Only Scientists Publicly Deny their Striving for Fame*

Der Standard (10/29/03)

Born in 1923 as the son of Jewish physicians, Carl Djerassi grew up in pre-war Vienna and fled the Nazis for Bulgaria in 1938. He immigrated to the United States in 1939 where he received his Ph.D. in Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin in 1945. After some years of working in research, he produced the first oral contraceptive for women in 1951 by isolating the sexual hormone progesterone from yucca roots and became known throughout the world as the "father of the birth control pill." In 1959 he began teaching and researching at Stanford University. This year he is 80 and is still writing. Austria’s government would like to bestow upon him Austrian citizenship.

Why am I still writing? The answer: To be able to synthesize the inner life of a chemist. What is typical of this chemist? What is unusual? Typical was my decade-long obsession with research and the accompanying preoccupation with own notoriety. Striving for recognition is not unusual. But only scientists deny publicly their desire for recognition and claim research as such to be the ultimate goal.

I have dedicated five decades of my life to research, published hundreds of scientific articles and received my share of fame and reward, and yet my ambition for every bit of recognition continues to grow. Ambition - both nourishment and poison of the most successful researchers - transforms us, however, to workaholics early in life, putting in up to 80 hours per week.

As a chemist I was, more than anything, interested in the opinion of dozens of top researchers. It was only ambition and not publicity that could enhance or destroy my reputation. This attitude placed me on the same slippery precipice upon which so many researchers stand, carrying on with their contempt for publicity to its dangerous extreme. Nonetheless, equally bad is that most researchers fail to reflect on themselves. We improve analytical capabilities in order to be able to analyze the world, but not ourselves.

My transformation into an atypical researcher was perhaps my wish to explain to the public in an untraditional way how we researchers do it, not only what we do.

It fascinates me to tell stories rather than only pass on information, and the wish to become a literary smuggler led me to write "science-in-fiction" novels where everything is true what I describe.

Thus, I became aware of how limited the formal written discourse of researchers is since we don’t allow ourselves dialogue. And in present-day theater, there is so little serious science that "science-in-the-theater" is still an unexploited goldmine.

No wonder that my first theater piece, An Immaculate Non-Conception, concerns the limits of research in the area of reproductive medicine. My second piece, Oxygen, concerns the Nobel prize and the nature of discovery, and Calculus revolves around one of the most bitter struggles for priority in the history of science, the struggle between Newton and Leibniz.

Even as I took the literary path, I was unable to strip away the soul or baggage of the scientist. One of my secret wishes is to read my obituary, perhaps the final confirmation of having strived for recognition. But only because I cannot read my obituary does not mean that I can’t write a theater piece about this obsession: Ego was finished on my 80th birthday.

* abbreviated version