Professor Carl Djerassi
PHOTO: ROB VAN DEN BERG
Writing science into fiction
DANIEL McCABE | Have you noticed an awful lot of people wandering around campus, carting Carl Djerassi paperbacks? There is a reason for that.
Djerassi, an eminent scientist who took up writing fiction in his 60s, recently delivered McGill's prestigious Beatty lecture. Instead of accepting the usual honorarium for his presentation, Djerassi made an unusual request. The honorarium money was spent instead on purchasing 500 copies of Djerassi's novels, which were handed out, free of charge, to the people who came to hear him speak.
You see, Carl Djerassi is very much a man who wants his works to be read.
"I want students to read what I have to say and most students are not very different from the scientists I describe [in his books] -- they read very little outside their assigned reading. So I thought that giving them the books might encourage them to do so," Djerassi told the Reporter.
Djerassi isn't your typical author. The Stanford University chemistry professor earned international acclaim decades ago as the man who synthesized the first steroid oral contraceptive (aka "The Pill"). He won the United States National Medal of Science for that feat in 1973, then added the National Medal of Technology in 1991 for developing new approaches to insect control.
He started writing fiction for two reasons. The first, he told The San-Jose Mercury News in an interview, was that he "wanted to live a very different intellectual life, and to a scientist, nothing is more different than writing fiction. Fiction is where you can supposedly invent anything; as a scientist, you are not supposed to make up anything."
The second reason was to shine a spotlight on what he calls "the tribal culture" of science.
Given the power and influence that science exerts in the world, Djerassi says that the public knows alarmingly little about the people who work in science or about how they do their jobs. "And the gulf is becoming wider."
His books seek to "illuminate the culture and behaviour of scientists," something that doesn't always make scientists themselves feel very comfortable.
"I am asked, 'Why do you feel you have to wash our dirty labcoats in public?'
"Well, if you work in science, sometimes your labcoat will naturally get a little dirty. You can always wash the dirt out. We don't really spend a lot of time analyzing ourselves. I think we should take a look at ourselves more often. It's important that we aren't put on a pedestal."
Djerassi can describe the details of scientists' lives with the rare authority of someone who is, himself, a top scientist. He writes about the wonder and thrill of new scientific discoveries, but also raises questions about "Nobel-lust" -- the poisonous toll that unbridled ambition can take on how science is done. He examines uneasy questions about the way power differentials mark the relationships between professors and their graduate students and chronicles the obstacles women face when they try to build a career in science -- particularly if they aspire to positions involving any kind of prominence.
In Cantor's Dilemma, his first novel, Djerassi probes all kinds of scientific intricacies -- how scientists aiming to be published glowingly refer to work by other scientists who they suspect might serve as peer reviewers for the journal in question; how the order of the listing of authors of a scientific paper is determined; the temptation to "fudge" lab results when the pressure to produce is intense.
"To depict that to the general public is not easy," says Djerassi. "You have to be an insider."
His books earn glowing reviews.
Publisher's Weekly says, "Djerassi clearly knows his way around labs and the money that makes them go," while The Washington Post declares that the author offers "a fly-on-the-lab-wall look at the way big-time science is practised today."
"Everything in my books dealing with science is accurate -- obsessively so," Djerassi told the Beatty audience. "The things I write about have happened, are happening, or will soon happen." He takes pride in how his books can be prescient: No anticipated the Viagra craze, for instance.
He is disdainful of popular media that deal with science in a less rigorous fashion, describing himself as "greatly irritated" when a show like Star Trek goofs up on the science it portrays.
Too many people are scientifically illiterate, Djerassi declares. Which points to yet another reason he has turned to fiction. "It's a way to smuggle something into reluctant minds. When people read my books, they will have learned something."