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ISBN: 978-3-527-30460-8
146 pages
December 2011
Oxygen (3527304606) cover image


What motivates a scientist? One key factor is the pressure from the competition to be the first to discover something new. The moral consequences of this are the subject of the play "Oxygen", dealing with the discovery of this all-important element. The focus of the play is on chemical and political revolutions, as well as the Nobel Prize, which will be awarded for the 100th time in 2001. The action takes place in 1777 and 2001; and the play is written for 3 actors and 3 actresses who play a total of 11 characters. The world premiere will take place in early 2001 in San Diego, and the German premiere in September.
The world-famous authors Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffmann are a guarantee of excellence and suspense, both in their role as scientists -- Carl Djerassi is known as the "Father of the Pill" while Roald Hoffmann received the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1982 - as well as in their role as authors -- Djerassi has written several successful novels, while Hoffmann is renowned for his poetry.
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Table of Contents

What is discovery? Why is it so important to be first? These are the questions that trouble the people in this play. "Oxygen" alternates between 1777 and 2001-the Centenary of the Nobel Prize-when the Nobel Foundation decides to inaugurate a "Retro-Nobel" Award for those great discoveries that preceded the establishment of the Nobel Prizes one hundred years before. The Foundation thinks this will be easy, that the Nobel Committee can reach back to a period when science was done for science's sake, when discovery was simple, pure, and unalloyed by controversy, priority claims, and hype?.

The Chemistry Committee of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences decides to focus on the discovery of Oxygen, since that event launched the modern chemical revolution. But who should be so honored? Lavoisier is a natural choice, for if there ever was a marker for the beginning of modern chemistry, it was Lavoisier's understanding of the true nature of combustion, rusting, and animal respiration, and the central role of oxygen in each of these processes, formulated in the period 1770-1780. But what about Scheele? What about Priestley? Didn't they first discover oxygen?

Indeed, on an evening in October 1774, Antoine Lavoisier, the architect of the chemical revolution, learned that the Unitarian English minister, Joseph Priestley, had made a new gas. Within a week, a letter came to Lavoisier from the Swedish apothecary, Carl Wilhelm Scheele, instructing the French scientist how one might synthesize this key element in Lavoisier's developing theory, the lifegiver oxygen. Scheele's work was carried out years before, but remained unpublished until 1777.

Scheele and Priestley fit their discovery into an entirely wrong logical framework-the phlogiston theory-that Lavoisier is about to demolish. 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 do not let the world know?

In a fictional encounter, the play brings the three protagonists and their wives to 1777 Stockholm at the invitation of King Gustav III (of Un ballo in maschera fame). The question to be resolved: "Who discovered oxygen?" In the voices of the scientists' wives, in a sauna and elsewhere, we learn of their lives and those of their husbands. The actions of Mme. Lavoisier, a remarkable woman, are central to the play. In the Judgment of Stockholm, a scene featuring chemical demonstrations, the three discoverers of oxygen recreate their critical experiments. There is also a verse play within a play, on the Victory of Oxygen over Phlogiston. Such a play, now lost, was actually staged by the Lavoisiers for their friends and patrons.

Meanwhile, in the beginning of the 21st century, the Nobel Committee investigates and argues about the conflicting claims of the three men. Their discussions tell us much about whether science has changed in the last two centuries. The chair of the Nobel Committee is Astrid Rosenqvist, an outstanding Swedish theoretical chemist, while a young historian, Ulla Zorn, serves as a recorder for the committee's proceedings. But with time, her role changes.

The ethical issues around priority and discovery at the heart of this play are as timely today as they were in 1777. As are the ironies of revolutions: Lavoisier, the chemical revolutionary, is a political conservative, who loses his life in the Jacobin terror. Priestley, the political radical who is hounded out of England for his support of the French revolution, is a chemical conservative. And Scheele just wants to run his pharmacy in Köping, and do chemical experiments in his spare time. For a long time, he-the first man on earth to make oxygen in the laboratory-got least credit for it. Will that situation be repaired 230 years after his discovery?
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Author Information

Carl Djerassi:
Carl Djerassi, born in Vienna but educated in the US, is a writer and professor of chemistry at Stanford University. Author of over 1200 scientific publications and seven monographs, he is one of the few American scientists to have been awarded both the National Medal of Science (in 1973, for the first synthesis of a steroid oral contraceptive--"the Pill") and the National Medal of Technology (in 1991, for promoting new approaches to insect control). A member of the US National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as well as many foreign academies, Djerassi has received 18 honorary doctorates together with numerous other honors, such as the first Wolf Prize in Chemistry, the first Award for the Industrial Application of Science from the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Chemical Society's highest award, the Priestley Medal.

