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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Summer 2001

Other Reviews


Leah Solla
Chemistry Librarian
Cornell University

Oxygen, a science-in-theatre production, premiered in San Diego in April in conjunction with the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society. Performances ran from April 2 to 7 at the San Diego Repertory Theatre. Oxygen deals with the behavior of scientists in the process of discovery that led to the Chemical Revolution, which is the basis for modern chemical research. It is a collaboration between two well-honored academic research chemists, Carl Djerassi, professor of chemistry at Stanford University and Roald Hoffmann, Frank Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters at Cornell University. Djerassi is known for the first synthesis of a steroid contraceptive and Hoffmann received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1981.

What does it mean to be the first to discover a phenomenon? Is that the primary goal of scientific research? Since the 17th Century, the scientific method has characterized natural science. Doing science means careful, systematic observation, measurement, and experimentation, formulating, testing, and modifying hypotheses. The authors of Oxygen bring the real nature of scientific discovery to the greater public, exposing the personal and societal forces behind the objective approach of the scientific method. To that end, they build their story around the world renowned and highly competitive Nobel Prize, awarded for significant discovery.

The discovery of oxygen is a prime example of the complex process of scientific discovery. The play begins in 2001, and the Chemistry Nobel Prize Committee is awarding a "retro-Nobel" to celebrate the Centenary of the Prize. They decide to honor the discovery of oxygen, which launched a revolution in chemical research, and are hotly debating how it all came about. The scenes alternate between the present and 1777 in a parallel situation where the contenders for the discovery of oxygen are waging a similar debate.

Three men, each of whom might be awarded the prize for discovering oxygen have been summoned. Carl Wilhelm Scheele was the first to synthesize oxygen, but had not published his findings. Joseph Priestly was the first to publish his findings, but both miss the mark in understanding the significance of oxygen in nature. Antoine Lavoisier, who is now regarded as the Father of the Chemical Revolution because of his real understanding of oxygen as a chemical, failed to credit the work of the Scheele and Priestly in the development of his theory.

The personal histories of these scientists play a significant role in unraveling the story, which is brought to the surface through the characters of their wives and housekeepers. Through these women we learn the motivations of the scientists: Lavoisier is a high ranking political and romantic conservative with confidence and a reputation to uphold. Priestley is a political and religious radical. Scheele is a loyal Swede, humble, hard working and desperately wanting to be recognized for his contributions to his country.

The issues of scientific reputation and integrity of 1777 are still with us. Most of the actors are double cast between the time periods, and the scientific, personal and political issues follow them forward. In addition to the pressures of being productive scientists in the 21st century, there are personal tensions between the modern players. Broken loyalties, crushed romances, and power struggles abound. The real-time transitions of the actors and scenes effectively strengthen the parallel nature of the message that scientists and the scientific process have changed little in over 200 years.

Overall, the play gives a good glimpse of the true nature of the scientific research process that can appear so mystical to the general world. Unfortunately, the complexities of the plot twists and scene shifts do not lend themselves to clarity for a viewer without some prior knowledge of these scientists or the discovery of oxygen. The message might be more effectively delivered by spending more time on what was done in the labs that disposed each man to believe in his own theory of oxygen. None of them were entirely wrong; they each looked at things from a different perspective, and their collective methods have enabled chemistry to grow.

Oxygen also shows us how research scientists integrate their research and personal lives. In writing the play, the authors consulted with archives of scientific and personal papers of these 18th century scientists, such as the collection of Lavoisier papers held in the Kroch Library at Cornell University. To present the essential, non-scientist characters, those invaluable women, more realistically, I wonder whether the authors might turn to their own families to supplement the backdrop with a fresh look at what it is like to live with a scientist. The collaboration between the scientist and non-scientist perspective is invaluable for both the conduct and interpretation of scientific discovery.

Oxygen will continue its world tour with productions in London, Sweden, Denmark and Germany in the next year. There have been several reviews about the process of writing this play:

Crawford, F. 2000. Hoffmann and a Stanford colleague find 'Oxygen' has a life of its own. Cornell Chronicle 32(33).

Jacobs, M. 2001. Good chemistry yields 'Oxygen'. Chemical & Engineering News 79(18): 34-36.

Welsh, A. Air force; a pair of chemist-playwrights reach back centuries for the right mix to make 'Oxygen' pure theater. The San Diego Union-Tribune [1,2,6,7 Edition] Mar 29, 2001; pg. NIGHT.D.

Welsh, A. 2001. 'Oxygen' comes up slightly short of breath. The San Diego Union-Tribune [1,2,6,7 Edition] Apr 4, 2001; pg. F.6.

The book is available from Wiley:

Djerassi, C. and Hoffmann, R. 2001. Oxygen: a play in two acts. New York: Wiley-VCH. (ISBN 3527304134)

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