Thursday, March 02, 2006

Professor Carl Djerassi

As expected Professor Carl Djerassi's talk was very interesting. He started writing fiction in his sixties, after a life of scientific discovery - having won both the National Medal of Science (for the first synthesis of an oral contraceptive) and the National Medal of Technology (for promoting new approaches to insect control). He said that not many chemists write or even read novels - they are too busy reading scientific papers and keeping up in their field. Therefore he was able to create his own genre using his extensive experience as an eminent research scientist.

He said that although most scientists enter the profession idealistically with the intention of improving the lot of mankind this almost inevitably becomes complicated with a zeal to succeed and become 'the first'- and be recognised as such by peers. Hence 'Noble science' becomes a lust for the Nobel (or some other such recognition). This sometimes unattractive but productive competition in scientists is rarely recognised and so he has made it one of the main motivations of the characters in his novels and now his plays.

After writing over 1200 scientific articles he turned to fiction - publishing a collection of short stories, poetry and five novels - and it was with a reading from CANTOR'S DILEMMA, his first novel, that he started the talk. The theme of the pressure on the scientist to be 'the first' was continued in a an excerpt from OXYGEN (see earlier posting). Professor Djerassi has now turned from science-in-fiction to science-in-theatre with a great deal of success. His plays have been performed widely and translated into many different languages. As I had only read the play OXYGEN before it was exciting to see a section of it being performed on film.

I would love to be able to see his latest play TABOOS which is currently being performed at the New End Theatre, Hampstead (Feb 23- April 2) - people around me who had seen it told me it was excellent - both in terms of the writing and the acting and the topic sounds intriguing. But unfortunately it is too far out of my way - one of the many penalties of living 200 miles away from London.

To console myself I bought NEWTON'S DARKNESS a play about the rivalry between Newton and Leibniz and the invention of calculus - being 'the first' was important even in the seventeenth century. Professor Djerassi's reading of an excerpt of this play concluded his talk.

In the questions that followed he remarked upon the difference between the number of papers produced by male and female scientists - females produce fewer but they are more often cited. He also said that women were at last obtaining senior positions in academic science - something I found particularly pleasing because I certainly experienced some discrimination as a female industrial research scientist in the eighties.

He also remarked that hardship is also an incentive to succeed .

So, a fascinating talk and I was very glad that Professor Djerassi was able to make it - he has recently broken his hip and had to present his talk, without a chairman, from his seat on the stage after climbing onto the platform with the aid of crutches. He then answered yet more questions while he signed some of his books in the foyer outside - truly a dedicated communicator and inspiring polymath.

The professor's comprehensive website (see link below) provides further information on all his artistic achievements.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

so pleased I bumped into you at the Djerassi talk. I found your blog, as you see, and have ordered your first book. (Not sure about the second yet, 'cos Struwwelpeter scared me rigid as a child) I discovered when I read your website that you were at Aidans exactly the same time as I was at Mary's! (All I've managed since then is a humdrum career in computing, though.)

In case you are interested, my own notes on the talk are here:
(where you can also find a review of Taboo, which might interest you rather more.)

Tue Mar 07, 07:23:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

(above post was me.. didn't intend to be anonymous..)

Tue Mar 07, 07:25:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

see also
LabLit interview here

Tue Mar 07, 07:40:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Janet: So pleased to meet you too! Amazing we were both at Durham at the same time. What did you study?

I think your notes on the talk and questions were much better than mine - more detailed and accurate. And thanks for the link with the interview - I find his comments on getting published very interesting.

Tue Mar 07, 08:01:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops, sorry, forgot to reply.
Ooo praise from a novelist.. Thanks!
I did Maths and Physics.
(Not a lab person though.. chose all the theoretical options after a bad experience with an interferometer in my first year)

I'm really glad I've been able to link you up with LabLit!

Wed Mar 22, 01:29:00 pm  

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