Hip-hop professor here to educate da house

September 09, 2005

THE Roman poet Horace, one of the best rappers of his day, used to say one should entertain and teach simultaneously. It's a principle Carl Djerassi has applied to much of his life's work, although perhaps not to the creation of the contraceptive pill or his development of antihistamines.

The Austrian-born, US-based professor, in Australia on a lecture tour, is one of the world's most respected chemists. One can add philosopher, teacher, novelist, playwright and raconteur to his list of accomplishments and still leave a lot unsaid.

Aside from his groundbreaking discoveries in the field of medicine and his lengthy tenure as the head of the chemistry department at Stanford University in California, Djerassi, 82, has spent many years furthering the cause of science through the arts as a playwright, an author, a poet and now, somewhat surprisingly perhaps, through rap music.

Djerassi is here as a guest of Australian Science Innovations, which provides study assistance to local students and teachers. Addressing a dinner at Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday, he played his latest work, a piece of rap music called NO (the initials stand for nitric oxide), based on his "science-in-fiction" novel of that name. The audience of 150 politicians, academics and civil servants were enthralled, not least when confronted with the lyrics:

It's the N to the O, you know, it don't stop
It's time to break it down in the form of hip-hop
The N is for nitric, the O is for oxide
It's gotta lotta scientists riled up worldwide
And this:
Number 1, they made it very clear in the first section
That without the N-O, you would get no erection
And without the erection there would be no humpin'
So that's gotta tell you N-O is useful for somethin'

It goes on ... yes, at length. The piece was written by American musician Eric Weiner, who used words written by Djerassi to form a rap song. This latest artistic tool is just another way of bringing science to the masses, Djerassi says, whether or not they know it. It's a method he used in his books and plays to "smuggle information into a public that is either resistant or uninterested".

"I've found that the two genres that I use - science in fiction, science in theatre - lend themselves very well to scientific content. It's the kind of smuggling that should not only not be illegal but should be encouraged," he says in that vibrant, European tone that one associates with world-famous professors.

"Intellectual smuggling has a wonderful pedagogic function," he goes on. "Adults and teenagers are tired of being taught anything didactic. People hate it. They just want to be entertained, but they should be willing to be entertained in a way in which they learn. If you can do that in a way where you don't even know you are being taught at the same time, what's wrong with that?"

Djerassi has applied this method to novels such as NO and The Bourbaki Gambit and plays including Calculus and Phallacy. Hip-hop is breaking new ground for him, although he admits that rap music per se is not to hisliking.

"My own tastes are classical," he says. "I've been going to the opera since I was four years old. I've played the cello. I established an artists colony 20 years ago and there are as many as 70 artists a year in residence there; 10 at a time, including composers, writers and choreographers." Contemporary composers John Adams and Philip Glass are just two of the famous names who have been through the doors of the California colony.

"I've been exposed to all kinds of contemporary music," Djerassi says. "Rap is a very special thing, although I don't really listen to it." What he is interested in is its poetic form and its potential as a message carrier.

"You have a modern language and a message that is transmitted," he says. "Quite a bit of rap is politically didactic and informative, and some of the raps are clever. That started to interest me as a musical genre of which I was totally unaware, but one that emphasises language."

He believes that rap has as much validity as other art forms, in the sense that it can get science on to radio and into people's homes, but he stops short of comparing it with his first love, opera. "The range of opera is much wider," he says. "But rap should not be discarded as some kind of aberration."

So if there were room for science in music, is there also a place for music in science?

"If you go to a laboratory, the decibel level is very low," he says. "In the majority of them you hear music being played in the background, almost continuously. So there's no question that they need it. It would be interesting, before an experiment takes place, if there are two laboratories, one in which music is forbidden and the other where it is played all the time, to see what are the productivities of the two labs."

There's no question that music has added to Djerassi's productivity, although few in the science world would have imagined it thus:

Because in conclusion, it's no illusion
That N-O is a powerful helpful solution
To many different problems and needs of the body
Sometimes it does nice things and sometimes naughty ...