For the past decade, he has turned to fiction writing, mostly in the genre of "science-in-fiction", whereby he illustrates, in the guise of realistic fiction, the human side of scientists and the personal conflicts faced by scientists in their quest for scientific knowledge, personal recognition, and financial rewards. In addition to novels (Cantor's Dilemma; The Bourbaki Gambit; Marx, deceased; Menachem's Seed; NO), short stories (The Futurist and Other Stories), and autobiography (The Pill, Pygmy Chimps, and Degas' Horse), he has recently embarked on a trilogy of plays which he describes in his web site as "science-in-theatre"-with an emphasis on contemporary cutting-edge research in the biomedical sciences. "AN IMMACULATE MISCONCEPTION", first performed in abbreviated form at the 1998 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and subsequently (1999) as a full, 2-act play in London (New End Theatre), San Francisco (Eureka Theatre) and Vienna (under the title UNBEFLECKT at the Jugendstiltheater), focuses on the ethical issues inherent in recent spectacular advances in the treatment of male infertility through single sperm injection (the ICSI technique). A radio adaptation was broadcast over the BBC World Service as "Play of the Week." He is also the founder of the Djerassi Resident Artists Program near Woodside, California, which provides residencies and studio space for artists in the visual arts, literature, choreography and performing arts, and music. Over 1000 artists have passed through that program since its inception in 1982.
(There is a Web site about Carl Djerassi's writing at http://www.djerassi.com)

Roald Hoffmann:
Roald Hoffmann, born in Zloczow, Poland but educated in the US, is the Frank H. T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters at Cornell University. One of America's most distinguished chemists, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. A member of the US National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences as well as many foreign academies, Hoffmann has received 26 honorary doctorates together with numerous other honors such as the National Medal of Science. Hoffmann is the only person ever to receive the American Chemical Society's top awards in three sub- disciplines: organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, and chemical education.

For the past dozen years, Hoffmann has simultaneously pursued a literary career. He is the author of three books of poetry, "The Metamict State" (1987), "Gaps and Verges" (1990), and "Memory Effects" (1999). His three non-fiction books deal with the overall theme of the creative and humanistic sparks of chemistry: An art/science/literature collaboration with artist Vivian Torrence, "Chemistry Imagined" (1993); "The Same and Not the Same" (1995); and "Old Wine, New Flasks: Reflections on Science and Jewish Tradition" in collaboration with Shira Leibowitz Schmidt. Hoffmann is also is the presenter of a television course, "The World of Chemistry", which has aired on many PBS Stations and abroad.
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"Dank dieser Komödie weiß ich nun alles über Sauerstoff und Luft - auch, warum der heilige Franziskus Gott für ihre Erschaffung gedankt hat. Eine intelligente, handwerklich hervorragende und lehrreiche Arbeit!" Dario Fo, Literatur-Nobelpreisträger 1997
"Ein neues Glanzstück....Djerassi und Hoffmann haben ein fantastisches kleines Lehrstück geschaffen, das zwischen Gegenwart und Vergangenheit hin und her print und mehr zeigt über die Vielschichtigkeit von Entdeckungen und über menschliche Facetten und Prioritäten, als mach seitenstarke Abhandlung oder Roman." Laborjournal, 2/2002
"Eine literarische, psychologische und wissenschaftliche Glanzleistung!" Oliver Sacks, Neurologe und Autor von "Awakenings: Zeit des Erwachens"
"Endlich eine frische Brise! Intelligent und lehrreich." Dario Fo, Dramatiker und Literaturnobelpreisträger

"In their play "Oxygen," chemists Djerassi and Hoffmann successfully employ ingenious dramatic devices to explore the multiple facets of the process of scientific discovery and to tell the fascinating stories of the men who made the "chemicl revolution" and of their wives as well."

Murray Gell-Mann (Nobel laureate of Physics)

"A play that burns more brightly than its subject: the complexity of the most human theme in science. What is the nature of greatness? And whom do we honor: the one who made it first, who published it first, or who understood it first? Three eminent men and three indispensable women--with their modern counterparts forced to judge. But Djerassi and Hoffmann teach us that only we can judge this question without an answer, but filled with probing insights into the nature of our lives, our loves, and our accomplishments."

Stephen Jay (Evolutionary biologist, palaeontologist and best-selling author)

The authors, two of the world's best chemists, have teamed up to take advantage of an impending, real historical event, the centenary of the Nobel Prizes, to create a fascinating, imaginary encounter in 1777 between three of the best chemists in history---the contenders for the discovery of oxygen---as they are considered more than two hundred years later for the first "Retro-Nobel." With a winning mixture of wit, scholarship, and stage craftsmanship, Carl Djerassi
and Roald Hoffman show us how much scientists have learned about the world and how little they have changed, as the complex process of discovery is revealed as a genuinely human and social endeavor with timeless qualities.

Harold Varmus (Nobel laureate of Medicine)

This play is about scientists and science history, but also about the much broader question of the nature of discovery: is it finding a tree or seeing the forest?

Jean-Marie Lehn (Nobel laureate of Chemistry)

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