it! Look at him, just look at him! Sittingin there. (Approaches image and points to sperm head on screen. Calmer voice). It’s amazing. That egg looks… what shall I say?…inviolate, almost virginal.
MELANIE (Looks up for first time from microscope): It better not be... (Mimics his voice with aslightly sarcastic edge) “inviolate”,to use your precious term… Iviolated it very consciously and tomorrow, I want to see cell division…Felix (points to VCR), press thepause button, will you? (He does and image of fertilized egg remains frozenon screen in full view).
FELIX: Sowho is the father?
MELANIE:There isn’t any father in the usual sense of the word.
FELIX (Ironic): An immaculate conception?
MELANIE: You know, in a way that’s true. There was nopenetration of the woman, no sexual contact. In fact, at that moment, there wasno woman, no vagina… nor a man (pause)…. The only prick (pause)… was the gentle one by a tiny needle enteringan egg in a dish, delivering a single sperm. (Laughs). Even that prick was provided by a woman. Thatprocess means nothing until the egg is implanted into the woman.
FELIX:And who is this woman? Whose eggs were you injecting?
The vast majority of the public coming to my play willnever have heard of ICSI, yet I can state unequivocally—based on myexperience with theatre audiences in Edinburgh, London, San Francisco, Vienna,Munich, Stockholm, New York, Los Angeles, Sofia, Geneva, Seoul, Tokyo and verysoon in Lisbon—that after having seen my play everyone will not only knowwhat ICSI is, but will also be able to explain it. And if that claim is true,then this “science-in-theatre” has indeed fulfilled a valuablepedagogic purpose, because if you understand the technology, you are in aposition to ask intelligent questions dealing with the ethics of such afundamental change in human reproductive capability.
Therelatively rapid acceptance of my first play in 9 languages can in large partbe ascribed to the timeliness of the topic and the inherently dramatic aspectsof human reproduction that in An Immaculate Misconception were presented so graphically—a featurecommented upon by many reviewers. But as a chemist turning into a playwright,it behooved me to see whether chemistry can be presented as effectively on thestage as, say, sex or human reproductive biology. I had the good fortune tofind a partner, Roald Hoffmann, interested in joining me in such a theatricalexperiment (even though he is a theoretician by profession, rather thanexperimentalist). In 1981, while Professor of Chemistry at Cornell University,he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his theoretical chemicalinsights. But unlike most chemists, he has been interested for years incommunicating with a broader public, and has done so through his own poetry andnon-fiction writing.
Justas I tried in my first play to hide my didactic motivations behind the scrim ofsex, in the second play, Oxygen, Hoffmannand I did this by taking up a theme—the Nobel Prize—that, at leastto scientists, is potentially also sexy. The year 2001 was the centenary of theNobel Prize; it is also the year in which our play is set. In Oxygen, the Nobel Foundation decides to celebrate thecentenary by establishing a new Nobel Prize as described by two members of theNobel Committee for Chemistry, Professors Bengt Hjalmarsson and SuneKallstenius, who are on stage in private conversation.
SUNEKALLSTENIUS: A Retro-Nobel for workdone before 1901. What a way of celebrating the centenary of the NobelPrizes…
BENGTHJALMARSSON: At least the losers won’tbe able to hold it against us.
SUNEKALLSTENIUS: It’s different Isuppose… recognizing dead people.
BENGTHJALMARSSON: It’s still toomuch work.
SUNEKALLSTENIUS: You always complainabout the time spent on Nobel Committee business. Most Swedes would be proud topay the price.
BENGTHJALMARSSON: You pay. I’m tiredof paying it. My work suffers.
SUNEKALLSTENIUS: So resign.
BENGTHJALMARSSON (Grins): Not a chance. I like the power… and the gossip.But choosing a dead winner? They don’t even re-pay favors.
SUNEKALLSTENIUS: You don’t meanthat?
BENGTHJALMARSSON: I’m just beinghonest.
SUNEKALLSTENIUS: Honesty has itsplace… but this isn’t it!
