Chemistry Rap and the Contraceptive Pill

17 August 2008

Interview with

Carl Djerassi

Meera - World-renowned chemist, Professor Carl Djerassi gave a tadrama iconlk at the Royal Society in London. Carl's quite a legend as he was the creator of the first steroidal contraceptive pill but he's retired from the world of chemistry now and mastered the profession of playwriting. Occasionally even using rap as a medium to communicate science. His event in London was titled 'Washing dirty labcoats in public.' I met up with him to find out what exactly he was trying to portray in his talk.

Carl - When one talks to the general public about science one usually talks about the science that has been done: the discoveries, the inventions. I wanted to talk about the behaviour and culture of scientists which is totally unknown really to the general public, or else exaggerated as Frankensteins or nerds. I am sure that we are human beings with all of our qualities as well as foibles. I try to illustrate this both in my novels which I call Science in Fiction and in my plays which I call Science in Theatre.

Meera - Would you say you're trying to get people to see the darker sides because there's not enough of that shown in the public as it is or are you trying to show it as the culture as a whole? Both the positives and the darker sides?

Carl - Absolutely the latter! I come from that culture and I cannot shed it. I think it is really the most cooperative of human endeavours and the most brutally competitive at the same time. That is the unusual thing. It is important that people realise this. I think the unrealistic thing is to put scientists on a pedestal. The other thing is, since I'm talking to a woman, it's one of the evolving issues in every one of my plays and novels that they were all of modern women in a male-dominated discipline. There's a very phallo-centric nature of science which is expected because it was created exclusively by men who established the rules of the game. Now that women are getting those chairs and professorships of departments so I'm writing about this. I'm writing about the barriers.

Meera - It's interesting that you talk about the role of women in the world of science. Some of your earlier discoveries had an effect on the place of women in society to begin with. You obviously were one of the inventors of the first steroidal contraceptive pill. Is that something that has resulted from things like the pill?

norethisteroneCarl - I was involved in the first chemical synthesis of the oral contraceptive pill. I'm a chemist. That we did in 1951. Norethindrone was the first kind of oral contraceptive to be synthesised. The recognition and impact that oral contraceptives would have on women in the world, I think one would be lying if one said, all these people knew that in the 1950s. No one expected women would accept it that quickly and on that huge scale. The implications which also happened, people forget this, in the 1960s people say the pill caused the sexual revolution. In the 1960s was the decade of rock and roll, music, the hippy culture and most importantly the women's liberation movement which really moved in the middle and late 1960s, particularly in The States. It was that mixture, even though the chemical was done in 1951, the approval in the United States only came in 1960. It came at exactly the right time.

Meera - Are you quite proud what's happened as a result of you creating such a steroid?

Carl - Absolutely. If I could do it all over again would I do it? I say the answer's yes.

Meera - You had a very flourishing career as a chemist. What made you want to start writing plays to show the culture of science today?

Carl - It was a remarkable transition because through the work on the pill there was a lot of lecture and teaching and directed research in this area for a number of years. I realised there what I really was talking about was the culture and psychological, legal aspects which are much more complex. I'd decided to become an intellectual smuggler. Really smuggle information that people either don't want to hear or they're afraid of it or they've no opportunity for it in the guise of fiction. That's why I call it science in fiction rather than science fiction but hide it within an interesting story so people would continue to read and turn the pages. When they did get to the last page they'd learn something they didn't know before.

Meera - You said you use some things like a rap in order to get our information across. How well have those been received?

Carl - That went fantastically well. These two raps that I commissioned, I didn't do them - nor did I sing them, I commissioned for Oxygen and NO. I did this rap yesterday, one of them - the Oxygen rap at the Royal Society. There weren't any young people there but they were all beaming and bouncing. Rap is a very interesting style. If you think about even some vicious rap it has some interesting pedagogical information transmittal aspects. It's a very modern form of music and it's unusual to do it on the concept of science. I will, of course, give them unusual names so people get interested and to see if they'll absorb some information.

Meera - What part of your career would you say you've enjoyed the most? The part as a chemist or the part as a novelist playwrite?

Carl - What I'm doing now is one play that I'm writing now, again some non-fiction in dialogic form and giving lots of lectures, particularly in Europe. I enjoy that now, no question. One of the reasons is because I am entirely, totally 100% involved in this without any infrastructure. As a scientist in a team you have to write grant applications, this, that and so on. Things move on even if you don't do anything. Well, now if I don't write no one else is going to do it for me. I enjoy that most.

Meera - Even if anyone else did do it for him I don't think they'd do it as well. Karl's now written over ten plays and even more novels which have all had success world-wide in portraying the culture of science. I'll leave you with another insert of his modern method of chemistry education.

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