Friday, March 9, 2007

Djerassi: Response to ARTISTS IN THE LABS

From: Carl Djerassi
Date: Fri, 9 Mar 2007 10:16:31 -0500

3/9/07 London

I would like to make two comments, both of them quite peripheral to the main thrust of this session:

(1) In the above last two sentences, the comment is made Scientists in their journal entries, appear as human as anyone else. In a way, that is a meanaingless statement, since we are all human. So the question is one of definition. Take "journal articles." Scientists, more than anyone else, keep continuous "journals" which are their daily lab notebooks, which are also meticulously dated. They form a sort of diary which in many respects appears "non-human" compared to the conventional idea of a "diary." Yet hidden among those lines and pictures are often burning personal issues.

(2) The main point is that a scientists's behavior is quite idiosyncratic compared to that of other creative disciplines. Because of science's inherently vertical nature, scientists are both very collegial and at the same time often brutally competitive--frequently with the same colleagues with whom they are collaborating. I don't want to pursue this point (on which I have elaborated in two novels), since in many respects it is quite tangential to the issue at hand, but I think that careful definitions are warranted.

But I would like to bring in once more what may appear a repetition from the earlier sessions, namely what activities such as play-writing can bring to the main theme of this second session.

In my play AN IMMACULATE MISCONCEPTION, there is presented on the screen a simulated and yet real intracytoplasmic sperm injection. Why do I say real and yet simulated? In collaboration with two reproductive biologists, Drs. Roger Pedersen and Barry Behr, approximately 30 different intracytoplasmic sperm injections (ICSI) were filmed, each designed to produce a baby (with an ultimate success rate of 10 - 40%). But in collaboration with a film editor, I then spliced elements of different experiments together into the single ICSI experiment that was shown on the stage. Why? In order to dramatize them. For instance in one of the 30 experiments, inadvertently, while trying to catch a sperm and aspirate it tail first into the capillary, the sperm swam head first spontaneously into the capillary and had to be ejected, its tail then crushed to make it immobile to then allow it to be aspirated tail first. There were humorous and serious metaphoric implications associated with the depiction of this incidence. In another experiment, at the very end, when the capillary has "penetrated" the egg and the sperm is about to be "ejaculated", the sperm essentially refused to exit the capillary and always hung in by the end of his tail. Only after three vigorous pushes did it finally end up inside the egg before the capillary could be withdrawn. Again the humor and the serious implication was not lost on the audience or theatre reviewers, all of whom found this event the high point of the play. Yet the experiment was both real and concocted.

A second example is the play OXYGEN that I wrote with the distinguished chemist Roald Hoffmann. It deals with the discovery of Oxygen and the demonstration by the three putative inventors (Scheele, Priestley, Lavoisier) having to demonstrate their experiments before the King of Sweden in 1777 (an invented occasion to resemble a modern Nobel Prize). In a staging (now available commercially as an educational DVD) by the University of Wisconsin Theatre Department , actual experiments were conducted by the actors under the tutelage of Prof. Bassam Shakhashiri--one of America's great chemical demonstrators. In a German production, the director had the actors use life-sized puppets to conduct the experiments, which were semi-real in the chemical sense. In a Brazilian production, the experiments were not shown but only the results described by the wives of the scientists who were sitting on the stage commenting on the nature of their husband's experiment.

A THIRD example is my play CALCULUS (see dealing with the priority struggle between Newton and Leibniz about invention of the calculus. In the play I have the mathematician de Moivre, a colleague of Newton, explain differential calculus to a diplomat by having the latter time him while he ate an apple to illustrate the rate of change at any given moment of a quantity that itself is changing in relation to another quantity.

A fourth example is Stephen Poliakoff's play BLINDED BY THE SUN, where he illustrated the actual (mistaken) concept of "cold fusion" based on the misinterpretation of an experiment. This was actually based on one of the biggest "scandals" in chemistry during the 1990s.

In summary, I realize that ARTISTS IN THE LABORATORY is supposed to discuss the opposite, but what about if the artist (i.e. playwright) also happens to be a scientist and brings his scientific laboratory into his artistic one.

I can hear murmurs in cyberspace asking me to shut up which I am now doing.

Carl Djerassi

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