Our play attempts to deal with two fundamentalquestions: what is discovery in science and why is it so important for ascientist to be first? To put it even more crudely, why do the scientificOlympics only award gold medals and no silvers or bronzes? Why is it that inscience, being second might as well be last? And yet, why in the end is it evenmore important to be recognized last? In Oxygen, we approach these questions as our imaginaryretro-Nobel Committee meets to select, first, the discovery that should be sohonored, and then—as it turns out, not a straightforwardquestion—which scientist to credit for it. Throughout the play, as theretro-Nobel Committee debates its selection, the audience learns about thethree leading candidates through their wives in a trialogue that occurs in aSwedish sauna in 1777 just prior to a royal adjudication concerning therespective claims of their husbands: the Swedish apothecary Carl WilhelmScheele, who made oxygen first; the English minister-turned-chemist, JosephPriestley, who published first; and the French chemist, tax collector,economist, and public servant, Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, who understood firstthe revolutionary implications of this gas’s existence. In switching backand forth between 2001 and 1777, not unlike the time shifts in Stoppard’s“Arcadia,” we presentthe historical and personal record that leads the Nobel Committee to its finalconclusion. Here is a brief excerpt from a 1777 scene in which Mrs. Priestleyis shaving her husband, who is sitting in a chair, face lathered.
The main theme of “Oxygen” is that behaviorally speaking, little haschanged over the course of two centuries in the motivation and conduct ofscientists in their drive for recognition and priority as underlined in thefollowing scene between Prof. Astrid Rosenqvist, the chair of the Retro NobelCommittee, and Ulla Zorn, a young History of Science student and theCommittee’s secretary.
That themes like the above cited ones are notnecessarily esoteric aspects of a tribal culture that cannot possibly be ofinterest to a general public, was demonstrated by the fact that both BBC andthe West German Broadcasting Corporation found both science-in-theatre playssuitable for broadcast to wide audiences—in the case of the BBC over itsWorld Service. Sine its premiere in 2001, “Oxygen” has been translated into 10 languages andalready published in book form in 7 of them. And since I consider mostscientists’ overriding desire for priority and name recognition both thenourishment and the poison of the scientific research enterprise, I decided todedicate the last play (“Calculus”) in my“science-in-theatre” trilogy to this aspect in the life of one ofthe greatest scientists of the past 500 years, Isaac Newton. Here is anexcerpted dialogue from “Calculus” between John Arbuthnot (a Fellow of the Royal Society duringNewton’s time as well as physician to Queen Anne) and his wife:
ARBUTHNOT: It’s done.
MRS.ARBUTHNOT: Who was there?
ARBUTHNOT: All eleven.
MRS.ARBUTHNOT: No one else?
MRS.ARBUTHNOT: That I expected… butwho else?
ARBUTHNOT: No one.
MRS.ARBUTHNOT: That was clever.
ARBUTHNOT: Newton is clever… but also cautious. Whyinvite unnecessary witnesses?
MRS.ARBUTHNOT: What about othersupporters? The kind Bernoulli called “Newton’s servilesycophants.”
ARBUTHNOT: The Committee is already inundated with them.Besides, he called them “Newton’s toadies.”
MRS.ARBUTHNOT: Hardly more complimentary.But would it not have been more politic to include in the Committee someFellows less beholden?
ARBUTHNOT: There were a few.
ARBUTHNOT: He’s one.
MRS.ARBUTHNOT: And you.
ARBUTHNOT (Tired nod):And I.
MRS.ARBUTHNOT (Impatient): Tell me what happened.
ARBUTHNOT: I started out on the wrong foot.
MRS.ARBUTHNOT: You mean with honesty?
ARBUTHNOT (Nods):Does truth not bear the same relation to understanding as music does to the earor beauty to the eye?
MRS.ARBUTHNOT: Newton is concerned withunderstanding the universe. That truth concerns him… but no other musicreaches his ear. I had warned you, John. (Reaches over to pat his hand orother gesture of affection). What didyou say?
ARBUTHNOT: I quoted Francis Bacon: “There is littlefriendship in the world… and least of all between equals.”
ARBUTHNOT: He stopped me.
MRS.ARBUTHNOT: What did he say?
MRS.ARBUTHNOT: But you said he stoppedyou.
ARBUTHNOT: He pointed to Hill.
MRS.ARBUTHNOT: Why Abraham Hill?
ARBUTHNOT: He’s the oldest… almost eighty.
MRS.ARBUTHNOT (Dismissive): And one of the toadies.
