The naked truth

Chemist and playwright Carl Djerassi throws back the curtain on the scientific establishment to reveal truths that aren?t always flattering

By | November 10, 2006

In his new play, "Phallacy," world-renowned chemist Carl Djerassi dramatizes the age-old lovers' quarrel between art and science, using a bronze statue of a naked young man as the focal point of the furor. While the scientist and the art historian at the center of the story don't have much common ground, they do share at least one attribute: enormous egos. At a recent reading of the play at the City University of New York Graduate Center, Djerassi said that in writing the piece, he wanted to dramatize a fatal flaw often found in scholars of art and science: a tendency to believe that their own hypotheses are so beautiful that they simply cannot be wrong. Djerassi himself is no stranger to egocentricity. After all, you don't get your face on an Austrian stamp by being shy and insecure. Now 83, Djerassi is perhaps best known as the mother of the birth-control pill (to Djerassi, the pill's parents are chemists and biologists, with chemists playing the female role and biologists playing the male). He is also a pioneer for environmentally friendly insect control, the author of five books, and, of course, a playwright. Djerassi describes his theatrical genre as "science-in-fiction," which is not to be confused with science fiction. He explores the cultural habitat of scientists, and writes as an insider, throwing back the curtain on the scientific establishment in a way that is not always flattering. In "Phallacy," he tells the tale of an art historian smitten with a favorite sculpture. Believing the sculpture to be a Roman original, she is unhinged when a chemist's analysis suggests it is actually a Renaissance-era reproduction. When she rebuffs the chemist's offer of a collegial solution to the conundrum, the academic warfare begins in earnest. According to Djerassi, some scientists read his plays and fiction and think he's airing their dirty laundry in public. After all, his characters tend to be egocentric workaholics hungry for name recognition. "It does get dirty, and we shouldn't apologize," Djerassi told The Scientist. And if Djerassi doesn't back down in the face of uncomfortable peers, neither does he back away from the potential discomfort of his audience. As we might expect from a play entitled "Phallacy," Djerassi uses the penis as a recurring motif: At one point, the art historian derides her chemist rival as "cocksure;" later we are treated by an underling chemist character to a list of the many synonyms for the organ. And, of course, the naked bronze man in question sports a sexual organ of his own, the significance of which can only be discovered by going to see the play at New York City's Cherry Lane Theater in May 2007. The play will be produced by Redshift Productions, whose mission is to connect audiences intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually to science. "Our tribe gives no brownie points for communicating with the public," Djerassi told The Scientist. But by his early sixties, having amassed an enormous number of brownie points in the science world, Djerassi turned his energies to literary pursuits, writing everything from poetry to short stories to novels and plays. In 1999, Djerassi co-wrote the play "Oxygen" with poet and Nobel Laureate chemist Roald Hoffmann, who teaches at Cornell University and also hosts the monthly "Entertaining Science" night at New York City's Cornelia Street Café. Hoffmann said he considers science to be a "wonderful system for gaining reliable knowledge," but that it's "sad that the system often requires scientists to repress their own human nature." As an undergraduate at Columbia, Hoffmann nearly went into the humanities. "And I would have," he told The Scientist, "had I been more courageous." Courage is something Djerassi does not appear to lack, as he is now plunging ahead into his sixth play. "The egocentricity of science is related to the nourishment and poison of ambition," Djerassi told The Scientist. And if nothing else, that makes for good drama. Laura Buchholz Links within this article: B. Spector, "ACS Selects Stanford's Carl Djerassi As Recipient Of 1991 Priestley Medal," The Scientist, July 22, 1991 Carl Djerassi C. Djerassi, "Illuminating Scientific Facts Through Fiction," The Scientist, July 23, 1990 D. Moreau, "3 Dynamos Behind Syntex's Success," The Scientist, Jan. 11, 1988 Redshift Productions A.J.S. Rayl, "Oxygen: Putting a Human Face on Science," The Scientist, Oct. 15, 2001 R. Hoffman, "Art, Science Offer Freedom But Entail Responsibility," The Scientist, Sept. 28, 1992 J. King, "Nobelist Roald Hoffmann: Chemist, Poet, Above All A Teacher," The Scientist, Dec. 11, 1989 Roald Hoffmann


Avatar of: Paul Mulle

Paul Mulle

Posts: 3

November 11, 2006

Interesting, scientists should not fret about the public having a look behind the scenes, so to speak. Thank you for including me on your mailing list...Paul M
Avatar of: Joe-theatre-goer


Posts: 1

November 11, 2006

this is such an important topic, and I would like to thank Professor Djerassi and Redshift productions for bringing this work to a New York stage. I work in theatre, and shows like this seem fewer and farther in between these days. Can't wait to see it!
Avatar of: Adrienne Klein

Adrienne Klein

Posts: 2

November 13, 2006

The preview of Phallacy was co-presented by Science & the Arts at the Graduate Center of CUNY, where science and art are brought together in entertaining events.\nMore at:\n\nAdrienne Klein\nco-Director, Science & the Arts
Avatar of: An artist

An artist

Posts: 1

November 13, 2006

When I was a young woman undergraduate I would have studied science, had I been more courageous. \nTerrific article. Thank you.\nAn artist

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