Oxygen: Putting a Human Face on Science

Renowned chemists advance science through the arts


Oxygen--the 'science-in-fiction' play written by chemists Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffmann--will permeate the Royal Institution as it debuts in London Oct. 27. With the premiere at the San Diego Repertory Theater in California and publication of the play (Wiley-VCH) last Spring, Djerassi, also known as 'Father of The Pill,' and Nobel laureate Hoffmann garnered kudos from an A-list of science 'critics' and respectable notice in theater circles. From Nobel laureates Harold Varmus and Murray Gell-Mann to best-selling authors Oliver Sacks and Stephen Jay Gould, Oxygen has been heralded as "probing," "thought-provoking," "witty," "an extraordinary tour-de-force."

The two-act drama is based on the premise that the Nobel Committee has decided in this, its centenary year to give the first "retro-Nobel" to the discoverer of oxygen. Three chemists, the committee quickly determines, lay a claim to that discovery:

  • Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, father of the chemical revolution;
  • Reverend Joseph Priestley, a founder of the Unitarian Church; and
  • Carl Wilhelm Scheele, an unassuming Swedish apothecary.

Through the trials and tribulations of the three contenders and the members of the Nobel Committee, Djerassi and Hoffmann take the audience 'backstage' for an inside look at the politics and passions in science then and now. The play opens in Stockholm, Sweden, 1777 (the year oxygen was discovered) and, with a very intentional nod to women, introduces Lavoisier, Priestly, and Scheele vicariously through their wives. Scene Two fast-forwards to 2001 where the Nobel Committee--led by a woman--sets about the task of selecting the recipient(s). From there, the action shifts from one century to the other, as the actors, who play dual roles, make seamless costume and character changes.

Djerassi and Hoffmann mix chemistry history with fictional drama as they weave the characters' dialogue and emotions around the play's central themes: what is discovery and why is it important to be first? The plot, as well as the history, is enhanced with audiovisuals projected onto screens onstage, from sophisticated drawings of instruments to the piece de résistance--Madame Lavoisier's travel chest, a real antique held in Cornell University's Lavoisier collection. "The fact is that when you have seen our play you have learned something," says Djerassi, "whether you like it or not."

The authors do take some dramatic license--a particular letter 'found' in the travel chest, for example, isn't real--but, by and large, Oxygen plays with a genuine ring of truth. Even so, says Djerassi, "Our play should not be viewed as a play about history, but about the character and the culture of science and scientists."

It may seem off the bench path for scientists the likes of Djerassi, professor of chemistry at Stanford University, and Hoffmann, professor of chemistry at Cornell University, to be trying their hands at playwriting--and to be trying it together. But for each of them, it's part of the greater plan to push science into the mainstream via the arts. They both came to the project well-equipped, literarily speaking.

Hoffmann, known and honored for his contribution to the Woodward-Hoffmann Rules, has written three collections of poetry, as well as three nonfiction books on chemistry and hosted PBS' The World of Chemistry. Djerassi has spent his time away from the bench authoring five novels in the genre he defines as 'science-in-fiction.' He has also penned several short stories, poems, and the recently published nonfiction book, This Man's Pill: Reflections on the 50th Birthday of The Pill. For Djerassi, Oxygen represents the second of a trilogy of "science-in-theater" plays he has planned. Actually, he is now devoting much of his life to the pursuit of putting the human face of science before the masses and is even teaching a course in Science-in-Fiction at Stanford.

"One of the things we really need to do in the 21st century is humanize science and make it part of world culture," says Hoffmann. "We need to talk to people about science so they can make intelligent, democratic decisions about it. And scientists need to consider the ethical and spiritual dimension of the world, if people are to accept their work as being of spiritual as well as material value."

Neither Djerassi nor Hoffmann remembers who originally came up with the idea for Oxygen. But they both remember that in case of a "possible divorce," a "pre-nuptial agreement" was in order. In the end, the partnership was "an absolute collaboration," says Djerassi. And it took place primarily via E-mail.

Hoffmann, put his erudite historical perspective on the table and Djerassi anted up his expertise in the world of fiction. "With Roald's more romantic views of the scientific enterprise and my more brutal views, we really had two authorial psychologies operating, and that was the main attraction of the collaboration," offers Djerassi. For Hoffmann the main attraction was "seeing the ideas take shape through dialogue, and how from the collaboration more came out than I could ever have imagined doing myself."

The timing is as obvious as it is perfect. On Dec. 10, the Nobel Foundation will officially celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prizes. The "retro-Nobel" remains fantasy. "But it's not a bad idea," contends Djerassi.

So who discovered Oxygen? As the play pages turn, the Nobel Committee concludes: Scheele discovered it first; Priestley published first, and Lavoisier actually understood it first. Who then should get the Prize? Or should it go to two of the contenders? Or all three?

Not even Djerassi and Hoffman could agree. At last count, there were "nine endings," says Hoffmann. The only thing that is certain at play's end is this: Science has changed the world during the last 200 years, but the scientists, the human beings behind the discoveries, have not.

On Nov. 14, Oxygen moves to the Riverside Studio Theatre in London for a three-week run. On Dec. 1-2, the BBC World Service will broadcast a radio adaptation of the play, with WDR Radio 3 German broadcasting the first performance of the play in German on Dec. 12. A German version, now in production in Wuerzburg, will run through the end of the year. Djerassi's first play, An Immaculate Misconception, just opened at New York's Primary Stages Theatre, where it will run through Oct. 28.

A.J.S. Rayl ( is a contributing editor for The Scientist.