ARBUTHNOT (Tired):Not any more than most of us.
MRS. ARBUTHNOT: And what did the oldest toady say?
ARBUTHNOT: That the Committee’s concern was withsuperiority… not equality… of British science. Considerations offriendship were irrelevant. Newton and Leibniz were only surrogates.
MRS.ARBUTHNOT: He said that… infront of Newton?
ARBUTHNOT: He didn’t have to… mostunderstood… though perhaps not Bonet.
MRS.ARBUTHNOT: And that was it? (Notgetting any response she continues more exasperated). John! I’ve never had to push you like this.Do you not trust me?
ARBUTHNOT: It’s a matter of shame… not trust.
MRS.ARBUTHNOT (Warmer): Then confide in your wife.
ARBUTHNOT: I could not help but think of John Flamsteed—
MRS.ARBUTHNOT: You are no friend ofhis…
ARBUTHNOT: Nor his enemy.
MRS.ARBUTHNOT: Even after youdemanded… on behalf of Newton… that Flamsteed deliver hislife’s work—his lunar tables—to his bitterest enemy?
ARBUTHNOT: I did that at her Majesty’s command—
MRS.ARBUTHNOT: After furious prompting byNewton. He used you, John!
ARBUTHNOT: In your eyes he probably did.
MRS.ARBUTHNOT: Newton hatesFlamsteed… in spite of his position as Astronomer Royal.
ARBUTHNOT: In spite… and because of it. Though hardly ajustification to have the Astronomer Royal ejected from Fellowship of the RoyalSociety for late payment of fees. (Pause). But that was not the reason I thought of Flamsteed. He once sent mea note, writing, “Those that have begun to do ill things, never blushto do worse to secure themselves.”I hoped then that he meant Newton… and now I know he did.
Having demonstrated—atleast to my personal satisfaction—that doses of pedagogy in“science-in-theatre” are not necessarily the kiss of death in termsof securing theatrical performances and an engaged audience, I have now gone onestep further by shifting “science-in-theatre” from the stage to theplace where new pedagogy is best suited: the school classroom. In an attempt tomove at least occasionally away from the all pervasive monologist lectureformat in science, I have written a dialogic wordplay on exactly the sametopic—ICSI—as my first play, An Immaculate Misconception, but primarily for classroom use in lieu of aconventional 50-minute lecture.
This pedagogic wordplay issolely envisaged as a staged reading of a simulated TV interview by a womanmoderator with a scientist. In classroom settings, the roles of the twocharacters should be read by two students rather than the teacher/lecturer andother adult. Ideally, the teacher’s function should be minimal and focuson facilitating subsequent active debate by the audience around the ethicalissues created by the proposition that in the future, fertile couples will start to use the techniques of assistedreproduction for having children. Here is a brief excerpt to illustrate thedialogic format:
The host, ISABEL YOUNGBLOOD,a young, smart and not too subtle critic of science and technology, moderates aweekly TV “issues” program entitled “Dissection.”
YOUNGBLOOD: I’m Isabel Youngblood. Welcome to “Dissection.”
SCIENTIST(Stretches out hand): Thanks for inviting me.
YOUNGBLOOD (Points to chair). Please make yourself comfortable. Let’s talk a little bitbefore we go on the air. (Looks at watch). Couple of minutes… no more. We want to keep it fresh andunrehearsed. I presume you’ve watched our program, so you must know theformat—
SCIENTIST (Slightly uncomfortable): I’m afraid I’m not a regularwatcher—
YOUNGBLOOD: Which ones have you seen?
SCIENTIST (More uncomfortable): The one about minks.
YOUNGBLOOD: Actually it’s good you saw so little. Weprefer to have guests without prior prejudices. So let’s forget aboutminks and get to tonight’s program. After all, you are here for ICSI andnot minks.
SCIENTIST: You’re right. (Firmer tone). Let’s take ICSI. You know I’ve providedyour program with some audiovisuals—
YOUNGBLOOD (Grudgingly):The producer told me.
SCIENTIST: I want to be sure they can be shown at the rightmoments.
YOUNGBLOOD: Of course they can be. But are theynecessary? We aren’t so much interested in the science behind ICSIas—
YOUNGBLOOD (Holds up hand): Who needs a scalpel forscience? In science? (Pause). Yes! Butthis is an issues program. We want to dissect the issues createdby ICSI.
