by Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffmann
Whatis discovery? Why is it so important to be first? These are the questions thattrouble the people in this play. “Oxygen” alternates between 1777and 2001—the Centenary of the Nobel Prize—when the Nobel Foundationdecides to inaugurate a “Retro-Nobel” Award for those greatdiscoveries that preceded the establishment of the Nobel Prizes one hundredyears before. The Foundation thinks this will be easy, that the Nobel Committeecan reach back to a period when science was done for science’s sake, whendiscovery was simple, pure, and unalloyed by controversy, priority claims, andhype….
TheChemistry Committee of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences decides to focuson the discovery of Oxygen, since that event launched the modern chemicalrevolution. But who should be so honored? Lavoisier is a natural choice, for ifthere ever was a marker for the beginning of modern chemistry, it wasLavoisier’s understanding of the true nature of combustion, rusting, andanimal respiration, and the central role of oxygen in each of these processes,formulated in the period 1770-1780. But what about Scheele? What aboutPriestley? Didn’t they first discover oxygen?
Indeed,on an evening in October 1774, Antoine Lavoisier, the architect of the chemicalrevolution, learned that the Unitarian English minister, Joseph Priestley, hadmade a new gas. Within a week, a letter came to Lavoisier from the Swedishapothecary, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, instructing the French scientist how onemight synthesize this key element in Lavoisier’s developing theory, thelifegiver oxygen. Scheele’s work was carried out years before, butremained unpublished until 1777.
Scheeleand Priestley fit their discovery into an entirely wrong logicalframework—the phlogiston theory—that Lavoisier is about todemolish. How does Lavoisier deal with the Priestley and Scheele discoveries?Does he give the discoverers their due credit? And what is discovery after all?Does it matter if you do not fully understand what you have found? Or if you donot let the world know?
Ina fictional encounter, the play brings the three protagonists and their wivesto 1777 Stockholm at the invitation of King Gustav III (of Un ballo inmaschera fame). Thequestion to be resolved: “Who discovered oxygen?” In the voices ofthe scientists’ wives, in a sauna and elsewhere, we learn of their livesand those of their husbands. The actions of Mme. Lavoisier, a remarkable woman,are central to the play. In the Judgment of Stockholm, a scene featuringchemical demonstrations, the three discoverers of oxygen recreate theircritical experiments. There is also a verse play within a play, on the Victoryof Oxygen over Phlogiston. Such a play, now lost, was actually staged by theLavoisiers for their friends and patrons.
Meanwhile,in the beginning of the 21st century, the Nobel Committee investigates andargues about the conflicting claims of the three men. Their discussions tell usmuch about whether science has changed in the last two centuries. The chair ofthe Nobel Committee is Astrid Rosenqvist, an outstanding Swedish theoreticalchemist, while a young historian, Ulla Zorn, serves as a recorder for thecommittee’s proceedings. But with time, her role changes.
Theethical issues around priority and discovery at the heart of this play are astimely today as they were in 1777. As are the ironies of revolutions:Lavoisier, the chemical revolutionary, is a political conservative, who loseshis life in the Jacobin terror. Priestley, the political radical who is houndedout of England for his support of the French revolution, is a chemicalconservative. And Scheele just wants to run his pharmacy in Köping, and dochemical experiments in his spare time. For a long time, he—the first manon earth to make oxygen in the laboratory—got least credit for it. Willthat situation be repaired 230 years after his discovery?