SCIENTIST: A point made perfectly clear by your producer.
YOUNGBLOOD: So what’s the problem?
SCIENTIST: Problem? I have no problem. I just want to be sureyour producer informed you that I’d be willing to discuss ICSI issues,provided you’re prepared to listen also to the science behind ICSI. Andfor that, I need slides.
YOUNGBLOOD (Conciliatory): I have no problem with the science. But why slides? Why not just tellus—not just me, but our public?
SCIENTIST (Curt):We scientists like pictures. Besides, they save time.
YOUNGBLOOD: Let me worry about time on this program.
SCIENTIST (Slyly):Ms. Youngblood. Do you know what an acrosome is?
YOUNGBLOOD: Spell it.
SCIENTIST (Spells it slowly): A C R O S O M E. So what’s an acrosome?
YOUNGBLOOD (Unsure):You tell us.
SCIENTIST (Openly pleased): Now—before the program starts—could you quickly havethem project my first slide?
YOUNGBLOOD (Dismissive shrug, then points to invisiblecameraman): Lou! Give us the firstslide. But make it snappy. (Figure 1, showing stylized picture of a sperm,appears on screen).
SCIENTIST: Now then. I am prepared to offer odds, that of thefour words on the right side of the image, at least two are unfamiliar to you.I would offer even bigger odds that the two words are“mitochondria” and “acrosome” and that even spellingthem won’t help. Right?
YOUNGBLOOD: We don’t gamble on this program. But go on.
SCIENTIST: The “mitochondria” are the engine andthe fuel tank that power our sperm. The acrosome, shown here in orange on thevery tip of the sperm, houses the explosive—actually a group ofenzymes—that will permit penetration of the egg’s protective shell.Remember, the sperm has to get inside the egg to effect fertilization. If youdon’t know how that happens, ICSI won’t make much sense. (Pauses,while looking first at YOUNGBLOOD and then at sperm image). The term “acrosome” is unfamiliar tomost men, yet it ought to be as much an every-day word as “uterus”is to you and most women. During your program, I hope to be able to show youwhy. Only then will I participate in your dissection. (Again pauses, while looking at Youngblood). Is that a deal? I’m ready for your issues,if you’re ready for the science.
YOUNGBLOOD: It’s a deal. By the way, you aren’t superstitious are you?
SCIENTIST (Faint smile): Few scientists are. Whydo you ask?
YOUNGBLOOD: Today is Friday, the thirteenth.
Of course, it remains tobe seen whether such a pedagogic application of“science-in-theatre” will catch on. At least in Germany, theprognosis is promising, since a publisher specializing in plays for schools,DEUTSCHER THEATERVERLAG, published for distribution to German gymnasiums apaperback of the text in both German and English, together with a CD containingall the audiovisuals. Feedback from the first performances in 2002 and 2003 inboth Germany and Austria were sufficiently promising that together with PierreLaszlo, a second pedagogic wordplay (entitled “NO”) was recentlypublished by the DEUTSCHER THEATERVERLAG—this time in English, German andFrench. The accompanying CD evencontained a Rap—a hip-hop summary of the science in thatwordplay—composed and performed by Erik Weiner. Who knows?Science-in-theatre might even become infectious.
(Adapted and revised from an article in the special issue on“Science and theatre” in InterdisciplinaryScience Reviews, Vol. 27, Number 3, Autumn 2002, pp. 193-201).
Carl Djerassi, novelist,playwright and professor of chemistry emeritus at Stanford University, is oneof the few American chemists to have been awarded both the National Medal ofScience (for the first synthesis of an oral contraceptive) and the NationalMedal of Technology (for promoting new approaches to insect control). He haspublished short stories (The Futurist and Other Stories), poetry (The Clock runs backward) andfive novels (Cantor’s Dilemma; The Bourbaki Gambit; Marx, deceased;Menachem’s Seed; NO)that illustrate as “science-in-fiction” the human side of scienceand the personal conflicts faced by scientists as well as an autobiography (ThePill, Pygmy Chimps and Degas’ Horse) and a memoir (THIS MAN’S PILL: Reflections on the 50thbirthday of the Pill). Duringthe past seven years he has focused on writing “science-in-theatre”plays.